Major Marketers Turn to Small Shops for More Than Bits and Pieces

Small Indie Agencies Are Delivering Big-League Work

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Eric Webber
Eric Webber

As you could tell from the recent coverage of the Ad Age Small Agency Conference and Awards, the less-than-behemoth shops are continuing to have a significant impact on our industry, creatively and strategically.

No, my own agency was not an award winner this year and yes, I'm disappointed about that, but I'm not going to use this space to talk about the scourge of professional jealousy and its effect on the judging process. (For that, see my personal blog and my last 50 or so Facebook status updates.)

Actually, I was a judge myself again this year for the "Campaign of the Year" portion, and I wanted to take advantage of this forum to make a couple of observations about the work I saw.

One of the most striking trends in this year's competition was the number of campaigns executed by small agencies for huge clients. These aren't AOR relationships. I'm not sure what you call these -- projects, one-offs, pieces of accounts that call big agencies home for most of their work.

This isn't exactly new. Small agencies have been picking up odd jobs for big brands for years. At one time here in Austin, maybe half a dozen agencies did work for Dell. But they've tended to fall into some sort of specialty category, like online catalogs, B-to-B specialties or other below-the-line jobs.

Nothing wrong with that. But the categories tended to be creatively restrictive, or maybe the clients' needs didn't lend themselves well to the type of creative work that wins the awards we all clamor for (while we simultaneously say we aren't that interested in beauty pageants.)

What we're now seeing is not just the use of smaller agencies because they have some unique skill set that big agencies don't have. It's simply because they're bringing great ideas to the table, and have the ability to execute them. They're no longer sub-contractors, but partners in the bigger creative process.

Take the winning campaign for Coca Cola, "Happiness Machine" by Atlanta-based Definition 6, a very sharp viral video that probably could have been done by Coke's AOR, McCann, but wasn't.

Does Definition 6 possess some unique skills that don't also exist somewhere in the vast McCann empire? Probably not. It simply leveraged its "interactive agency" credentials to create something smart, clever and perfectly integrated into Coke's brand personality.

You could say something similar about work submitted for Walmart, Kellogg's, Nestle, Heineken, Altoids, EA Sports and others, all of whom have very talented holding-company roster shops at their disposal, but are also turning to small, independent agencies, not to fill gaps, but to enhance what they've already got.

I'm not predicting that big brands will soon chuck big agencies in favor of having huge agency rosters or resort to some sort of agency crowdsourcing plan. Most clients struggle to maintain even a small number of agency relationships, and vice versa.

But I think heading in this direction is very smart for the big brands and certainly good for the smaller agencies that don't mind not being the top dog in exchange for the chance to turn a small piece into a whole pie.

There is one downside to this promising trend, but only as it relates to the Small Agency Awards. I'm afraid that these campaigns for bigger brands, with their accompanying bigger budgets, may overshadow some very good, and very effective work done for small clients with modest budgets.

More money doesn't necessarily mean better work; the volume of big-budget but God-awful advertising is staggering. But it's hard to argue that having plenty of money doesn't make it easier to do good work.

I know, I know. Put lipstick on a pig and it's still a pig. But compared side-by-side, the pig with nice lipstick usually looks better than the pig without.

That makes it all the more impressive when you see a campaign for a client like Slipstream Auto Restorations, Maloney & Porcelli or the Ellwood City Library -- clients that you know didn't have a lot to spend, and yet the result was as impressive as any Super Bowl spot.

That kind of work really highlights the nimbleness and resourcefulness that are the hallmarks of great small agencies -- doing more with less because they have to -- and there was plenty of that represented in the Small Agency Awards this year.

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