As we emerge from the global pandemic, it is critical that small, independent agencies continue to advance their businesses on behalf of the brands they service.
Our industry was founded (and continues to run on) the sweat equity of the independent agencies Ad Age celebrates with its Small Agency Conference & Awards each year. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 68 percent of the approximately 50,000 advertising and public-relations services establishments in the U.S. employ no more than five workers. Some of the most creative and inspired work comes from these businesses, often representing small, start-up or disruptive brands.
But despite this inventive thinking, it is rare that small agencies are invited to compete in large pitches because the advertising landscape, and the conversation around it, is dominated by holding company brands. Maybe it is because there is limited visibility around small agency innovations, or concern about investment clout, or even a brand’s desire for a bigger team from a marquee name.
Our industry could do more to raise awareness of these innovative, hardworking, job-creating organizations. What if independent advertising and media agencies had the equivalent of American Express’ Small Business Saturday? Let’s celebrate small agencies on the third Monday of each September. While not as easy as frequenting a local café, hardware or bookstore we can provide opportunity that Monday for small agencies to get an audience with brands who could benefit from their service.
First, let’s look at why, in many cases, smaller is better.
They are more innovative
Independent agencies are the “Main Street” of the advertising ecosystem where the holding companies are both literally and figuratively Wall Street. Independents are where small brands are incubated into large brands. Passionate and entrepreneurial professionals align to build their own business, and support the growth of many others. Often, there is more vision, stronger relationships and a palpable concern for clients and their goals on the independent side because they have to continually prove themselves. Interestingly, holding companies grow their services not through invention and incubation but through acquisition of boutique agencies. A holding company media agency CEO once advised that they won’t even consider brands with spend of $25 million or less because they can’t make money on their business. An independent agency can.
Small shops are more invested
There is an innate desire by independent agencies to provide concierge-level service that isn’t delivered by a holding company. Yet the myths of holding company supremacy–that they are better negotiators, have more resources, are better data stewards–all remain. Quite the opposite is true. There is a not a loss of investment prowess because Indies negotiate harder to make dollars go farther as there is always the threat of disintermediation by a larger agency. Running a holding company business includes the constant struggle to find resources for clients paying the freight. Holding companies must consistently call for staffing freezes which occur amidst quarterly financial reporting to ensure higher cash on hand to satisfy Wall Street demands. Indies invest in their business and data science in a way that the holding companies do not. Why? Because they are not run by accountants and not running quarter-to-quarter or concerned about daily share prices in order to meet short-term incentive plans. Indies invest in themselves for the long term.
Small shops are talent magnets
Overheads are lower at a small shop, so salaries are typically higher, making new hires better quality, which in turn increases staff retention. Clients reap these benefits through reduced fees, more satisfied teams working on their business, with limited influx of new, low cost staff running their accounts. Additionally, high-quality talent often seeks more entrepreneurial environments. So not only does talent flock to smaller shops for the vibe, but many of the large tenured shops are disappearing or folding into others, creating a blurred vision and culture.
To-do list for brands for Small Ad Business Mondays
—Be receptive or invite an independent agency to your company to review their capabilities and credentials. If circumstances allow, give a boutique agency a project to test their grit.
—If your account is in review, request that your pitch consultant or marketing team bring in a non-holding company agency for consideration.
—Referrals mean a lot. If you are happy with your small agency partner(s), consider making a call or sending a note to one of your peers on behalf of your agency partner. Want a simple trick? Post a nicety on LinkedIn. It’ll go a long way.
To-do list for the trade press and the industry
—Feature a weekly profile story of a small agency starting on that Monday.
—Sponsor an event to bring big brands and small agencies together in an environment that gives voice and opportunity for their unique talents.
To-do list for independents
—Global independent agency networks should consider hosting a collaboration event and bring brands and your members together
—Feature the hashtag #smallagencymonday proudly in your social feeds that day and onward.
—Offer to review a brand’s work (gratis) with an unbiased opinion of what’s right and wrong and provide your point of view on what you would do differently.
There is street credibility–or marketing credibility–in finding the diamond amidst a sea of sameness. There are thousands of agencies hungry to show what they are made of and what great things they can do for your company. All you need to do is give them a chance.
To learn more about small agency growth strategies, attend the Ad Age Small Agency Conference & Awards, taking place virtually Aug. 3-5. Register here.