The pros and cons of working with a small agency

3 May


We’re faster. Our internal processes are minimal, given that your first person of contact is also writing either your strategy or your advertising. In Copeland’s case, our Direct-to-Creative option means you can often just deal directly with the art director and further speed things up (and bring costs down).

We cost less. Our overheads are lower and we get to market faster. We are lean and mean. Well, we’re not MEAN.

What you see is who you get. Big agencies love to wow prospective clients by bringing in the big guns at the outset. But they inevitably disappear once the deal is struck. Small agency leaders are there every step of the way.


Our people are less specialized. At a small agency, everyone has to be able to cover a lot of ground on the skills front. Every team member has to be a strategist and creative thinker. Big agencies can afford to have specialists. The Director of Strategy will do just that. The Community Manager will have very specific skill sets in social marketing. Everyone has to be a social marketing expert at a small agency.

Big agencies have more resources at their disposal. You have to pay more but you get more. When you can throw ten people – or twenty – at a job, you get exponentially more options and ideas. It’s just a fact.

Our offices aren’t as cool. Every time I visit a big agency, I am awed by the amazing office spaces: there are game rooms for the creative kids to play in; there are THINK TANKS with inspiring art; there are 30 foot ceilings and aircraft and beer fridges and ping pong tables and movie theatres and indoor gyms. Wow. Where do they find the time to use all that cool stuff? Envious!


7 Responses to “The pros and cons of working with a small agency”

  1. GV May 3, 2011 at 6:10 am #

    Envious! yes but you would’nt be happy working in that sort of environment.

  2. dougbrowncreative May 3, 2011 at 6:39 am #

    Em, well, there was a certain tongue-in-cheek quality to that final comment.

  3. Amy May 3, 2011 at 7:01 am #

    Yes, but they don’t have zombie movie posters lining the halls and brains on their desks.
    The business with the most brains isn’t necessarily the business with the most heads.

  4. dougbrowncreative May 3, 2011 at 7:06 am #

    Ha! An excellent point Amy. Who said you were nothing clever!

  5. WSN Inc. May 3, 2011 at 9:18 am #

    Of course if you choose to live and work in a small town/city compared to the big city, you are not going to work in a big agency, because (most likely) they won’t have a branch office there.

    So you will work in a small agency where the clients are smaller, sometimes less sophisticated, with smaller ad budgets, and less ‘brand’ smart. Your agency won’t be able to hire all the ‘specialists’ you may find in the bigger agency. Your staff will have to do a little bit of everything. And what you don’t know or have the skill for, you will have to learn it on the fly.

    I have helped manage some very big agency brands and one of the smallest — my own ad shop. Big is not always better. Small is not always better.

    Often times, the big agency’s new business team will win an account, and in the end, spend very few hours on the clients’ business. Some agencies over-promise the services of their top executives. In some big-agencies more time is spent pitching new business and less on the day-to-day creative, sometimes giving short shrift to existing clients.

    The new business team develops a polished dog-and-pony show, and promise high-level results. They win the business and then put all the juniors to work on it. The client loses.

    Without doubt, smaller shops have less bureaucracy and are more flexible. But they also have fewer high-paying star executives, because only the bigger shops can pay their big salaries. For the most part, you will find your best talents in the big ad agencies –they tend to go their to make a name for themselves and make the bigger bucks.

    However, more and more of these star talents are leaving their big agencies because of the bureaucracy and opening up their own shops. They are also proving that the size of the agency makes no difference at all. Nor does the scope, nor the geographic reach of the agency.

    At the end of the day, the difference for any client is really in the people. Do they bring the experience, knowledge, insight, and contacts to a client that will make a difference in that organization’s results and bottom line?”

    If you are a client, you should seek out original thinking and people who can make a difference, individuals who have the integrity to work whatever hours are necessary to get the jobs done; people who can share opinions and come up with better ideas as a result, rather than being polarized in terms of their own views; and individuals of high ethical standards.

    Today, independent firms can compete with the big ones with technology. With the influx of computers and the Internet, it no longer makes a difference where a firm is located. Costs too, however, have become an even greater concern for clients.

    Big agencies, work on an hourly fee basis, like lawyers. Everyone’s time is calculated, down to the secretary. Say the fee is $40,000/monthly based on combined professional hours. If the client wants programs that exceed this budget, the fees go higher, approximately 20% of the annualized fee budget.
    The client has a choice: write a check to the big agency for $40,000 per month and pray, or go to a smaller, experienced agency at $10,000 a month and pray. The decision is a no-brainer.

    However, if you are Coke or Pepsi, Apple or Microsoft, Nike or Adidas, chances are you will still go to a big agency, not because of the fees, but because of the agency’s record to hit home runs. Big brands NEED to hit home runs. They need more than ads — they need the kind of creative work that changes or shifts culture. The bigger agencies have more creative teams, and more star creative people. But smaller clients can’t afford these big agencies. they have to go somewhere else.

    The key is to find some of these big agency stars who have opened their own shops or move to small ones. You’ll find them today even in some of the smaller cities. Most likely they have grown fed up with big agencies and believe they can do it better on their own. There are some great small shops out there now. There’s one I know in Victoria! Hint. Hint.

    The larger agency obviously has larger expenses in terms of rent, salaries, and particularly high-priced executives, and that’s part of what the clients are paying for. The smaller agency may have only a few people on the payroll working out of a low-rent office.

    The key question always is who will be doing the actual work on the client’s account. The big-agency new-business pitch will be made by a star-studded lineup. The makeup of the team that will handle the day-to-day affairs of the client is another matter. I’ve often heard: “Every one of us at the table will be actively involved in your account.” Once the contract is signed…

    Big numbers do not necessarily spell good service. The client should concentrate on the one person who will be the captain of the team. One person with brains, common sense, guts, and know-how is better than a room full of drones.

    Come to think of it, I know one of these people in a small shop in Victoria.

  6. dougbrowncreative May 3, 2011 at 9:24 am #

    It takes a lot to make me speechless Mike, but that just did. THANK YOU.

  7. Petra Franke May 9, 2011 at 12:33 pm #

    all true. Thanks for the insight.

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