Smaller is Better – A Case for Small Creative Agencies

Of course size matters. And in today’s creative-agency economy, smaller is better.

Traditionally, the bigger the agency the better, more powerful, more capable, more trustworthy. But those Draper-esque days are fading away in today’s economy and being replaced with smaller boutique-style agencies and studios that are highly focused and specialized in particular disciplines and/or markets. What they lack in people-power they make up for in their ability to be streamlined, innovative and nimble.

Full-service is a dying breed. (And frankly, it’s usually a lie — unless you’re 50-100+ people it’s not possible to be an expert in the dozens of disciplines required for a variety of creative client projects).

Of course, there will always be a place for the 75+ person agency. For some brands with massive budgets and a wide variety of needs throughout a calendar year, this type of AOR (Agency of Record) relationship makes sense. The alternative would be to parcel out different phases of creative strategy and execution to several separate agencies — which is feasible but requires more management overhead.

But for most brands, staying focused increases the impact of their work and maximizes the value of their investment. It can be less expensive than the big agencies because there’s less overhead, less bloat, and less red tape. And perhaps most importantly, smaller agencies have the ability to focus on what matters most, trim the fat, and execute creative work at the same level or higher as their big brother agencies.

Personally, I’ve worked as an employee at four agencies of varying sizes, and freelanced for nearly a hundred more. I can tell you that universally, no matter how big the agency is, there will be a team of 2-5 people working on a particular project from start to finish. All those extra people that don’t even know about your project are an illusion of safety-in-numbers.

Not only do most brands not have the budgets to pay for the kind of overhead large agencies bring, but there’s no reason for them to. “With the technology and resources we have today, skilled designers can do the full gamut for a brand, from identity through to execution,” said Dan Cingari, part of a 3-person agency at Wade + Leta in NYC. “The more layers you add to the process, the more distance you put between the original creative team and the work. There’s a purity there that gets lost.”

The way of the agency world is going to flexible resources. This is a win-win for everyone — clients, agencies, and the workforce that fills in the gaps as specialists (copywriters, designers, strategists, illustrators, developers, etc.). This keeps things focused, adaptive, and specialized.

“In the not-too-distant future, many advertising, creative and marketing services firms will be deselected because they are too big. Clients will stop paying inflated hourly rates resulting from staff overhead and will refuse to fund resources not directly engaged in their business. Marketing firms must get smaller, but still retain the ability to scale with speed in order to accommodate dynamic client demands.” – Chris Kneeland. In this article from Forbes, titled Why Big Brands Choose Small Agencies, both small agency owners and clients who choose to hire small agencies give a nice collection of quotes on the benefits of small agency life.

“One advantage a small agency can have over a large agency, or even a large network of agencies, is that when you know your strength, you can really play to that strength and you can really invest heavily in that one thing and do great work because of it.” —Jeremiah Smith, senior manager of associate brand, Walmart. In another article by Avi Dan titled In The Gig Economy, Small Agencies Are Ideally Suited To Remain Creative And Thrive he drives home the point:

“After decades of consolidation, advertising is transforming toward a project-based ecosystem. For companies, it is now about the right agency for a specific project. Ultimately, in this project-by-project world, success for small agencies comes down to one simple truth – the quality of creative. Stripped of cumbersome procedures and overhead, small agencies can focus more on their creativity, devoting their resources to producing the best ideas.”

So the next time you’re shopping for a creative agency, get ultra-specific about what it is you’re looking for and match that need to a small agency that specializes in that type of work. Then buckle up and get to work.
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