Small Is Beautiful

Service-agency selection is always a challenge for new companies. In a past column I talked about best practices for selecting the agency of your dreams. Those tips and hints may be helpful, but often the selection process may come down to something as simple as agency size.

For some, big is good. They like the trappings of large agencies, which typically have big staffs, vast resources, and extensive experience in a wide variety of fields. Others like the “boutique” approach to agencies a small cadre of experts with deep experience who are tired of what they call “large-agency bureaucracy.” (I’ve substituted “bureaucracy” for another word that starts with a B, but this is a family column.) Hallmarks of these groups include creativity, speed, and flexibility.

From a personal perspective, I have a great deal of experience on both sides of the coin, and at one point in my career I actually started a boutique shop. I’ve even worked with companies that started off as boutiques and ended up as large agencies. And while I have had good and bad luck with both large and small agencies, I’ve come to the conclusion that for start-ups, small is beautiful. (Uh oh, here come the emails.)

What a start-up marketing function needs is focus, alacrity, experience, and value, and, as a rule, small agencies are better equipped to get it done. But not all small agencies are created equal the boutique shingle does not guarantee you speed and creativity. Here are some things to look for in a good small agency.

The team’s experience. While the agency may be brand new, the agency team should have many years of experience in the business with a wide variety of clients. For example, a boutique ad agency I currently work with has expats from such companies as McCann-Erickson, JWT, Weiden & Kennedy, and Chiat Day. Additionally, they all have had important roles within the agency working on high-profile accounts. Look for the team’s depth in writing, creative, and media, among other disciplines, as well as the team’s experience across different businesses and industries.

Number of clients. If the agency is small and plans to stay that way, then the number of clients it has is important. Bandwidth constraints are the most common complaint I hear from the clients of small shops. Small shops just take on too much work and can’t get it all done, resulting in missed deadlines and opportunities. Make sure the group you select is not overloaded and guarantees you minimum service levels.

Business philosophy and process. Good agencies, large and small, should have a philosophy and should execute their work according to that philosophy. For example, one group I worked with believed that advertising was the telling of short stories, and its creative process completely supported that notion. The point here is that there should be a methodology that is followed that brings focus to the creative process and provides objectives and milestones that can be measured to keep things on track.

Having a principal on your business. One of the true wonders of a boutique shop is that you can have one of the top professionals in the industry working on your business day to day. I have always had the best results when one of the agency’s principals was also the account manager on my business. There is nothing like the loving care you get from the owner of the business. Insist that one of the agency’s principals actively works on your account.

And now, knowing I will get reams of hate mail, here’s a little ditty written by Curt Davis, a senior writer with TackleBox SF, a boutique agency based in San Francisco.

This should be sung to the tune of “Downtown,” with apologies to Petula Clark:

If you’re a start-up and you want some PR,
You can always go downtown.
There are lots of big shops there who don’t care who you are,
If you want to go downtown.

You’ll meet the top creative guy,
Who’ll take you out to dinner.
And then he’ll hand your business over
To some raw beginner.
How can you lose,
The lobbies are massive there,
You can forget all your deadlines,
Strategic? Who cares.

So go downtown,
Things’ll be great
When you’re downtown.
Ads’ll be late
When you’re downtown.
Interns are waiting for you,
Downtown.

If you like huge retainers and you want lousy service,
You can always go downtown.
If junior creative teams don’t make you nervous,
You can always go downtown.

They’ll treat you like they’re handling
Your company for free.
They’ll take your tiny budget
And then recommend TV.
You’ll be bigtime,
The lobbies have leather there,
You can push back all your deadlines,
Strategic? Who cares.

So go downtown,
Things’ll be great
When you’re downtown.
Ads’ll be late
When you’re downtown.
Interns are waiting for you,
Downtown.

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