Agency size, not ownership, should be the focus of attention

July 22nd, 2013 by Simon Bollon


I read an article recently that was written by an independent agency owner which was another attempt by the little ones at bashing the big boys. The core of the content was suggesting that network agencies are incompetent whilst we privately owned agencies are the only solution.

Let me very briefly state that we are an independent agency, fiercely proud of our independence and fully appreciative that it is often a compelling selling point and point of difference that opens doors. However, I think network agencies are fucking brilliant.

My main irk came from the suggestion that the world’s largest agencies pre-date the digital age with a focus on other marketing areas and as such are forever playing catch up. What a load of nonsense! Some of the best digital strategies and implementation come from the biggest agencies. They just happen to be part of fully integrated strategies and the agencies aren’t desperate to shout about their results on pure play digital elements. The idea that a fully integrated network agency doesn’t have the intelligence and experience of us smaller agencies or specialist agencies is pure codswallop and anyone who says it is either naïve or kidding themselves.

Network agencies are full of resource, intelligence and experience. They do things on a bigger scale and that means they have been there and done that. They have scale and that brings an ability to invest, test, measure, make mistakes and learn. What they learn, we as smaller agencies benefit from because we see things working, they shout about it working and so we too learn and soak up that knowledge.

Essentially, a network agency does the same kind of thing as us independents only on a bigger scale, with greater resources and if you look at client rosters and billings. I think we can all agree they are doing a bloody good job… most of the time!

Sure, networks do fall down in areas such as culture and flexibility. No, they can’t respond as quickly as a nimble, privately owned operation with an entrepreneurial approach. It’s unlikely all members of the business will turn up for the tiddlywinks competition at the new guy’s house next Saturday and they will most definitely have a staff churn that would make me break out in a sweat.

However, is the issue here the fact that the agency is in a network or is it actually about size?

The critical issues that came out of the articles were:

• Decision making and flexibility – essentially it’s an entrepreneurial approach to do crazy things and not really give a shit about the bottom line, a strategy the network agencies don’t consider so freely.

• Culture – Manageable, adaptable and driven by the people. Tough to do over 5 floors, 11 departments and 200 people

• People – Senior input, enthusiasm, greater appetite for success and an alignment with the company direction. Independents win again!

• Expertise – Don’t be fooled into thinking the biggest agencies don’t have experienced individuals ensconced in each area of expertise who live and breathe their specialism. I think each agency will pitch on its own merits here.

So all of these points are not about networks and ownership but about size.

Gary Holt of SomeOne referred to the ability of independents to ensure senior input and avoid ‘Team A’ and ‘Team B’. His point is entirely valid but it has absolutely nothing to do with being a network agency and everything to do with size. Big agencies will have Team A and Team B with the ‘senior decision makers in separate offices’.

With regards to developing and losing culture this again is not entirely about being in a network but being of a size that the structure creates mini cultures associated with teams and departments. The bigger agencies will create teams, departments and groups that will inevitably do their own thing. Take your business of 30 people and chuck it into an office of 300 and that 30 will retain its culture to a degree. It will also find several cultures across different floors, in different corners of the building and in different departments. Sell that 30-people business to a network, stay where you are but answer to a higher God and actually, your culture won’t shift all that much… but it will when you have 70, 100 or 150 people.

Jonathan Sands of Elmwood referred to the importance of procurement departments with some clients and the role they play in the appointment of agencies. To many clients and agencies this is common practice and par for the course. For others the mention of procurement departments means reams of paperwork, contracts coming out of their ears and relationships they don’t really want to develop. The recommended tactic if you’re one those people? Don’t pursue the opportunity and leave it for an agency structured and experienced in this situation.

This really leads me to the critical point which I think was mostly missed in the articles but is critical to every client and every agency: ’Right agency, right client’.

Network agencies are brilliant… For the right clients.

So are independents.

Big agencies are brilliant… For the right clients.

So are small agencies.

The fight shouldn’t be against network agencies per say, instead it should be about the right size agency (and all that involves) for the right size client. Big is sometimes beautiful and small agencies like ours accept that often a Carat, Mediacom or OMD are better suited to certain clients.

Critically my point is that bashing networks for their failures is really a waste of time and energy because to many clients they are the perfect partner. Being big is as much a challenge as being part of a network when it comes to staff retention, flexibility, culture and creativity. Suggesting the big agencies don’t have the same level of talent is certainly naive and mostly wrong!

What do you think? Tweet us @boutiquemc and let us know!