Let’s consider a common situation. You are a top marketing professional in a top multi-national organisation of global repute. You are a decision maker or significant influencer in your firm’s choice of vendor for either advertising,media, branding, PR or market research agencies.
Numerous agencies across any of the above domains have been in touch with you but you only work with the very best in each field. So you work with the largest and most famous names in whichever field you are in. They are as big and as reputable as your own organisation and you are assured that you get the best that is possible.
So, when representatives from smaller agencies try to contact you, you politely decline them citing reasons of travel or busy schedule (which is often true) or worse, ignore them.
Smart marketers are increasingly realising the value that smaller agencies bring in. If you have been reluctant to try them out, because they lack history or heritage, there is a possibility that you might be doing yourself a disservice.
Let me explain what advantages a small agency might bring on board, compared to their more established counterparts.
Consider your own massive organisation. To take a step in a new direction, think of the layers of decision makers who have to validate the idea and how often new ideas get squashed because not everyone up the ladder, is aligned to it.
Large vendors often face the same. They have very strong processes and structures in place, which deliver consistent results and have made them credible over time. However, the same processes are rigid and complex and can rarely be tweaked to accommodate a client’s need.
As Jeff Rosenblum, founder of Questus, pointed out, "For large agencies, flexibility is antithetical. It conflicts with their legacy business model."
On the other hand, smaller agencies are quick and flexible and can adapt to your needs without significant legacy burdens.
In a nutshell, smaller agencies are expected to listen to their clients to understand their needs, and thereby decide on the deliverables, rather than suggesting to the client what their tested and established methodologies have proven as deliverables, over time.
Subject Matter Expertise
Now this can always be questioned, but in general the choice comes between a ‘Jack of all trades’ or a ‘Master of a few’. Large firms are present everywhere, across every industry and they are capable of doing good work in almost everything you throw at them.
Smaller agencies, on the other hand, have relatively limited resources and fewer domains of expertise but they go far deeper and far richer in those specific domains. While a large firm might be a safe bet for doing ‘good’ work in 40 different areas, a small firm will be able to provide ‘better’ work in five of those areas, which is their key strength.
Access to the Think-Tank
For larger agencies, in most cases, a client will have a multi-layered interface, starting from the assistant to themanager to the director to the CEO of a division to higher layers that may even be out of the horizon. While every large firm is expected to have competent professionals, layers do exist for a reason.
Many top firms are brainchild of one genius who left back a legacy for the firm to carry on. Over the years, there would be many top professionals involved, but few would match that founder genius.
On the other hand, smaller companies will mostly give you the opportunity to work directly with the main brain, allowing you to get the best out of a budding, hungry entity. You might end up working with the next David Ogilvy, if you are lucky.
The larger firms are reputed and well established for a good reason. They have done quality work consistently over years (or decades), earning themselves credibility. However, what made them stand out in the first place was not that consistency. They stole the light by bringing in fresh ideas that were rare at that point in time. Once their ideas were successful, they developed the consistency model and made it standardised. With that, they ensured those once groundbreaking ideas are replicated steadily and uniformly.
But in a fast paced and ever-evolving world of marketing, that is also tantamount to being undeviating and unchanging, which often stifles fresh idea generation.
A smaller firm, on the contrary, thrives on fresh ideas. That is what gives birth to them and that is what keeps them from becoming dead meat.
There is no doubt that larger established firms have a much stronger reputation. Reputation was not built over a day and often takes decades to build. But once a certain reputation has been built, because of the sizeable growth that necessarily follows, it is not an easy task to conform to the same values that led to that reputation.
For smaller firms, it is a ‘Quest for reputation’ rather than reputation itself. A matter of life or death with every project and there is no room for being relaxed or complacent. That makes them hungrier and eager to take that extra step to make sure the client is satisfied. With a large agency, you generally get what you asked for, or even what they promised to deliver. With a small agency, you generally get more than what you asked for, because their urge to give you more is what keeps them running.
In short, smaller agencies have far higher stakes and therefore their effort and commitment levels are higher, and their desire to make things right, is noticeably stronger.
This one probably applies more to the domains of branding or market research than to the more creative areas. But everybody would have noticed it at some point although most would have accepted it as the industry norm.
The big guys have very similar offerings!
They compete with each other globally and tend to use similar tools and techniques to outsmart each other. When you place three reports from the top three firms, you would see a large part of it either same or similar. Which effectively means, all your competitors have exactly the same reports and similar insights. How would you outplay your competitor when both of you are using the same weapon?
If you desire to be ahead of them, you have to try something that they might not have tried yet. That solution may be in the boutique agency that puts you ahead of time and ahead of your competition.
Some closing thoughts
It is true that there are too many small and big agencies around and it is not an easy task to pay individual attention to all of them. Most top professionals also realise the need to ‘play it safe’ at certain points in their career and a large, well reputed agency is a politically safe bet without any doubt.
It should also be mentioned, that many large agencies provide top quality work without some of the limitations that have been mentioned. Likewise, not every small agency comes without these limitations and not every small firm provides top quality work.
However, by depriving the smaller agencies a chance, you might actually be depriving yourself of a major breakthrough. Indeed, they might not have been there yesterday, but if you do the same as you did yesterday, you’ll get the same results as yesterday.
Big or small, the final decision needs to be made on the value they bring on board. But the next time an unknown boutique agency shows eagerness to connect, do yourself a favour, spare them a slot and hear them out. That might actually turn out to be your best decision!
The writer is Amitabha Das (pictured), director – Asia, at Relevance marketing, a market research firm headquartered in Barcelona.