Small teams with big results: Independent agencies can disrupt the industry

The marketing industry continues to evolve as brands seek out increasingly innovative ways to engage consumers. As partners to brands and marketers, agencies need to meet the rising requirements from their customers or clients. We talk to several agency practitioners and marketers to examine how boutique agencies can meet the modern needs of brands.

The marketing industry as a whole has been anything but static in recent years, but never have we witnessed the sort of changes we’ve seen in 2020. Consumers’ spending habits have changed dramatically, and some of the same foundations that successful campaigns and marketing initiatives were built upon in the past may no longer apply to the market now.

These changes have spurred agencies to alter their service offerings to meet the standards of modern marketing and communications, meaning the roles of agencies of all types have changed as well.

As brands tread forward into this changed world and seek out the best partner for different projects, they may find new ideas or expertise in particular areas that a only small, fast-moving team can provide.

Agencies’ evolving roles
“PR-led integrated communications that see campaigns designed to cross multiple channels are the new norm. PR agencies are tasked with bringing together earned editorial coverage and social content ideas with paid engagements such as events, direct marketing, advertising and digital,” says Kiri Sinclair, founder & CEO of Sinclair.

Such a wide variety of services require agencies to strengthen their teams with a proper mix of practitioners and experts.

Sinclair elaborates that it is becoming increasingly important to build purpose and insights into strategies, and that there’s more to a modern PR team than simply great storytelling through a pitch. Modern PR pros need members who are capable of creating bite-sized social content, members who know how to analyse industry-relevant data and members who can convert insights from that data into key messaging for a client.

Apart from PR agencies, creative agencies have also enhanced their offerings to curate innovative yet practical products, which may not be as fancy as many might expect.

Rudi Leung, director and founder of Hungry Digital, tells that he has helped Fairwood to create banner ads for a takeaway service.


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“But the works in this project would only be declined by the ECD (executive creative director) in a big agency!” he laughs.

“The works in this project are not fancy since Hongkongers knows this client for years. We just help the brand better meet the needs of local customers amid the COVID-19 pandemic,” he adds.

While creative agencies are known for their big and sometimes “out there” ideas, it’s a perfect example of meeting a client’s business needs first, offering a useful solution to drive growth amid the challenging environment and the F&B industry in Hong Kong.

More opportunities, more pitches
In the past, multinational clients would prompt agencies to submit pitches, earning the winner a long-term relationship with the client and the promise of a stable income. As many brands now adopt a project-based approach, there are fewer of these mega-contracts in the market. On the other hand, that means more projects are available more frequently, enabling boutique agencies to have more opportunities to work with major brands.

However, there’s one problem: these agencies may sometimes have inadequate confidence, whether in size or ability, to pursue big pitches.

“I find it disheartening when I hear that smaller agencies don’t pursue the big pitches because they are intimidated by the competition or feel that larger brands will only select larger agencies to work with,” says Sinclair. “I believe one of the greatest strengths of independent and emerging agencies is the ability to surprise those around us, and this is especially evident during the pitch process.”

However, the pitch process could be part of the learning process as team members of an agency need to know how to present ideas to potential clients and even learn from the mistakes or the simple experience of being declined.

Boutique agencies’ strength
Undoubtedly, having a niche is the key to success in the competitive market.

Hong Kong-based social media agency KREW has developed a proprietary big-data analytic tool, KREWatch, to analyse user behaviours across a wide variety of platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, WhatsApp and even Telegram.

KREW’s services do not stop here. Leveraging data garnered by its tool, the agency devises creative ideas based on insights into and examinations on consumer behaviours, which in turn enables the agency to plan and design the optimal advertising targeting options.

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Similarly, the ability for smaller teams to specialize or hone in on a certain area of expertise that a client needs can produce unique and memorable results.

Working with a Japanese animation production team, Nescafé launched a video in June to cheer up audiences and emphasise its brand’s key messaging that “Nescafé is always with you”.

With overwhelming responses from the public, the brand attributes the success to the integration of Japanese animation into abundant local elements.

Chloe Kwok, business manager, Nestea and Nescafé for Hong Kong, tells that the production team from Japan had visited Hong Kong four times to understand the city and gather materials.

“During the times when uncertainties were looming over the city, we felt that most people were in need of more positive vibes and energy,” she explains.

Apart from this video, the brand also rolled out seven limited edition designs for its regular coffee, each bearing witty and colourful illustrations that are tailor-made by Japanese artist Keigo. Nescafé has also rolled-out several premium items for redemption at retail outlets.

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Asked what qualities that an agency needs to have before being selected to create campaigns, Kwok says, “There are few core competencies that we value when identifying our creative partners. We prefer working with an agency with experiences in the category or industry. Coffee and beverages are a fast moving industry. Therefore, our agency partners who are capable of reacting to our thoughts and responding to the market quickly is of prime importance.”

Challenges for boutiques
Without the resources of a large, multinational agency, there are no doubt challenges that smaller shops face when it comes to getting their foot in the door.

“We did encounter challenges that almost every newcomer in the industry could have. For example, it is not easy to acquire new clients at the very beginning. Clients love to see extravagant showcases from agencies, which is not easy for those who just started off,” says Kong Yeung, co-founder of KREW.

Adding to the difficulty, boutique agencies might not be able to deliver complex-yet-integrated campaigns, or large scale initiatives that could even drain up every resource internally.

“Compared with more established yet bigger players in the industry, independent agencies may lack systems, processes, rigour, focus and discipline to efficiently run and manage their business and in a time like COVID-19, inefficiencies can kill a business very quickly,” explains Andrew Au, regional managing director of Eight Inc. and vice chair of The Marketing Society Asia.

When this situation takes place, an agency could only turn down invitations or not proceed with the pitch process. Meanwhile, there are alternatives for agencies.

For example, boutique agencies could take on a smaller project to prove their capabilities and more importantly to establish ties with more brands.
Another thing that boutique agencies have an easier time doing is outsourcing a portion of the duties of a project to outside, specialised parties.

“The ability to outsource means that agencies can focus on what they are best at,” explains David Mayo, COO of ADNA Global and member of The Marketing Society Asia.

More than anything, what an agency needs to have is a results-oriented mindset and the ability to connect the brand with consumers in a contemporary, relevant and memorable way.

Advice for newcomers
More and more agency practitioners are hoping to create their own agency to express their view of the best work for clients. For those interested in opening up their own shop, the path of launching an agency is never easy.

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Newcomers need to ask themselves why they want to get into the industry and know which part of the industry they should pitch themselves for. Sinclair offers more insights into this matter.

“Your reputation is everything, so define it and protect it at all costs. Reputation helps drive business, and leads the talent to your agency that will define your company’s future,” she tells.

“I would urge anyone setting up shop in the marketing industry to visualise the reputation they hope to have, set out to achieve that reputation, and then guard it; guard it like it’s your client’s reputation,” she adds.

Also, an agency could also do something good for the society and make an impact on the community, which could help set the agency apart from those simply doing business.

“Be quick to develop your good works, particularly the first one, and people will know you. After that, more and more clients will come to your agency,” Leung adds.