Big agency or small agency?

They’ve both got a decent case to make. With a smaller agency, you can be the big fish in a small pond… but larger agencies are more likely to offer greater creative resources and global reach. Smaller agencies are often more nimble and responsive, while big agencies have deeper pockets and generally wield more power. Over the last 23 years I have been a part of agencies both gargantuan (600+ staff) and miniscule (3 staff), and a few sizes in between.

Given my druthers, I prefer working at a smaller agency. It gives me the chance to make a bigger impact at the firm and shape our performance for the clients we serve; that kind of individual empowerment and freedom is hard to pass up. On the other side of the fence, there are some pretty compelling reasons for clients to choose smaller agencies, too.

For starters, a small agency will be more willing to take on a smaller or pilot project. Onboarding a new client at a large agency often significantly delays the project with red tape and bureaucracy gumming up the works, and those delays make even smaller engagements significantly more expensive. On the other hand, a small agency can often hit the ground running and sort out the details later.

Regardless of agency size, the most talented individuals on the team tend to direct/lead new projects. Large agencies often have their A-players out in front to land a project or client… but once landed, those players largely check out. They’ll still participate in basic drive-by management, and maybe even the occasional meeting or two, but they’re not the ones truly driving and executing the project. Smaller agencies, by contrast, tend to be mostly or entirely A-players as they can’t easily carry lower-tier role players, and must generally “eat what they kill,” so to speak. Any promises they make, they must keep themselves; no handing the scut-work off to interns. From the client POV, there’s no risk of the bait and switch, and an implicit understanding that the people who sold them on an idea are going to be the people executing it.

Additionally, smaller agencies gravitate by necessity to fewer industries and verticals, developing specialized expertise and deeper insight. Larger agencies try to be all things to all clients in order to generate the business volume they need to stay big and bloated; though there are pockets of expertise, those resources can be difficult to find amid the staff, and are often spread thin to the point of irrelevance across an overextended portfolio. At small firms, most people must wear a few specific hats. Smaller agencies often prefer to employ T-shaped staff; people who have broad general knowledge supporting a deeper expertise in a particular area. In most cases, everyone at the company knows who those people are, and what they do best, so projects get staffed with the absolute best team for the job.

Small agencies are also scrappier, usually having fewer layers of management and less bureaucracy. Lower overhead and leaner staffing means you can get more service or product for your dollar. Even at larger agencies, most staff still must account for– and bill– their hours to clients and projects, which means extra hours and fees are often built into budgets to cover supervisory and process staff. Smaller agencies don’t have to serve all those extra financial masters.

There is a story I once heard about Steven Spielberg that echoes this dichotomy. While making the high-profile movie 1941, Spielberg went wildly over budget, and the film was not especially successful. On his next film, Spielberg teamed with George Lucas and his then much smaller and more streamlined production company. Lucas mentored Spielberg in being efficient and deliberate, telling him that he wanted to put every dollar they spent on the screen, not leave them lying on the cutting room floor. The movie they ended up making? Raiders of the Lost Ark. Like it or hate it, Raiders was an astronomical success and, even more impressively, it was exactly the movie they’d set out to make from the start.

The moral of the story? Small agencies must be efficient and deliberate in order to survive. That means delivering top-shelf results for their clients, and they can’t do that if they leave half the budget on the cutting room floor; any small agency that’s been around long enough to make your radar has figured out how to deliver focused, tailored, and efficient work at a level that your average big-time agency doesn’t need to bother with. Your mileage may vary, but in general a smaller agency is giving you more specialized work for less cash; don’t get tricked into making 1941 when what you really want is Raiders.

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