When Choosing An Ad Agency, Don't Consider Size; Consider Collaboration

The debate between big advertising agencies and small agencies goes on. A spate of recent articles and op-eds has agencies big and small continuing to take pot shots at one another. Since I recently left a large agency to start a company called Co Collective, it is often assumed that we don't believe in big agencies or their ability to succeed in the future. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Marketers are telling us that success in the future has nothing to do with big or small—that the winners and losers today, and in the future, will be determined by a different metric: collaborative vs. non-collaborative.

What clients really want: collaboration

At the end of the day, as an industry, all our clients care about is this: Can we help them solve problems? Can we do it quickly? And can we do it for less money than we did last year (because our clients have to do what they do for less money than they did last year). We believe that big agencies that get good at collaborating with other disciplines and specialist experts have a hugely bright future. Those that don’t will get small, and some will get gone, just as they always have when they get out of step with contemporary business reality. It is the circle of life. Smaller agencies and specialist experts probably have a bit of a leg up in this regard today because it is already clear to many of them that in this new world they MUST work together to "git ‘er done." But big, global clients need organizations of scale. Big can be very beautiful.

The future is bright, big or small

For the big agency networks, figuring out how to think of themselves as large, curated crowds and finding ways to incentivize collaborative behavior across cultures and time zones is an inspiring challenge, and something that only they can figure out. For smaller companies with specialist expertise, finding ways to combine forces more effectively will allow them greater access to the strategic process earlier, where their thinking is sorely needed.

The good news is, there is a bottomless well of need to build brands and businesses today and in the future — plenty of work for everybody. Having spent a long, happy and productive time inside agencies of all sizes we would be the first to agree that the amount of talent inside them is truly staggering. Figuring out how to deploy that talent more effectively against client need, and do it for less money is the key.

Clients need to collaborate, too

A final thought is that clients play a crucial role here. There are good clients and bad clients out there as well. Good ones will begin to create financial incentives for collaborative behavior that leads to better results and begin to benchmark partners against that metric, rather than simply assuming that all suppliers are the same and squeezing margins across the board. Large clients also need to begin to change internally, to encourage teams to reach outside their own silos, to begin to work together in new ways and to begin to rethink their internal innovation pipeline—the process by which products and services are brought to market. The process most use today was created for a previous age. Today a new process is needed that brings the differentiating story of a brand or business right up to the front of the process, and then brings the right groups of specialist from inside and outside a client company at the right time to get the right result. It needs to be a process infused with new values: generosity, mutual respect, obsession with results.

We can see it happening today inside more progressive marketers. It will be fun to watch and hopefully to do our small part in helping to make it happen across more companies in the future.

[Image: Flickr user Angela Rutherford]

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