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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  • Amy Case

    What is the language of collaboration?  Given that account folks have a lot of contact with clients on a day-to-day basis, wouldn't it be useful for agencies to include a training program based on Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People"?  A successful publication that has been in print for over 70 years.

    Upper management within agencies usually tout "partnership."  That term has become so blah, overused, and underpromised.  Collaboration of resources and with clients are the obvious.  But this collaboration we're talking about can succeed when when decision-makers and the day-to-day communicators have been trained on how to collaborate in intention, speech, and action. There are many talented folks in advertising - but leaders often don't see it within their group because of their lack of skill in the art of human relations when dealing with the dynamics of a fast-paced environment.  Collaboration should work hiearchically as well as laterally across a team and within an agency. Strategy wins a client, but the day-to-day execution can result in losing that business too, even if the results are great.  So knowing the language of collaboration is greatly needed.    

  • Eric Hyman

    Really insightful, Ty. And you are right there is a staggering amount of talent at agencies big and small. Making it work efficiently for clients of various sizes is the challenge. Keeping cost under control is a bigger one. Playing well with others is as you suggest more essential to that then ever.

  • steve walls

    the future belongs to the people who play best with others, who others want to work with, who have the deepest, most loyal, talented and motivated networks. i like it. throw in a couple of people to manage, marshall and quality control the crowd and what you have is really powerful. curating the crowd or managing the many is a book i'd read from you mr Ty... 

  • Tracy Stuckrath

    I agree as well and think that it applies not just to advertising agencies. I'm an independent event planner who goes up against larger event companies for jobs. Its about collaborating to find the strategic reasons behind the event, the advertising, the message, the brand. 

    Tracey Cooke's comment is right on  about the big companies waging internal wars against each other because of different P&L. Sales people fight their colleagues for the same client when they could collaborate to make the offer better and improve the client opportunities.

  • Alison Anthoine

    Totally agree with both the column and Tracy Cooke's point about internal conflicts within agencies and conglomerates.

    Also, everything said here is equally applicable to clients and their lawyers. More and more, clients want to save on legal fees by doing as much of the routine work (like filling out forms) themselves, and want to limit their lawyers to providing value-added services. This makes absolute sense from a client service perspective, but most law firms still rely on the antiquated business model of charging clients to have paralegals and junior attorneys do the work that the clients want to do themselves.

  • andi plantenberg

    Appreciate this article. I'll add that for large global corporations, an big agency with global reach is appealing. But if that agency can't deliver on making meaningful connection between people and brands what does it matter? The truth is many large agencies fall way short at collaboration under their own roof, and miss the the mark in their scramble to please the client and turn a profit. More on this topic here:

    Singlebound Creative: Too late for big agencies? http://bit.ly/oJ5MDz
    Jaffe Juice:
    The Agency of the Future : http://bit.ly/qdO908

  • Tracey Cooke

    Totally agree. In fact, I have a client begging to help him "facilitate" this collaboration between partner agencies. Unfortunately, many clients have done it to themselves – the way they pay for service, and  divide up their business works to pit partner against partner, each pushing for their share of the pie vs pushing for the idea that best serves the brand/consumer. If rewarding ideas and innovation as a collective was part of the contract, well, i think things would be mighty different. 
    Heck, some big agencies even do it to themselves, waging war divisionally because of separate P&Ls – so working collaboratively becomes a fallacy, really. How insane is that?