Bigger is better … right?

The saying goes, “You never get fired for hiring McCann” (or fill in the name of any other big agency).

Big agency story

This is not always the story, but it is a true story …

The creative team at a large New York agency worked hard to win a piece of business with a high-end jewelry maker. It was an account the creatives were excited to work on. They won the business and were ready to get started. Then the executives at the agency killed it saying essentially, “None of you are going to work on this account. We’re sorry, but you are too important to us to be working on such a small piece of business.”

The account was 6 million dollars.

What I do know is that the client did not get to work with the team that dazzled and won their hearts in the pitch.

We are a small agency. For us 6 million is not too small an anything, but this poor client just got handed to the C team. Maybe the C team at that big agency is good enough for them; perhaps the talent pool collected by that agency’s culture is so deep that the C team is really good. I don’t know.

What I do know is that the client did not get to work with the team that dazzled and won their hearts in the pitch.

If I don’t have 6 million?

So how do you—oh client of less than 6 million for marketing—prevent this from happening?

We just lost a pitch to a big agency. To the client—whom we still love—I gave this advice: please obtain from said big agency a list of clients they service that have your size and budget. It does not matter if they are in the same business vertical as you, just as long as they are the same size. Call each of them up and talk to them about their experience. Don’t ask how great the agency is. Ask how impressed they are with the specific team that works on their business. How responsive are they? As a client, how much do you feel loved?

Keep in mind that no one is likely to intentionally say bad things on such a call. It was their decision to choose this agency after all, but listen in the margins of what they tell you. How would they recommend this agency? Do they talk about the agency itself? “Big agency X is a great agency.” Or do they talk about the particular team that works on their account? “Steve is the most amazing creative mind I have ever encountered.”

Bigger is Better...Right?

When hiring an agency please don’t look at their size. Look instead at their passion, their skill, their talent and their willingness to go the extra mile. Look for their desire not for your money, but for your success. Remember, for a small agency your success is their success. A big agency has little reason to make you a case study. In their business model filled with big fish what kind of catch are you?

It’s a classic situation. Do you want to be a small, irritating and difficult-to-keep-alive fish in a pond filled with much bigger fish, or do you want to be the one whose calls are always answered and for whom life and vitality are always a first-order agency concern?

Your choice.

The hard choice of small

Do you want to be a small, irritating and difficult-to-keep-alive fish in a pond of bully fish, or do you want to be the one whose calls are always answered?

It’s not easy to choose small. Sometimes the big agency C team is better than the A team elsewhere. Marketing and advertising are never a cake walk. But I’d like to draw your attention to two of my favorite testimonials about a very small agency—us—as we compare with much larger agencies.

“I’ve been through 4 different processes with 4 different agencies over my years here. Tronvig Group’s is the only one that worked.”
—Peggy Martin, Lincoln Park Zoo

What’s going on here? I believe Lincoln Park Zoo got the C team 3 times prior to working with us. Each agency was shiny on the outside, but when it came down to brass tacks the client was just not big enough to merit pulling out the most talented people in the agency. The client got off-the-shelf work and it just didn’t cut it. This is the case far too often.

A second quote:
“We chose Tronvig Group because they stood out as insightful truth-tellers. Other agencies were flashier or more prestigious, but Tronvig Group consistently delivered substantiated and effective marketing guidance.”
—Susan Fisher Sterling, National Museum of Women in the Arts

It’s hard to choose small mainly because the choice of an agency is often ruled by fear. Big agencies feel safer: “If they can handle the titan of my industry certainly they can handle us.” This is a perfectly reasonable thought until you realize, “If they are handling the titans of my or other larger industries, why should they care about me?”

From the agency’s perspective, engaging with you is a B2B transaction. If you can’t understand why you matter and why your business is essential to them, you are inevitably going to end up with their second or third line players. So the world works.

Is bigger ever better?

“If they are handling the titans of my industry, why should they care about me?”

So you may not be endowed with a budget big enough to control the attention of a beautiful titan djinni willing to answer your every wish. That’s just not where you are in the world.

I’m not saying you should set your sights low. I’m simply saying size is not all. I’m saying that passion invested on your behalf is important. I’m saying the brightest minds in a small, underfunded but dedicated team when fully lit can, and usually do, outshine the combined efforts of a collection of extras on the set of a blockbuster.

To carry that forward, I like independent movies because they have to set aside the question of money and instead focus on the human essentials. Heartless mind-numbing special effects and outsized story lines modestly well executed may be someone’s cup of tea and—it cannot be denied—are attractive to many, but it’s very costly.

Maybe that’s just what you need. But think what a small budget gets from a big agency: Pennies don’t go far, and the product lacks heart.

Small agencies are not for every taste, but if you care that your team is doing it for love more than money, small is actually a safer bet.

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  1. Noro says

    James, I liked this post and its message a lot :) Good luck. BTW, Today I just gave you as an example of how to do this well to somebody from the corporate world.

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