There’s lots of conversation about agency growth today – particularly alternatives to agency holding companies. But what’s missing is a critical notion on scale. Even a recent article dubbing several newer agency networks “the third way” simply described a different approach to organize big. Each of the network options were predicated on adding groups together to make bigger entities.
Bigger in a different way is still bigger. And bigger is bad for just about everything we’re expected to do as agencies. Bigger obstructs creativity,
speed, innovation, adaptability, and understanding. It creates distance, which creates more places to hide, more hand-offs to others, and more layers that ideas have to survive. And bigger reduces
accountability, resourcefulness, speed and opportunity per employee, which slowly corrodes the structure from the bottom up.
Advertising’s future depends on output and impact. And agencies’ future depends on delivering more and more answers for smaller and smaller margins.
We can’t get there by chasing big. We can by scaling the right kind of small.
Small creates more immediate, sustainable results by focusing a core team’s attention on the actual problems to be solved. Within a process that creates better and faster understanding within the group, closer connection, easier collaboration, more efficient production, and more seamless integration.
Scaling small means setting up to do more well rather than just more of the same. It means an experiential model that preserves what makes great work. Everything about the agency must orient toward how much great work we can produce, how fast and how repeatedly.
We can’t buy this cohesion; we must build it.
That requires involving the entire small team upstream to downstream, from an overarching strategy through production, evaluation and reaction. Give people with multiple talents the context and freedom to make more together. And make clients teammates, so there’s no lag, opacity or passing the buck.
When we empower people more, they can do more, better work in less time. A lot more. And generate joy in doing it. That’s small at its best. Clients buy and grow from a unified approach to solving business problems with storytelling.
Then we need to replicate the model, not add mass to it. We can do that when we focus on increasing our footprint by location rather than square footage, with an eye towards being close to client opportunities.
That means more places, not more people in one place. It means multiple independent, multi-talented and 95% autonomous teams indoctrinated in a process that values creative momentum over analysis paralysis and meaningful results over territorial roles.
It means that some of those new locations will include being embedded within the brands themselves, in their office space as a more effectively objective in-house option. It means the whole creative organization working as a widespread collective rather than as a rigidly structured, org chart hierarchy of branch offices. It means building teams in places where people can get a better quality of life, which is increasing beyond the boundaries of the typical major metropolitan area.
By contrast, buying bodies in a market or specialty area – which the holding companies and alternatives do – just begets more people doing the same things. Meanwhile, the small agencies that give up independence for scale lose the energy that made them special. They got to great because they didn’t obscure the most important work with more people, departments, specialties, and management layers. But now they must spend their creative energy figuring out how to manage ever more.
Scaling small also keeps the basis of client relationships on output and impact, not hours. That solves the inherent trap in the drive to bigness, along with the common and misguided approach to limiting creative and production costs. When the budget is the budget, the directive and value proposition simplifies to how much we can make with it.
True power in advertising isn’t more people, it’s more impact. Advertising innovation will take a giant leap forward when unique models adopt unique scaling propositions. We’ll meet the combined pressures of quality, speed and cost while answering the famous question that Chiat/Day co-founder Jay Chiat once asked: “How big can we get before we suck?”
Jay’s question resounds today. The answer is, not very big at all.