I recently had the opportunity to attend my first Ad Age Small Agency Conference. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I made my way to Nashville, but as I stepped onto the conference floor, I was instantly blown away by the level of talent and quality of work present. An intense feeling of pride quickly followed as I reminded myself that I was part of this community. Now, we’ve all heard the list of perceptions about small agencies floating around. They just work with little local or regional clients in their markets. Only the big guys can come up with brilliant strategies and creative work. They only hire second-rate talent that can’t get a job at the big agencies. Well, I’m here to argue these are wild misconceptions. It’s a magical time for small agencies, and both clients and agencies are benefiting.
Small Is Big
I should first take a step back and define what I mean by “small.” I’m referring to agencies with 150 employees or less. These are by and large independent, and, yes, it does make all the difference. I’ve worked for big agencies—the type owned by a holding company—and I can tell you no matter which way you slice it or how different they tell you it’s going to be, ultimately these big agencies are much more concerned with their profits than their clients or employees.
And despite what you may think, “small” does not apply to these agencies’ client rosters when they include brands like PowerBar, Energizer, Avon and more. At Curiosity, right here in river city, we’re working with significant national clients like Dean Foods, Roto-Rooter, Stonefire and more.
Get Over It, Advertising Is Dead
Sitting here in 2017, it’s abundantly clear that the industry formerly known as advertising has changed dramatically in the last two decades. When I went to college, we barely had email. Fast-forward to graduation: the World Wide Web (and its Netscape browser) was expanding on a trajectory that hasn’t slowed in the 20 years since. A world previously dominated by three core channels of print, TV and radio has exploded with new options like digital, social, streaming, OTT, programmatic, satellite, influencer and experiential, just to name a few.
We as consumers all resist being advertised to (I mean, can we all just finally admit how much we hate banner ads?). Now more than ever, success for a brand is all about figuring out its story and sharing it in ways that consumers actually want to hear. With all these changes, it’s only logical to work with an agency that’s as flexible and adaptable as possible. That’s easier to do in smaller agencies. Plain and simple.
Even seven years into Curiosity, it still frequently occurs to me how constant our growth and change is. I often look back on projects we executed just six months ago and think, “Wow, we are so much smarter now.”
As a small agency, we’re not bound by decades-old processes or forced to do things the way some external entity thinks we should. We’re constantly looking at and questioning our processes, our thinking, and our strategies to figure out how we can do things better. And when we identify an opportunity to improve the way we work, we just do it. In the past two years alone, we have added a full-service media department, implemented project management, developed a strategic process and team and brought on an in-house videographer. It’s this attitude of continuous improvement and agility that keeps us at the top of our game in a constantly changing world. We may be 7 years old, but we still have that same entrepreneurial spirit we did on day one. What if the new thing we try doesn’t work? Then we try something else. Pretty cool, right?
I have read time and time again studies stating that the number-one thing clients look for in an agency partner is a team that can bring proactive thinking. At Curiosity, we take the time to deeply understand each of our clients’ business and challenges. So, how do we turn that understanding into new ideas that are actually useful to our clients? Well, we created a clients-only group, which we fondly named the Dead Cat’s Society. (Get it? Curiosity vs. the cat?) This group is all about learning about big data, virtual reality, IoT and the evolution of technology in the retail space. And we’re not just focused on technology, but new ways of thinking and creating. The venerable designer Aaron Draplin (if you’re not familiar with him, check him out here) visited the agency last month to help inspire our team and get them thinking differently. It was a blast, and our clients loved it.
Big on Culture
And last, but certainly not least, is culture. I am firmly of the opinion that working at a smaller agency makes for happier, more fulfilled employees. I personally worked for two Cincinnati agencies who were sold to larger holding companies, so I speak from some experience on this one.
It’s better here. I feel like a person here. Remember those deep relationships we have with our clients I mentioned? They’re even stronger among our staff. I consider the group I work with every day part of my extended family. Not only do I know every one of their names, I know the names of their kids, their spouses—even their pets. Sure, we celebrate the engagements and the weddings, but we help and support each other when personal tragedies happen, too.
We’re a team like no other I’ve been a part of, and to me, that makes all the difference. There’s something deeply satisfying about liking and respecting the team you work with every day, and a great reassurance comes from knowing that that team has your back no matter what. We have our issues and problems, don’t get me wrong. But I always have confidence that we’re all going to come out on the other side better together.
Listen, I’m not here to bash big agencies. I’m really not. They certainly have top-notch people, blue-chip clients and award-winning creative. I’m really here to celebrate the often overlooked small agencies, that yes, I think are better. So that’s why you’ll find me right here in Cincinnati, at a small agency that I continue to help shape and grow along with a fantastic team of coworkers.
Go ahead, call me small-minded. Compliment accepted.