Is agency performance a question of size? Or is it what you do with it that counts?

Bigger is better. There is no debate. 

Big agencies rock. There’s no question about it. They have the best offices, attract the best talent and do incredible work that they profile right around the world. More importantly, they can easily handle supply and demand and have layer upon layer of contingency and safety net. If you have a job with a big agency, you can rely on them to deliver. And yes, you pay for the privilege.

Small is sensational. If you work it right.

Small agencies also rock. It’s all about how you use them. With a small team on your business, they usually have more skin in the game. Chances are they’ll have more focus on your gig so they can be more helpful and often more reactive. Also, their bottom line is usually solving problems rather than changing the world (although that’s not always as useful as it might sound). But small agencies aren’t perfect either.

Small can easily get swallowed.

The biggest challenge for any small shop is consistent delivery through the storm of supply and demand. Drop a big project into the best small agency and you’ll soon see the wheels fall off. Worse still, it’s not necessarily your project that’ll do it. Small shops are also more heavily reliant on key people. There’s usually less safety net. If John’s off sick when the proverbial hits the fan, there is no Peter, Paul or Mary to pick it up.

Big can be aloof.

The biggest challenge of big agencies is their size. It’s a structural thing. Scale demands process and that can be stifling. Timelines are necessarily longer and structure can cause a disconnect between client and creative. It’s hard to solve. Big shops also mean bigger bills. Again, it’s a function of size. And if you’ve ever sat in a room and counted the sledgehammer of billable hours being applied to the cracking of a walnut, it’s easy to see why even simple outputs can cost heaps.

What if small was actually big?

Here’s a thought. What if your small agency was actually big? Whether you’re Bill’s Plumbing or Bank of America, the number of people who deep dive into your specific area of the business day-to-day is probably fewer than six. A suit or two, maybe a media or technology specialist and one or two creatives who know you so well it makes everything easy. From there, you engage consultants when you need them and wheel in the cavalry for big stuff. Step and repeat that pattern over different business units working on different parts of different clients and, hey presto, it’s big agency security and delivery with all the flexibility and passion of a small agency set up.

The answer should fit to a T.

If you buy into the management jargon du jour, it’s all about T-shaped personalities. The thinking is that the people you want are those with wide general understanding and deep specialist knowledge. Could the same apply with the small-as-big agency model? Many clients already achieve it by managing a bunch of different suppliers. That comes down to collaboration. And as a small agency working with some of New Zealand’s biggest clients, we’re lucky enough to collaborate with some of the best ‘big’ agencies in town. But collaboration comes down to people and trust. It can be just as hard for big agencies to accept smaller partners as it is for us smaller guys to avoid the temptation of a putting a hand up on jobs we're not built to deliver.

And that’s what got me thinking. If big agencies were cities built out of suburbs full of small shops would that create the 'perfect agency model'?

That’s what I reckon. What do you think?

Michael Goldthorpe