I want to talk about the future of small agencies. It is a question on my mind lately – what is next for small ad and digital agencies in this ever shifting and increasingly complicated space?
It used to be very simple. You could make ads. The big guys, the little guys and every one in between – you made a print ad or you made a television commercial (and, well yes, radio). Then along came websites. We have digital agencies enter the picture. But ad agencies made those, too, along with banner ads, then apps, and then social popped in to say hello. Media, data, SEO, UX – what was once so simple among those men of Madison Avenue – now is an infinite web of possibilities.
So can a shop of 5 or 10 to 35-ish people maintain relevance and value in this space anymore? Yes. They can, and some are, doing it quite well. But there are also some dinosaurs that are neck deep in the tar and a great many more that have to figure out their evolution quickly. Many elements will factor into this, but I’m going to focus on three – culture, change and adaptability.
Cultivate your culture. Every agency has culture. You just want to be the agency that has great culture. This is something that happens to be easier in smaller scale – advantage small shops. Once process enters into the equation, culture can lose authenticity. So an advantage for a small agency is to define your culture and own it. This does not mean buy a foosball table and a kegerator (though some employees may appreciate both of those). It means define the way that you will treat your people and your clients. Create an environment where great ideas can shine. Celebrate it. Live it. Tattoo it to the office dog (hopefully it is a hairless breed). And of course, stick to it.
Don’t just rent DVDs. There are many agencies – big and small – that are doing something well. They are making websites, crafting user experiences, defining data analysis – and while they are all good – agencies have to be able to do more than ever. Saying your shop just “makes websites” is the new “we rent DVDs”. Want an app? Oh yes, we have a Blu-ray section right over here. If that is all you are doing today – you are headed towards a Blockbuster-esque extinction.
The marketing space has exploded and clients need agencies that can lead them through the new landscape and steer them to intelligent choices that are right for their needs and markets. You must seek to initiate change, consistently, to better reflect these needs. Making a website or an app may not solve that. But if that is what your agency does – that is what your agency will offer your client. Small agencies need to, first and foremost, be smart. You need to focus on developing solutions that will best define success for the client’s needs, whatever and wherever that may be.
Impetus wins, stagnancy dies. Everything is changing and at a pace that seems nearly impossible to keep up with. Numerous big brands, Kodak and Blockbuster, that were chugging along have already been swept under a technology tidal wave. Even iTunes, which disrupted the entire music industry just a decade ago, is already having to adapt to the move to streaming music.
Your agency must do the same. Get comfortable for a minute and everyone will pass right by you. I’m not saying to follow every trend that comes along, but keep growing and learning. Adapt your services to best serve your clients. Let technology help you grow and give you an edge, but do not focus on it. Hire and develop people that are smart and adaptable. You need the doers and makers, but also be sure to stay lean here and develop solid relationships where you can outsource your production based on the client needs. You’ll stay more flexible (and valuable) if you don’t depend on what your team can build – but on what they can dream up. This is the big advantage for small agencies that can evolve quickly versus the big shops. Impetus wins, stagnancy dies. Keep moving.
Eventually, we will have a bunch of hybrid agencies that are PR/digital/tv/print/social/etc because everything is converging. A good example is in Portland, Oregon, who has been able to evolve by bringing big brand clients’ content production in-house.
As agencies need to adapt to meet the need of their clients, there will be no more traditional versus digital shops. The small agencies that can plan now for this and evolve quickly, will be the success stories we see tomorrow.
Author note: To be clear, I currently do not work at a small agency. I work for a big agency. Very big – the largest digital shop in WPP’s roster. But I’ve spent a good amount of time in small ad agencies, too. I’ve seen the spectrum. I’m curious what people that are currently at small agencies think about this topic.
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