When you're deciding which marketing firm to hire, it's easy to get caught up in the glamour of a big agency: the brand name, the impressive client list, the major wins and awards. What's not to like? The biggest, brightest, most storied agencies have it all – or so it often seems.
Just be careful not to be fooled by a fancy facade.
A growing company often makes the mistake of seeking a big-name agency to legitimize its brand, even if it doesn't get that agency's best team. When you get down to the nuts and bolts of ideation, production, and distribution, big agencies are often less agile, flexible, and collaborative than more modest players in the field. For small businesses, this is crucial to understand.
Where large agencies often require more time to execute your vision, their smaller counterparts are better able to test concepts and apply strategies in short order. This is because there are likely bottlenecks in the long chain of command at larger agencies. At smaller agencies, however, the feedback loop is much shorter.
To make the most of your marketing dollars, consider what a partnership with a small agency can offer. Many small agencies are diminutive in size only – with disproportionately large ambition. A smaller agency's ability to move quickly, tailor ideas to a specific audience and devote more resources to its clients often make it the better option for your growing company.
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Bigger doesn't mean better
Consider that the U.S. Small Business Administration recommends small businesses (those with less than $5 million in sales a year) spend only 7% to 8% of its revenue on marketing and advertising. And a recent study found that nearly 40% of small businesses spend less than $10,000 on advertising each year. Only 20% spend in the $10,001 to $50,000 range, while only 7% cross the million-dollar threshold.
That is simply not enough to command the full attention of the big boys of the agency world – especially when some of the biggest corporations in the U.S. are spending in the billion-dollar range. That means decisions big agencies make won't always be aligned with your business. Your budget is the most significant factor in capturing a big firm's attention and getting the service you receive.
It's not uncommon to see hundreds of companies on a big agency's client list, which means it's only logical that some of the more modest brands are receiving minimal attention. The small fish are never going to get the same level of service that the seven-figure crowd demands, and that means opportunities to speak with senior management will be few and far between. You'll be lucky if senior leaders even know you're on the roster.
But access to the highest level of decision-makers at an agency should be a priority in the relationship between a growing business and an ad agency. Because of their size, most big agencies simply cannot provide this. Small agencies can.
Small agencies are also less transactional and more engaged with "out-of-the-box" ideas. The latter is especially important when you consider that nearly 60% of marketers believe that creativity is more crucial to marketing campaigns than data. That means you'll want a team you can trust to bring fresh ideas that can steer your brand in the best direction.
Keep in mind that experience isn't exclusive to the big firms. Plenty of smaller agencies have partners that can give you proven media advice. By going with a smaller firm, you can avoid the big agency handoff, where a 20-year veteran of the ad world transitions your account to a recent grad. If you have money, you might get the attention of the best partners. But if you need to grow, a big agency won't have the time (or the willingness) to get you where you want to go.
Plenty of evidence suggests choosing a smaller, more nimble agency over a bigger firm may be more beneficial for a growing business. If you decide the small agency route is right for you, these tips will help you make the most of that relationship:
1. Ask the important questions
As you begin relationships with your agency partners, you'll surely have questions about how the give-and-take will work. That's a good thing. Don't hesitate to pepper them with probing questions that help you determine whether they're the best fit for you. How big is the agency? How many account people does it have? Who will be the senior contacts? Will you have access to the C-suite leaders? If so, how are they involved in the business?
Once you settle on an agency, you'll find that it will be easier to form working relationships with your partners at a small firm. That's a major departure from the larger agencies where there might be three levels of account management. Remember, you want face-to-face opportunities with the people working on your campaign – along with access to the top decision-makers – to ensure that your voice is heard.
2. Consider what big-agency offerings a small agency might have
The big agencies will try to wow you with the bells and whistles. Just don't think that they're the only ones capable of providing those offerings. If you've been offered top-tier services from a larger agency (such as web marketing, graphic design and results tracking), ask a smaller agency whether it can provide you with the same services. In many cases, it can.
At the same time, consider the kinds of things a smaller agency can offer that a big agency cannot. For instance, small firms can go out on a limb and take chances that might be harder to pull off at larger firms. They can test concepts with only minimal investment and watch the variables at work before projecting onto a larger scale. They can also take more risks without fearing negative publicity. If a venture goes sideways at a larger agency, many more people are likely to know about it.
3. Take stock of how unique your needs are
One of the greatest features of a small agency partnership is its ability to specialize. Take the case of search engine marketing firm Gauss & Neumann, which spent nearly a decade developing a proprietary tool that helped it meet the needs of clients. This tool gives Gauss & Neumann the capability to create search engine marketing accounts that feature nearly 10 times more keywords, helping it compete at the highest levels.
Take a moment to pinpoint your unique needs as a brand. Then, ask the agency how it will meet them. Often, smaller agencies will be able to offer analytics and creative services tailored to your business's specific needs. You might also find that smaller agencies can offer transparent media relationships that provide access to the highest level of media contacts, thus allowing insight into the agency's decision-making process.
Don't be fooled by the big-name agencies touting their crowded trophy cases. There's much more to finding the right marketing partnership. Big agencies might be right for some, but for growing companies, they're often too inflexible and stodgy to maximize the relationship. Smaller agencies, on the other hand, are not only driven to deliver, but they're also more eager and able to adjust to fit your specific needs. When those agencies prove that they're able to give you everything you need and more, don't let them go.