The growing pains of the agency that's too big to be small

What's an independent agency to do when it is too big to be small, but too small to be big?

Back in the early days of Creature, my dearly departed chum, Tedward "Big Ted" Warren (just departed from Creature – he’s still alive. We’re having melted cheese on Saturday), was always fond of saying "the joy of pitching is that any pitch, no matter how big the client, is won or lost by the number of people it takes to eat a takeaway pizza".

It was a wonderful, uplifting thing to say, and to hear – particularly as it was normally delivered while a bunch of us were gathered round a takeaway pizza at 2am, doing our damnedest to work out how a bunch of pizza-dwellers could possibly beat Mother, BBH, Saatchi & Saatchi, VCCP, CHI, or whoever else was lined up to be bringing their glossy mood films and mac’d up artworks into the client boardroom the following day.

And, more often than not, we did pretty well. Carling was our most notable success – but it sat alongside Adidas, Ryvita, Tetley and a bunch of other big brands. We were the little agency that could, the wild card that did, the shot in the dark that hit the bulls eye, the bunch of unknown idiots in the "this’ll be fun" slot at the end of the day that turned out to be really fucking good. It was great being those guys. No expectations, and a hell of an opportunity to over-deliver. 

But that period didn’t last. It couldn’t last. You can’t be the new kid on the block forever: you either slip away quietly or otherwise, or you don’t, and you grow, and you break through the 30, 40, 50 people barrier… At which point, you find yourself in rather an odd spot. 

No longer small enough (or new enough) to take the wild card spot on a list, but definitely not big enough to sit in the network agency’s seat. You start to get really used to intermediaries telling you that the clients are "looking for a bigger, more established shop", or conversely, that they thought "this one would be a bit small for you", which you can at least take as a compliment. 

The first point’s a weird one, though. I don’t really get it. Why is "big" good?

Sure, if you’ve been around for 20 years, you’re probably not dreadful, and nobody ever got fired for hiring "those guys": but being around for ages doesn’t mean you’ve never made anything bad. For every gold Lion they proudly display, every agency out there has got at least one campaign they will never admit to. (You should know that at this point I’m desperately avoiding eye contact with all of you – but yes, that is PRECISELY the campaign I’m talking about.)

Sure, if you’re big, you’ve probably got loads of processes in place to make sure balls don’t get dropped. But all those ball-guards must be expensive. Particularly if balls aren’t being dropped in the first place.

Sure, big agencies have offices all round the world – but it’s 2018. You don’t need offices all round the world to deliver a global campaign: you just need some proper strategists, a whole heap of data, and Hogarth or Tag’s phone number.

And sure, if you’re a big, established place, you’ve probably got everything under one roof: but that’s only helpful if you, the client, actually WANT all of those things. Otherwise, however you cut it, you’re going to end up subsidising stuff you don’t want – or being sold stuff you don’t need. Because, the thing the majority of  "full-service" offerings don’t like to tell you is that when your back’s turned, they’re all scrabbling for your cash, to protect their P&L. We, on the other hand, genuinely play nice with others, because that’s how we’re designed. Integrating rather than integrated: that’s the future. (Trust me, Tina Fegent’s with me on this one.)

So what to do? Well, without wishing to get all young adult fiction about it, as an agency in its (figuratively speaking) sophomore year, the only thing you can do is work hard, be yourself, and try not to be too impatient. It’s easy to get distracted by the shiny new freshman on the block (hi, Nils!), or to impatiently wish we were one of the effortlessly confident seniors, who get invited to all the cool parties without even trying (‘sup, Pep?): but we’re neither of those things. We’re too big to be small, and nowhere near big enough to be BIG; but we’re fucking good at what we do, and we’re working our arses off. For now, that’ll do.

Dan Cullen-Shute is chief executive and co-founder of Creature of London. 

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