I have worked at various sizes of advertising agencies, from Y&R New York, then the largest agency in the world, to smaller agencies and people often ask me, what is the idea size?

Well, first of all, its not the size of the agency, it’s what you do with it.

Large advertisers tend to cluster at large agencies.  The infrastructure of a larger agency matches up with the bureaucracy of these large clients.  The large agency provides the security and thorough review of all risks required.  But that comes with a price, both economically and in speed of decision making.  I would also say that the politics in large agencies can be distracting and stifling.

Smaller agencies carry less overhead and can move faster. The way they can do this is have experienced professionals directly handling the assignments.  Some of the risk from moving swiftly can be offset by their experience.  I have to admit I personally get juiced by the pressure of getting to solutions quickly.  It shortens also the distance between strategy development and execution.

Some professionals enjoy working on communications projects and getting them done well as a matter of pride not politics.  Their closeness to the project is their reward.  They can be blind to some political issues that clients have to live with – the compromises, the accommodations.

Agency people who get frustrated with large agencies and their politics often burn out by their 30s.  If you believe in the notion that one needs at least 10,000 hours to master a profession — that doesn’t leave very much productive time in the agency business.

So what kind of agency should a client look for?  One that can listen.  One that has shown their team can create new opportunities for their clients.  Solve problems effectively in unpredictable ways.  As to size, it is probably best to match up with the agency size relative to the size of the client.

Clients should look for an agency that has experienced professionals who enjoy working hands on. How will you know this is true? Look for stability of the key team members. Clients can get fool by viewing an agency reel.  Is the material on the reel done by the team that will work with them?

After working in a large agency, I am partial to smaller agencies because they can really be nimble when it counts. They survive by being creative in solutions of all kinds, not just one trick like the “get ‘em on television” approach.

The choice of an agency often results in how the client advertises.  Like when you go to a surgeon for a medical opinion, you shouldn’t be surprised that he recommends surgery.

Each client is really important to a smaller, independent agency. Client success may be a matter of the agency’s survival. Plus clients don’t have to worry about decisions made in New York, Chicago or London changing the way their business is managed or the resources at their disposal.

I have worked on key multinational accounts at the head office in New York and on the same accounts in branch offices.  There is a world of difference.  In the resources available.  As well as the goals of the advertising.  Nevertheless, multinational brand assignments are made.  I have won accounts sometimes and lost sometimes.  It doesn’t usually happen based on local merit.

Often the argument is made that larger agencies can buy media more effectively.  They say that their size brings added leverage.  I have never found that to be true.  Large buying groups usually assign the lesser experienced buyers to do the work.  From the media’s point of view, if they give a deal to the large agency, they will find they have given the same deal to all of its clients.  Easier to give a better deal to the small agency, it won’t travel as far.

Large agencies don’t want to take large risks for large returns.  Plus large accounts are bought at reduced commission meaning there is less money to pay for the work.   So the agency wants to buy as efficiently as they can buy to make the maximum profit.  That means the least work they can put into the buy the better it is for them.  To try and prove they have done well, they make a big deal out of small victories.

Smaller agencies often subcontract the media out to buying agencies.  That can also be a problem to clients.

The truth is that buying clout relates more to who is actually working on your business than the size of the media department or the total the agency bills. A smart media negotiator who cares about the job that is done gets measurably more value than a junior buyer. And media is where most of your advertising dollar is.

I have always been surprised that clients want to “cheap out” on the resources applied to the media buy.  Wouldn’t you want maximize leverage where the money is?

So size – well it should match the client size.  Smaller agency means more risky.  Larger agency means more infrastructure and more checked out.

The three things clients should really look for in a marketing communications agency is the ability to listen, the desire to work on the business and an understanding of the issues to be faced.  Once you have that nailed, turn them loose.

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