Why big clients choose small agencies

Why big clients choose small agencies

Asked recently to respond to comments from Procter & Gamble CMO Marc Pritchard and Unilever CMO Keith Week chiding 'big advertising' for its shortcomings, Martin Sorrell did a good job of selling small agencies when he said "What Marc Pritchard and Keith Weed are signaling, and other advertisers have signaled, is that we have to be more responsive, more agile, less bureaucratic, less layered, more principle-driven, in the sense of driven by creative principle.”

That is an excellent summary of the advantages of a small agency, and one worth digging into more deeply because, now more than ever, it’s time for marketers to look to small agencies as partners. Why? Glad you asked.


Size is an advantage when it comes to responsiveness and agility.

While most agencies, and especially the bigger ones, have a staff structure that looks like this:

Our staff structure looks like this:

In a business where it’s all about talent, it’s important that the talent works on the business, not just the new business.

Our structure means we understand the opportunity the first time, that nuance isn't lost in translation, and our A team is always working on the project. Creativity and efficiency are not mutually exclusive, at least for small agencies that know that the right 5 people are more powerful than the wrong 1,000.

Working Talent

A surefire way to work without the accumulated layers and bureaucracy that bedevil large organizations is not to become too large of an organization.

Our team left big companies because they wanted to get away from the layers and bureaucracy. To be able to build close relationships with clients. To get back to the work. Our size is a talent attractor.

The team has resumes that would be desired at any large, name agency:

Creative Lead: 17+ years of experience. Co-founder, Target Creative. Led the Target master brand, in-store experience, new-store prototypes, experiential marketing, sports marketing, brand development, designer & celebrity partnerships and became a rock-star whisperer.

Engagement Lead: 15+ years of finding insights that drive action on accounts including Subaru, Dr Pepper, Intel, Duracell, BMW, Subway, and Delta Air Lines. Oh, the sales records that have fallen in that time.

Production Lead: 25+ years of managing production of some of the biggest, craziest and most complex projects on, ahem, aggressive timelines for Time Warner Cable, Polaris, 3M, and Delta Air Lines. More channel experience than a remote control.

Experience Planning Lead: 15+ years of building marketing and digital strategies for brands like Gatorade, Supercuts, Walgreens, T-Mobile, and McDonalds cut with client-side experience at Sears and Burlington. She dreams in color about user journeys and connection plans.

Technology Lead: 20+ years of making the world wide web a better place for humans. Digital co-conspirators include the United Nations, JCPenney, Purina, Victoria’s Secret and [REDACTED].

And they aren't sitting in the corner office 'managing' because they're sitting together with our clients working.


The marketplace is more competitive than ever and the pressure is coming from every angle. Margins are under pressure. Budgets are under pressure. Careers are under pressure.

Perhaps we should fully embrace the current fashionability of "agile" because we are a small agency that can move quickly. But what matters most is good work.

Good work can happen within any structure. It’s just that it’s more likely to happen—and more likely to happen quickly—when a small group of talented people work closely together with clients to create.

Size is a critical factor here as well. We have a single Creative Director, not a Creative Director who reports to a Group Creative Director who reports to an Executive Creative Director who reports to a Chief Creative Officer who reports to someone in the global headquarters. We’ve cut out the extraneous layers and people that get in the way of conversations, ideas and decisions.

It also keeps us focused, completely, on doing good work.

Aligned incentives

We exist to persuade people--emotional, irrational, human people--to think and do things that move the brand and the business forward.

Both brand and business are critical and top of mind for us. Small independent agencies like Riley Hayes don't have the insulation that comes from sharing revenue with a global network of subsidiaries. We're on our own. Our mistakes and successes are very real and we feel them immediately.

That means that we are utterly dependent on understanding--and doing--what really matters for clients, instead of what matters for the holding company. Things like quarterly revenue targets, industry awards, or keeping sister agencies busy aren't considerations when we are doing work. Our incentives are completely aligned with our clients.

In other words, we do well only when our clients do.

It’s time to say no to the status quo.

It takes a level of bravery to choose a small agency over a larger, name agency for the same reason it takes a level of bravery to choose anything that isn't the status quo. Yet, how many companies are comfortable with the status quo? The market leaders are, sure, but everyone else needs to be looking for advantages that their competitors are overlooking.

A small agency can be one of those advantages.

It's time to take a look at the "more responsive, more agile, less bureaucratic, less layered, more principle-driven, in the sense of driven by creative principle" option and take a look at a small agency.