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By Joshua Belhumeur

Goliath, Meet David

Can small agencies compete for big brands?

I often say that BRINK is not small, it’s “boutique.” That’s the word you use when you want to avoid feeling inadequate. Like a fine microbrew in a world of Budweisers, we’re better quality, more hip, more acquired. We don’t want to be Huge. We’re small by design.

Let me be honest, we would love to continue to grow. Bigger agencies get more respect, work with bigger brands and get handed budgets large enough to fully unlock their creative potential. Also, bigger agencies make more money. Why shouldn’t we want to drop boutique from our lexicon and welcome the cash and notoriety with open arms? We can still take on projects with character, like the Daniel Day Lewis of digital marketing.

David and Goliath is an Old Testament story about a tussle between a 9-foot Palestinian swole named Goliath and a young Jew who often skipped leg day named David. TL;DR – David launched a rock at Goliath’s cocky face then cut off his freakin’ head.

A secular interpretation of the story is that Goliath was too slow and arrogant while David was fearless and creative. He chose not to play the giant’s game, but rather invent his own out of necessity (which is the mother of invention after all). Why even get close to the giant when you can hurl a rock at him?

In the real world, we know that Goliath wins these fights often. But we can also point to many examples when David is able to slip in and slay that arrogant giant. The irony is that David often goes on a high-protein bulking regimen and reaches Goliath’s size after his big victory. David always wanted to be Goliath because living life as Goliath was a sweeter gig. Christ, now my metaphor is getting convoluted.

Compared to Razorfish, we are a small fish. But with 2 offices and 23 employees, we’re above the median as well as the mean (which is 3.4 people per agency, if you’re curious). The topic for me has nothing to do with whether bigger is more desirable for entrepreneurs (it is) or whether larger agencies don’t have their advantages (they do). The question is about creativity and ability. Can a big client trust a small agency with their account?

The Wharton School of Business compiled research from various sources and identified 5 to 9 people as the optimal team size. Most large creative agencies break into smaller teams by design. If you try to waterfall your projects through behemoth departments you will never get anything done. You build task forces that work together.

Sometimes these teams are temporary and other times they’re permanent. Big Spaceship has multi-disciplinary teams that sit together, work together and even adopt creative names such as Squid Republic or the Special Bears*. I find it interesting that large agencies actually take steps to work and act smaller. The best ones are effectively a collection of many small agencies with their own teams and cultures.

Say we provide 5 to 8 team members to match the big guys. A strategist / project lead, a designer or two, a UX developer, a couple backend engineers and a content manager. Now we have what we call our rock band approach, writing your next big hit (catchy isn’t it?). The next question is what will make our team great? Fortune writer Jerry Useem argues that “clear definition of roles” are important, along with finding people invested in the team: “teamwork is an individual skill.”  I think the little guys have a shot at competing on this one too:

  • The person in charge of hiring at a small agency is very intimate with the team and knows the needed characteristics to compliment it. If a big agency has a hiring manager separate from the team, they risk always finding those who look good on paper, but may not be the best addition to the team.
  • Small agencies, though not fully immune, are less likely to have cut-throat cultures. The primary goal for an employee is not to individually rise to the top, but to work together to accomplish goals. Throwing each other under the bus doesn’t get you nearly as far as working together to build a better company. More team success means more opportunity for career advancement.
  • People with high need for achievement desire more personal responsibility and to be heavily involved in setting goals, according to Harvard Psychologist David McClelland. A smaller agency offers more opportunities for empowerment, and allows employees to see the direct results of their contributions to the agency as a whole. And by necessity, smaller agencies demand more from each individual role player. It’s impossible for someone to get by without pulling their weight.

Beyond the team members themselves, the creative culture is an important element. Usually the leadership of a company sets the tone, but with smaller agencies, that tone is felt everyday. It’s tangible. There’s an evenness to the approach and quality of work. When you hire BRINK, you get exactly what you were told you would get. In contrast, it’s harder for bigger agencies to always live up to the legacy of the guy whose name is on the building.

In the end, small agencies may have less resources, but we make up for it with an environment more conducive to creativity and efficiency.

I originally set out to use the David vs. Goliath metaphor to champion the little guy, but I realize it’s a false dichotomy. Boutique agencies aren’t inherently better. But we absolutely can compete. There’s no reason to feel inadequate for being small, nor is there reason to feel guilty for wanting to grow.

It would be wrong of me to put down big agencies because I want to be a big agency. But until we reach that point, consider this: the national brand that works with a smaller firm gets to be a big fish in their small — excuse me, boutique — pond. So go ahead and give us a shot.

*Read more about Big Spaceship in this Harvard Business case study. It’s a good read if you are an agency coping with growth and creative culture. 

By Joshua Belhumeur