The Big Short: 10 Reasons Why So Many Midsize Companies Are Disappointed by Big Agencies

Why your company needs a smaller advertising agency

Over 25 years in the advertising agency business (why yes, I did start at 12) I’ve been in an untold number of pitches and new business presentations. Once a prospective client rises to the $250 million revenue level, their marketing staff tends to start aspiring toward a Big Agency – usually defined as a global agency with more than 200 (and often 2,000) employees.

They may feel, and rightly so, that they have outgrown their current shop. They may need a Big Idea to rocket their awareness into the stratosphere and conclude that Big Agency = Big Ideas. Or they may bring in a new CMO or appoint a new Board member who is appalled to discover that they’ve never heard of the current agency and wants to clean house. Or perhaps they really like front-row sports tickets; who knows?

Whatever the reasons, the rush toward a Big Agency ends in disappointment so much, and so regularly, that I compiled a short list of some possible outcomes for those companies considering moving to a big agency:

1.  You’ll pay more. Let’s just get it out there. It may not be apparent upfront, but someone has to kick in for the physical overhead of your big agency and the number of layers on your team. I regularly speak to account people at Big Agencies who are ready to tear their hair out because there are 20, 25, or 27 people on a conference call. How can you possibly be productive in that setting?


2. You’ll get a D team. Or if it’s your lucky day, a C team. A and B teams are for the Fortune 1000 at Big Agencies. Telltale signs: Ideation you loved in the pitch peters out and stops. Your agency becomes more an order-taker than a strategist. You never get pushback on anything you suggest, no matter how wild or dreary.


3. You’ll get very little strategy. As a small fish in a large pond, you are simply less likely to get strategic counsel from anywhere, from user experience to positioning to media. More likely is an attempt to reverse-engineer a direction from your current campaign and call that the strategy. Just this week a new client told us why they chose us in these words: “[Unnamed large agency] brought in a bunch of junior people and told us what they thought we wanted to hear. You guys came in with a senior team and told us what we needed to do.”


4. You’ll get a lot of polish, but not much scrappiness. With a smaller, scrappier, smarter agency, you’ll get non-stop caring and thinking and suggestions and a confident ability to say, “Hey, what about X?” A Big Agency is much more about decision by committee and calming the waters. After all, your team has big-city mortgages to pay.


5. You’ll get the exotic, but not the important. It may sound to the uninitiated like an absurdist résumé-triaging process, but clients regularly knock midsize agencies out of the running in a pitch for not having that 10th office in the Czech Republic, even if they are unlikely to spend a single Euro there. The problem is, breakthrough brand positioning doesn’t come from the two-person agency satellite office thousands of miles from corporate. It comes from forceful strategic thinkers, who at the Big Agency are less and less likely to lead your team or appear after the pitch is over.


6. Your spend may get a shrug. To you, the $5 million channel ad buy is a huge deal, but that’s by no means a sure thing with an agency that just won the soft drink account that will spend $200 million over the next year. With the right midsize agency, your (relatively) small spend will be treated like a precious metal, and every dollar will be stewarded through the process to work a lot harder than you might have imagined possible.


7. People will learn their business on your nickel. Or worse, on your $5 million channel ad buy (see above). A former colleague who went to the agency side told me she was once assigned a Big Agency account person to oversee the shoot for their three print ads (budget: $225,000), and confessed her excitement that this was her first time in Europe and her first-ever job out of college.


8. If you need to reach a new audience, expect a change order. The first impulse of a less-seasoned Big Agency person is to throw an incremental spend against any new audience, new direction for the business, or recent acquisition that complicates the current offering. With a smaller, more thoughtful shop, you’re more likely to talk about building a buyer journey map, using thought leadership to help reframe the purchase process, and reallocating funds rather than simply bulking them up.


9. You’ll hear a lot of big claims. We’ve interviewed hundreds of candidates from larger agencies, and the refrain is always the same: “I built that campaign / ran that account when I was at Big Agency X.” You hear this even when it becomes abundantly clear 15 minutes into the interview that said candidate was more likely the seventh account person or the graphic designer. Just set them loose as leader on your business and see how they do.


10. No matter how hard you bite at the bait, it’ll still get switched. Over and over, the team that you fell in love with will break your heart, and the account lead you used to sell your boss on the Big Agency will be reassigned. I can think of three clients this happened to without even trying. Car and fast food accounts need a lot of layers and leaders, and if one comes through for your Big Agency, tell your senior-most agency team members not to forget to write.

If you’ve ever make an impulse purchase that made you sweat, like a $3,000 sport coat or an Italian car that would be the envy of your neighborhood, it’s just as likely that you suffered from buyer’s remorse later. Why? You simply didn’t have the accessories to go with it and couldn’t afford the lifestyle required to build around it.

The same is true of choosing a Big Agency. If you want personalized, senior-level attention, look smaller. Of course, no pressure to think I’m credible on this topic. I’ve only been watching it happen for 25 years.