The middleman and the benefit of being small

November 12, 2008

I was in Italy last weekend and met a chap who is a wine distributor and a middleman par excellance. He purchases wine direct from producers and sells it on to other, bigger distributors, who then sell it to foreign distributors, who then distribute to another distributor (or perhaps directly to retailers). That’s an awful lot of middlemen. Similarly, on a small project we’re currently working on for a client, we’re the middleman, working with two other agencies to produce some relatively simple deliverables. So between the client and a simple deliverable are not one but three agencies.

Is that a problem? No. The term middleman has always had shady connotations, but it shouldn’t anymore. We need middlemen! It’s a global market-place, as well as a complex, ever-changing one at that, and frankly you can’t know it all. Look at agencies. The best agencies nowadays – the ones that are truly cutting-edge and innovative – are often relatively small, because they are more flexible. They can adapt to fundamental changes faster, smart individuals tend to have more leeway, and senior people spend more time on clients than in management meetings. Most of all, smaller agencies have less of a tendency than big agencies to think they can do it all: they can usually mobilise a network of partners, freelancers or other agencies that have the expertise required to handle any given situation, while big agencies try to mould their own resources to match what’s required.

When does it usually go wrong for small agencies? When they get big and stop acting small. When do big agencies produce their best work? When they act small (and luckily, plenty of them do).

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