Here are some thoughts on how I think personal experience compares at small and big communications agencies. Obviously, I’m sure all agencies are different, and who am I to say given that I’ve only worked at a grand total of two agencies etc. Nonetheless, here goes:
Entrepreneurialism and creativity
The story tends to be that small agencies are entrepreneurial and creative by nature, given that they’re set up by entrepreneurs who tend to still have a hands-on role; and that entrepreneurially minded and creative people have more space to roam, as opposed to bigger agencies where hierarchy and process rule the roost. There’s some truth in it, although it’s not always the case. However entrepreneurial, a small agency has to constantly prove itself and maintain credibility by acting like a big agency e.g. having sound processes that ensure efficiency and reliability, at the cost of toning down the whacky stuff. Clearly, a big agency is expected to show the entrepreneurial spirit – fun, creative, ahead of the curve type stuff – which small agencies are supposed to excel at, but I think it’s far easier that way around: the adage that big agencies are so subsumed by process and scale that they can’t think out of the box is largely a myth.
Jack of all trades
At a small agency, you’re more likely to get involved in a wider array of activities, even though the breadth of client activity overall is more limited. How? You usually have fewer people working on accounts and so may cover more roles. In particular, you’re more exposed to the non-client related elements of the company, like finance and HR, which are very useful in grasping how a business operates and which you might never hear about at a bigger agency until you reach the upper echelons.
Winner: small agency
The Jack of all trades argument counts here: at a small agency you may have more exposure to a variety of areas of the business, whether on the client side or internal, and are thus (arguably) more likely to learn more, more quickly. However, the mere nature of a bigger agency means that there are more places to grow into, as simple as that may sound, given the scale. Plus a well-managed operation – however big – ensures that hierarchies are not entrenched and that everyone is able to have access to anyone else within the company quite easily – within reason. That’s certainly my experience, although I suspect it may differ drastically elsewhere.
Network and scale
No-brainer here. Big agencies have a greater array of resources and can scale more effectively, meaning more opportunity. This may differ between big agencies depending on how they are structured (offices may compete as well as share) or whether they are independent or not, but by and large, network and scale are a massive advantage.
Winner: big agency
Big agencies are established: one bad year, one lost client or one person snapped up by the competition, however bad, are not a threat to the company. Small agencies, on the other hand, are constantly faced by existential threats, and the three realities highlighted above can mean the difference between carrying on and shutting down. This means small agencies are likely to constantly be on their toes at thinking ahead of the curve while big ones may get complacent (but the latter should be avoided with good management.) In any case, it’s quite nice to feel 100% safe in the knowledge that you’ll still be around next year.
Winner: big agency
Caveat: it’s impossible to say whether small or big agencies are more or less able – clearly, all agencies differ, as do client needs. Nonetheless, the adage goes that small agencies offer better service as they have more senior people on accounts, focus more on single accounts and have less need to take orders from elsewhere (e.g. head office or parent company) while bigger agencies are often just selected because they can work on bigger campaigns (or simply because they are the supposed safer choice.) I suspect that’s true in a lot of cases. On the other hand, big agencies are more likely to have a wider array of talent to choose from. Plus big agencies that don’t put appropriate people on accounts or fail to focus suitably on smaller accounts are not performing the inevitable, they’re just badly managed.