Big agency vs. small agency: personal experience

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.

Winner: draw

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

Personal growth

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.

Winner: draw

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

Existential threats

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

Overall ability

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.

Winner: both!

Challenging clients and integration: two telling quotes

Heard on the grapevine last week: “my CEO friend tells me he only works with a handful of consultants. They’re argumentative and critical but they’ve been working with him for years.” And a day later: “I used to be fed up of hearing all the talk about how the web was going to change the way we operate. But once it had been put into context, I agreed.”

They may be amongst the first things mentioned in any Consulting for Dummies type handbook, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat them.

First, you’re far more likely to succeed in the long-run if you challenge the brief. Again and again. Every consulting function that largely focuses on execution eventually becomes a commodity which someone else can do faster and cheaper. You’ll only stay in your client’s good books in the long run through added-value thinking, and that invariably means challenging the client. In short, don’t just agree then execute. Think creatively, challenge, and only then execute.

Second, there’s no point harping on about a channel like the web unless you’re putting it into context. That context should be what someone is doing already: so you’re not selling something new; but rather, you’re integrating a new set of tools and an existing client reality and making it better. In short, the web isn’t great because it’s yet another channel; and a new and shiny one at that. But it may be great for you if you can take what you’re doing already and further improve your reputation, reach, influence, sales (or whatever) through smart integration.

The bane of the online communications consultant

It’s fun, it’s effective, it’s multifaceted and it’s on a steep upward trajectory. All in all, in Brussels and elsewhere, helping clients navigate the online space is a pretty good thing to be doing right now. But it’s a double-edged sword in some ways:

  • The implementation part has so many variables that it’s easy to get bogged down in dull, irrelevant nitty-gritty and lose track of your true objectives. Sure, you need to get things right, but often, strategic communications veers too far into sheer project management. The key here is to keep the role of the strategist and the project manager separate, and for the strategist to have more visibility.
  • One of the keys to a successful communications programme is integration. What you do online and offline should be closely aligned, but it’s often hard to get right because of the way communications teams are structured. Web, regulatory and media people are all kept separate, and as hard as you may try to put everyone around the same table, it often doesn’t happen. On the consultant side, discipline is also important here. You may understand the web inside out and be tempted to overlook the other stuff. Don’t do it.
  • Closely aligned to this is appreciation of the web consultant as a communications professional (my pride takes quite a hit sometimes on this…!) With some clients, it’s an ongoing struggle to remind them that online communications is primarily a strategic exercise, not a technical one. You have more in common with the business, regulatory, marketing and communications people than IT. All credit to IT, but they do something entirely different.
  • Then there’s the web doubters on the client side; people who aren’t quite sure of the value of online communications. Advocacy and media work have worked for years and are still relevant today, so why fix it if it ain’t broke? The fact is that the model is, if not broken, in need of an upgrade: old-school tactics are still relevant, but they need to be backed up. People are a lot more cynical, opinionated and engaged than ever before, and a well-executed online programme will help you cater to this part of the equation and in turn make your media work and advocacy more effective. As a consultant, what do you do about the doubters? You treat the sell as ongoing: you constantly have to re-explain the concepts, what you’re doing and why it will work. And most importantly, you need to identify your eChampions on the client side who strongly support what you’re trying to do and will mobilise on your behalf and join the challenge to win over the naysayers.
  • There’s the web doubters, but there’s also two types of know-it-alls that often present a challenge. First, the old-school communicators who treat the web as just another channel and simply transfer their understanding of the offline world to it. They think a website should look like a brochure; that a blog entry should be structured like a press release; or they’ll struggle with two-way nature of the web and simply use it as they would a megaphone. Second, there’s the (usually, but not always) junior communicator who has been handed responsibility for online comms because they like technology and are comfortable with it. What often arises in these cases is that they act as if they’ve got a new toy and spend lots of time setting up Facebook fan pages and tweaking things in Photoshop, but they’ll do nothing to help you reach your communications objectives. In fact, they may even be detrimental in that respect. What to do? As in the point above, the ongoing sell – or ongoing education even – becomes essential.

And a final point. The web is big and complex; it’s all happening so FAST; you need to keep track of the other channels AND try to keep up to date with the issues; and you need to deal with the points cited above – in particular the ongoing sell. To get it all right requires a lot of patience; and you’ll need to read a lot every day to stay on track. But it’s worth it in the end.

Agencies and the commodity temptation

The role of the communications agency in political hubs such as Brussels, London and Washington is crammed with potential for exciting work. Issues experts and communications specialists join forces to formulate strategies that help organisatons navigate a complex political landscape…. a landscape that may involve all sorts of players from the pesky blogger to the virulent politician picking up steam in the press, cross-border nuances and awkward political realities, the sudden PR calamity…

It’s a shame then that agencies often fall into the commodity trap, where the goal goes from helping a client reach their business and communications objectives to doing just enough to rack up billable hours. The toolbox – reading up on the latest developments from whatever relevant government department, media monitoring, basic content production, website maintenance, event logistics and so on – become the commodity.

Sure, the dirty work has to be done, and I understand the temptation: the long hours, the lacklustre client, the short-term targets all conspire to lure you into simply doing enough to meet the requirements.

The problem is that as a communicator, you don’t have the luxury of the lawyer or the chemist, who perform tasks which are second-nature to them but which no one would ever dream of replicating without the apposite credentials. Everyone thinks they’re a communicator, and unless you’re challenging clients by offering them added-value thinking, they’ll think they can do it themselves (or get someone else to do it more cheaply.)

So what do you do about it? There’s no trick: it’s all about frame of mind and thinking to yourself that you sell brainpower, not items in a toolbox. So once you’ve developed a strategy and it’s in execution mode, don’t let it go: track your client’s issues on an ongoing basis and constantly revisit your business goals -> communications objectives -> strategy -> tactics chart to ensure that you’re proactively offering them smart ideas that will help them meet their goals. It’ll keep them happy and no doubt help get you more business (and what’s more, it’s a lot more fun and challenging for you, the communicator.)

Explaining an issue from a target's perspective, not yours

scratching_headA problem that often arises when an expert needs to explain an issue to their target – be it a policy-maker, influencer or a member of the general public – is that the expert develops their approach from their own perspective, rather than that of the target. Policy-makers are asked to make decisions based on a ten-minute minute meeting, or more likely, ten-minute briefings based on research conducted in twenty minutes by their assistants, and yet experts come at them with key messages and the like thought up by a room-full of know-it-alls.

It’s far more effective to work backwards and start from the target’s perspective. Ask yourself, first, what are the basics that my target doesn’t understand, and second, what questions are they most likely to have. If you don’t know, conduct a poll amongst friends and colleagues who don’t know your issue and ask them what their layman’s perspective is. Only once you’ve dealt with that, start imparting your expertise.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t often happen in Brussels: it’s where the policy-buff and communicator conflict I often write about comes into play. At company, association and especially agency level, most of the people tasked with communicating an issue are into the policy bit – which is fine (and necessary) – but they’re not really into the communications bit. Result? In the end, output that is probably very good, but doesn’t do a jot to win over the target of their communications because it hasn’t explained the basics before veering into high-brow.

Image source.

Picking an agency

Parallel universe. I work for an organisation and I’m eager to enlist the help of an agency to help me communicate around the issues that matter to me in Brussels. I know that picking the right agency might help to ensure that the public, regulatory and media playing fields treat me fairly, but I want to make absolutely sure that I pick the agency that’s right for me.

What would I look out for?

  • An agency whose starting points are my business and/or communications objectives, not the size of its address book. 20 former Commission officials or MEP assistants on your staff? I don’t care. I’d rather you understand what I’m trying to achieve and set that as your starting point.
  • Is the agency committed to Key Performance Indicators (KPIs?) It must be, even though I wouldn’t expect them to be defined by the first meeting. The commitment matters though, because in an unconventional and unpredictable place like public-policy land it’s too easy just say “oh well, it was out of our control, what could we have done?” With a commitment to KPIs you show that you’re really keen to win campaigns, not just make money from them.
  • I’d want the people who I meet to be intellectually curious, and passionate about communications and politics. They have to be if they need to learn a new sector and a new organisation from scratch and do their job well. Plus they’d be more interesting to work with and more likely to pursue my account as an intellectual challenge rather than simply looking to tick boxes and send invoices.
  • Must be firm believers in integration: an agency should consider all tactics – be it advocacy, media work, online campaigning – equally important parts of the same parcel i.e. my organisation achieving its goals. It might be an expert in one area, but it should never think that area is more important than all others.
  • Sounds obvious, but I’d really want an agency to make an effort when I meet them. If it’s using regurgitated material, only tells me about existing client work or thinks it’s a shoe-in because of its reputation, I’d not be impressed.

Some questions I’d ask:

  • What are my key issues?
  • How would you approach them?
  • What would you do to really understand my issues?
  • What’s the work you’re most proud of?
  • Who would work on the account?

Dilemma: communicators don't get it and online consultants who aren't communicators

The web offers a wealth of opportunities to communicators. Greater engagement, communicating directly with stakeholders, better integration, clearer measurement, speed, cost-efficiency.

So what’s the problem?

One the one hand, traditional communicators don’t get the options. They often adopt an offline PR approach to the web: all about content production and having the right hook, but with little understanding of how the web works beyond being a publication tool. They ignore the importance of search and how people find information online, of how web users navigate a website, the value of hyperlinking and aggregating information from third parties, fostering interaction and perhaps most of all, using the web as a learning tool.

Then you have the other side of the coin. Web consultants who ignore the importance of content and building a story. They always start from a “web” perspective. They’ll dismiss a site because it does not follow best practice in navigation. They’ll say that a video is terrible without having even seen it because it hasn’t been embedded in the right way. They’ll say a hyperlink is awful because it’s too long rather than check what it leads to.

Clearly you need a balance of the two to be a good at online communications. Who fits the bill best? Usually young PR or marketing professionals who have grown up using the web and are very comfortable with technology. They get the content and message side and also get the web, but they see it as an end rather than a means.