Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Bigger Isn’t Better, It’s Just More Expensive

As a one-person design firm, I have always been content with my decision to be a solo practitioner. Especially in recent years, the opportunity to collaborate and create fluid creative teams has increased, making bidding on larger and more complex projects a lot more feasible. However, there has been a lag between the expanded capabilities of independent contractors, and how these are perceived by some clients. Many of us have been unfavorably compared to large agencies due to assumptions about their supposed greater benefits.

Big agencies have historically cultivated images of greater power, sophistication and resources. They also have the ability to convey a sense of status seldom associated with small firms. I think respect for independents is on the rise because more and more clients are starting to realize the following:

Big agencies prefer big clients. The status thing works in both directions. If you’re not the client bringing in the most revenue, that can have an effect on how your project is prioritized. As more and more professionals start their own ventures, those that don’t fit the ideal client model of the big firms may not register on their radar. The good news is, there are also increasing numbers of excellent small firms who provide agency-level work.

Big agencies charge more to cover their higher costs. Large staffs have to be paid regularly. They also have to be housed in large offices with all the necessary support. Maintaining a large firm with a massive overhead is a monster that has to be fed constantly. That creative director you’re meeting with? He may make $100/hour or more, but you’re paying his firm upwards of $300/hour just to sit in the same room.  And he probably won’t be doing your work – that will be done by a junior or mid-level designer who makes a fraction of the CD’s salary.

Big agencies hand off work to junior associates. Usually, senior management focuses on developing new business. Once clients are landed, they often get shuttled to junior associates. This can happen anywhere, but the larger the firm, the more prevalent the practice can be. At a smaller agency, the person you signed with will typically be the person who works on your project and will nearly always be responsible for your project and with whom you will work.

Big agencies are less nimble. Large staffs also mean that you will have layers of management to deal with that don’t exist in a smaller firm. Because of their scale, large firms tend to be less agile than smaller ones. This can be a problem with the ever-increasing rate of change in the business world. Fewer people mean less bureaucracy and more flexibility.

Big agencies can no longer claim a technology advantage. The competitive advantage big agencies once had in research has been eclipsed by online tools available to firms of any size. Technology has made the monopoly big firms used to have on these resources a thing of the past. 

The use of big agencies is being questioned in many quarters for good reason. Responsiveness, flexibility, working with a senior creative, less management, way lower overhead (with resulting lower fees) and a level technology playing field mean that you have a lot more options than before. Obsolete assumptions can be expensive. 

When it’s time for your next design project, go small.


  1. Boy I hope some potential clients who've been circling the larger agencies read this!

    I'm wondering if the age of the super-agency is sort of like the age of the supermodel: dwindling. Let's hope so.

    Good article, Laurel.

  2. Hi Steve -
    Thanks for stopping by! I'm glad you found this post of interest. Please feel free to use any of it that will help when you want to market to clients who have drunk the Big-Agency kool-aid. And now let's raise a glass of Red Bull in sympathy for those who will miss supermodels.