Why Small and Smart is the New Advertising Agency Model


Would you invest and start an advertising agency today?

I don’t think many people would.  There must be an easier way to make money and earn a living.

If you are crazy and wanted to do it, what type of agency would you start?

Today I  believe that a Small Smart Model is the way.

I am lucky to have experienced the advertising world from two perspectives. I worked at great agencies such as DDB and JWT and others and pitched and won a lot of business.

I have been fortunate that I have also had the experience of conducting agency searches for a number of companies including Jenny Craig, Villeroy & Boch, and Raley’s Supermarkets.  I have seen a lot of agencies present and I have seen what is compelling. I am not saying that Small Smart will win all the time but they will certainly win their fair share and create a great reputation even if they don’t win.

Small Smart starts with a core team of 3 to 5 key people.  These are senior people directly involved on the client’s business.  Today one must be a strong digital strategist.  I would then support the ebbs and flows of business with a strong team of freelancers and virtual contract employees. Clients are more accepting of freelancers these days.  The talent pool is robust.

Many clients today are still tentative and adverse to large retainer arrangements. They prefer to work on a project basis.  For agencies this can mean an unpredictable revenue stream battling a predictable expense drain.

The real results of Small Smart are in the pitch room.  If you see a presentation from a smart set of people at an agency who worked hard for the pitch it is very compelling. It is certainly more believable that they will continue to work on your business.

Next you need to figure what your agency is going to be smart about.  Many agencies that I encountered often attempt to differentiate on what they can’t own or what is stale and old.  “We are all about the ROI.”  “We will work hard on your business.”

I don’t think you have to over think it.  Find a vision that you are excited and passionate about and then own it.  This could be green, action sports, women, coop specialist, sports, luxury products, transportation, high tech, healthcare, Boomers, Millennials, agriculture, retail.  Stake your ground and then own it.  This will mean you will have to painfully pass on New Business opportunities.

Once you have your positioning, you then have to get the word out.  You have to market yourself and your point of difference. Word of mouth to your industry friends doesn’t really cut it.  Unfortunately most agencies are poor at marketing themselves because they won’t spend the money to market themselves.  They languish.

To succeed you need to hire some smart freelancers to get this done.  You need a good PR person, a good social outside social media person.  If you have a strong inside social media person you will put them on billable client business and promoting the agency just won’t happen.  The lie that you will do it won’t go away but the ongoing activity won’t materialize.

If you get into a New Business pitch you will abandon your agency’s promotional efforts if you are doing it on your own.

You need to have a strong presence with thought leadership on Google through ongoing press releases to provide validation when prospects search for you.  You need to embrace social media and not be a poser.

The challenge with getting the word out is limited band width when the principals are in the business and running the business.  Time is scarce.  That’s why you can’t go it alone.

So that’s it.  Be small, be smart and invest in your beliefs so your voice will be amplified.

For more, Connect on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook & YouTube!


Watch his video on YouTube on How to Rise Above the Crowd.


16 thoughts on “Why Small and Smart is the New Advertising Agency Model

  1. Great article Hank and your timing couldn’t be better as this is what I’ve been meaning to ask you about. Ours is a small digital agency with great creative capabilities, technology and strategy but self-promotion has been a tough sled for us because we’ve been trying to do it all.

    Thank you!

  2. I laughed, I cried, and overall I completely related to this article.

    We are just undergoing an internal rebranding effort and have most of the points in your article crossed off. I say most, because we haven’t been able to stomach, the “Stake your ground and then own it” because of the “painfully pass on new business” point. But hey, we are working ourselves up to it.

    We’re Inovat, a small & mighty digital agency.

  3. Terrific points, Hank! I agree that Small and Smart is the way to go. I also think many small agencies underestimate the power of using freelancers. The trick is to hire people who freelance because they prefer that lifestyle, not because they’re between jobs. Committed freelancers will be there for the agency today and tomorrow — and that goes for marketing and PR people as well as creatives.

  4. We talked about this when you were at my management roundtable in Scottsdale last fall. As you know, I beleive, as you do, that agencies are going to be smaller and smarter. The key to working with clients today is a complete knowledge of their business and how it operates. The best work comes from solving their business problems, not just their marketing problems.

    • Dave –

      Agree. We are a business development and communications firm measured daily re: our ability to bring business-building ideas to our client’s businesses. We succeed because of our depth of understanding and our willingness to bring that understanding to all elements of the business. Often, that is not advertising.

  5. Hank as always good stuff. I can’t tell you how important it is to draw a line in the sand and stand for something. Once you’re a niche player clients start seeking you out. One of the best moves we ever made a few years back.

  6. Hank, great article. Was just listening to a Second Wind new biz webinar and Tony Mikes mentioned “small & smart.” For about 10 years I’ve been doing this approach w/only myself as owner/employee with a team of independents, but am contemplating ADDING the other 2-4 team members. You mentioned having a digital strategist – can you comment on the ideal backgrounds or job roles the other core team members would have?

  7. Great article Henry–That’s what we did 8 years ago…to a “T” as you described. Today and through the recession we’re better for it. We call it “Wise-Sized™ “. While great advice–I hope, competitively speaking others don’t do it because it’s what make us distinctive.

    Great piece,once again

  8. Joseph Matos

    Hank, what can I say you hit every mark. Coming from the large agencies back home in NYC, I relate to both the large and small of it all. Thanks for putting it out there. All the best.

  9. Good article. Your points hold true for PR, where Small and Smart can succeed. I started my PR agency 10 years ago, and even though there will always be clients who select big agencies, I’ve found found that a growing number of clients are open to Small and Smart PR/social media agencies.

  10. I value your thoughts, Hank. And like the small/smart assessment and endorsement.

    But small/start isn’t the ‘way to go’. It’s just another way of going: the way you have to go if you’re starting up.

    Clients always say they want fresh, non-formulaic, left-field agency thinking. And they do. But mostly in terms of giving their existing marketing a bit of shake-up. A “let’s see what these guys can come up with” attitude.

    And sure they might commission a small/smart agency (they don’t have to be start-ups) but they’ll never trust them enough to give them all their business.

    Not getting fired for buying IBM is a sad business cliche (there aren’t any French ‘accents’ available in this response box!) but one that still holds true for many bigger clients — especially where the increasing influence of procurement is gaining ground.


    But market ourselves better, as you rightly say, we must!

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