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How can your small agency compete with the big boys?

You’re the new agency in a town with a few of the big firms. Your team is young, hip, and talented … but how can you convince clients to give you a chance when there are already established agencies who have that guaranteed “safe bet”?

Small agencies can definitely compete with the big brands, and the great thing is - you don’t have to wait for permission to play in the sandbox. Here’s how you can get out there and celebrate what makes a small agency awesome.

Advantages of a Small Agency

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It’s important to understand the benefits to the client of using a small agency over the big guys. These factors are great to keep in mind when you meet with potential clients.

  • The Client is always dealing with the principals: They aren’t being shuffled through a never-ending ladder of relationship managers, accounts managers, account assistants, junior partners and “director-of-this-and-thats”. In a small agency - especially on the large accounts - the client is dealing directly with the decision-makers and the creative team. For them this is a huge bonus, as they feel more comfortable with this tight-knit relationship.
  • You’re Fast. Sometimes that’s all a client needs. Because your team is smaller and your process is more streamlined, you can finish a project in a fraction of the time of a major agency - without sacrificing quality. Being able to turn things around quickly is a huge selling point for smaller agencies.
  • You’re flexible. At a big agency, the majority of staff are production-side; they’re in the studio or managing the studio. But at a smaller agency, there’s a lot more flexibility with staffing. You don’t have to staff an entire project in-house - you can hire contractors. This means you can take on projects outside of your scope by compiling a flexible team of experts on the fly. This flexibility also extends into other areas - for example, you can have employees work virtually, and expand your reach into other geographical areas without the need for a physical studio space.
  • You’re nimble with technology. While big agencies are often like huge, plodding dinosaurs when it comes to trying new things and adopting new technologies, small agencies can quickly pounce on new concepts. It’s the small agencies who are leading the way in areas like mobile design and animation, because they’re able to experiment and try new things.
  • You’re cheaper. This doesn’t mean you’re cheap or that you don’t produce quality. It simply means that because you’re smaller, you employ less people, you have less overheads, and this is reflected in your price. And for many clients, the price is going to be the deciding factor.
  • You’re awesome. This clever Forbes article points to Dunbar’s number as an identifier of small agencies. Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can achieve stable social relationships. That number is 150. Bearing in mind that each people also has friends and family outside work, Forbes suggests that a small agency of 100 or less is ideal: why? Because that agency maintains a potent culture. It’s friendly, it’s fun, it’s energetic. That rubs off on clients.

Small Agency Client Acquisition

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Now that you understand why your small agency is awesome, let’s move on to how to get the awesomeness across to your clients. Here are a few ideas on how small agencies can market themselves and compete with the big guys.

Choose a Niche: Many smaller agencies find success through dominating a niche, whether that be a platform (such as mobile or TV), a style (modernist or vintage), a type of work (design, branding) or an industry (dentists, retail, restaurants). One such small agency is ReviveHealth, a PR agency specialising in “Health services, health technology and healthy living.” ReviveHealth live their band, taking their staff on healthy retreats and offering a suite of health benefits. With a niche, you can focus your attention on dominating a specific market, and it will be easier to win larger clients in your niche if you can demonstrate your expertise in their area.

Local Networking: Don’t underestimate the amount of business you can acquire in your local town. As a smaller agency, you’re instantly more approachable to the SME’s who often attend networking events than the big guys. Join networking groups like your local chamber of commerce, BNI, or Venus Group, and attend their meetings, mixers, jams and business events. We’ve got some great advice on networking for small agencies here.

Join Forces: One great way to leverage networking relationships and get one-up on the big guys is to join forces with other agencies and firms to offer the same range of services as a major agency, but without the big price tag. If you’re a graphic design firm, for example, you could partner with a strategic content agency to create monthly content packages (text and images) for clients. Your clients get a great package and both your firms get steady monthly work.

Sell the big fish: the client is a big fish in a small sea. They’ll be getting personal attention from the agency directors, especially if they’re a big account. This is a huge advantage for the client, who loves feeling like the agency is simply an extension of their company.

Pitch for the jobs: When a call goes out, don’t take one look at the high-profile company and think, “Oh, we’ll never get that.” You don’t know til you try. Big brands choose small agencies all the time if they feel they’re a great fit for a project. Never say never to a pitch - if the opportunity comes up and you know your agency would be a good fit, then go for it!

Hire the top people: Creative talent are drawn to small agencies, because they have more freedom to experiment and take ownership of exciting projects. Focus on building and retaining a top creative team, and build that team through constant development. A top creative team will practically market itself.

Brand as experts: If a client sees you as THE person to call, then they’re not even going to LOOK at another agency before signing up with you. If you’re seen as an expert in your industry, people will flock to your agency because they see you as someone who has the answers, and someone who can be trusted. So how do you brand yourself or your agency staff as an expert? Publishing articles, appearing on radio and TV, writing for well-known blogs in the industry, and speaking at events will show people that you are a thought-leader in the agency space.

Sometimes it can seem as if small agencies don’t get any of the breaks. The big guys swoop in and get all of the kudos and all of the high profile clients. But small agencies offer several advantages to clients, and with a little ingenuity and creativity (two things they’re famous for), small agencies can compete against the big boys.

How do you market your small agency? How do you win the top clients?