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Agency CMO

Are senior marketeers beginning to shun jack of all trades agencies and go it alone?


By Dom Burch, managing director

February 2, 2016 | 6 min read

I've had a few conversations recently that suggest more and more senior marketeers are beginning to go it alone in pursuit of their true calling.

As a result a new kind of micro, bespoke agency is starting to emerge.

One in which a narrow specialism is nurtured and celebrated, and off topic work declined and referred to another similar minded contact in their informal network.

It comes at a time when clients too are calling into question the value of only having an all-singing, all-dancing full service agency.

In an increasingly fast paced environment, brands often need nimble specialists in certain areas. But typically bringing together that network on a project by project basis can be hard work for big businesses to manage.

The new breed of micro agencies, which appear to be popping up everywhere, are filling the gaps in between traditional 'full service' agencies.

They operate in a non-threatening way, enabling them to gain access to some of the biggest brands in the nation, in a seemingly effortless way.

Work is referred rather than won. Competitive pitches of old consigned to the memory banks.

Often these one, or two man/woman bands, have no ambitions to grow big by design, with founders who sign up to the principle that a rising tide floats all ships.

Money is merely the end result not the starting ambition or motivating factor.

Now, all of that said, it could just be I've been struck with a serious case of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.

The illusion in which something that has recently come to your attention suddenly seems to appear with improbable frequency shortly afterwards.

But I'm not so sure I am imagining things.

The large agencies we know and love today were often born out of one specialism or other, but grew into something very different as they turned their hands to interrelated disciplines in order to keep the money flowing in.

For some it means they've ended up operating at the fringes of their original expertise.

Winning new business becomes an industry in its own right. Pitching an art form that can hide the reality, and paper over mediocrity.

One senior MD of a fairly substantial PR firm admitted to me recently they often draft in a social media expert for instance to help win business at the pitch stage, then simply manage it all themselves once the new client has been onboarded.

By contrast a recently formed micro agency, I am Gaz, initially fronted by just Gaz himself but recently doubled in size, revealed how it is trying to carve out a very different proposition.

Its site describes how it offers 'Big-agency thinking & creativity, delivered by an experienced & agile one-man (now two) digital team'.

Having worked for large multi-service agencies themselves, they had grown tired of managing endless P&Ls and relentlessly trying to win new business rather than focusing on creative ideas and actually making or building things themselves.

They were at pains to say their approach isn't necessarily unique or brand new, but it highlights a growing trend for senior marketeers to get back in the saddle, working with fewer, bigger clients in a very lean way.

This new breed of old hands is more interested in working at the boardroom level, trouble shooting, giving frank consultancy in the truest form of the word, happy to say no.

They thrive by being part of an informal network of like-minded individuals, referring work to one another.

A sense that being brilliant at a few things is more important and rewarding, than being a jack of all trades.

A good example of a design agency that has successfully remained small whilst continuing to work with blue chip clients is Huddersfield-based Design Junkie.

Jason Haigh a graduate of Batley Art College, set up his boutique design agency in 2000. His first recruit, Jonny, a fellow Batley grad, is still part of the setup.

Jason remains hands on, meeting clients, taking verbal briefs and of course designing creative work.

"I'm one of the lucky people who get to do what they love every day. 16 years after launching Design Junkie, I still get a buzz from the creative projects we get to work on," he says.

"I've still got loads of ideas, I love exploring new areas like digital media, but I will always stick to the principles of simple, ethical and effective design."

I remember talking to Jason 15 years ago when I was introduced to him via my boss at Green Flag and asking him what he planned to do with his then fledgling agency.

Even back then he was really clear he didn't want to grow large for the sake of it. "I don't want to manage lots of people, I want to be a designer first and foremost."

I've worked with him ever since.

The MD of another marketing agency I spoke to has a similar perspective, relying on referred business rather than employing a sales team and multiple account handlers.

"We find it is far easier to sell a second product, concept or idea to someone you already know, than it is to respond to an 18 page RFP.

"Pitching for new business typically has an extremely low win rate for all participants, so it quickly becomes a numbers game."

Being true to what you're really good at is key, and having the ability to blend in with incumbent bigger agencies without them feeling threatened.

But I wonder whether the shift is more profound.

The economy more generally is shifting towards a model of smaller boutique agencies and consultants that slot together seamlessly for moments of time, offering much deeper value.

Before going on their way to the next project.

It could just be self-fulfilling prophecy on my part. Time will tell.

Follow Dom on Twitter @domburch

Agency CMO

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