David Vs Goliath – why smaller agencies can beat big agencies

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Last month Impero won The Agency of the Year award at The Drum’s own DADI Awards. What made the award all the more remarkable for us as an independent agency of 35 people is that we shared the title with another winner: the massive global management consultancy Accenture.

With the agency game been so dominated by the big groups, and now the super-consultancies staking out their own claim in the space, some have questioned whether independent agencies like Impero can continue to compete. Turns out we can. And turns out we’re pretty good at it.

Like any business, running an agency is nothing short of ridiculous amounts of hard work for founders, managers and everyone involved, it’s sometime easy to forget to take a note of the things that you are getting right. So here are a few thoughts on what I think agencies like my own can do to go up against the big guys and win.

Know who you are with a clear proposition

The worst thing in the world you can be is a small version of a “big agency”. That’s a pointless entity. You have to be different. You have to be able to explain exactly what you’ll bring to the table for your clients. Spend time defining what it is you’re good at and what you want to do (you’ll find they’re the exact same thing in most cases). As brand marketers we tell our brands to not be all things to all people – so take your own advice. Big agencies try and tell their clients they’re good at everything, which has more to do with P&L targets than ability. Don’t make the mistake of being a small version of that, because you will lose.

We know what we’re good at. We work with brands that are tired and need younger consumers to grow. We’re one of the best agencies in the world at doing just that, because we only do that. Why would we ever want to do anything else?

Play to your strengths, not theirs

Big agencies can afford big glass buildings and fancy meeting rooms. That’s their strengths, yours is your ability to be better. Better in every sense. E.g. the current nonsense and excuse making by the big groups and their failure to sort out the gender equality in our industry is one thing, but it’s even more shameful in an independent shop, because you are in full control of your business.

We’re 66% female, four of our seven departments are led by women, and our senior management team is over half female. We have a 0% gender pay gap. Our strength is our ability to cut the BS and do what’s right to build the best agency team. That’s our strength, so we play to it.

Be present

Despite the agency being nine years old, in 2017 we decided to ramp up our own PR for the very first time, resulting in over 380 pieces of coverage from September 2017 – August 2018. We’ve also taken up opportunities play a bigger part in our wider industry by through speaking at events such as The Festival of Marketing and the likes both here and in Europe. As well as hosting our own events in partnership with UNILAD, the Guardian, Domino’s Pizza, and Metro.co.uk.

On top of this, for the first time ever we took the awards circuit seriously – and we won. 3 Agency of the year, and plenty of awards for our work. I’ll be honest, we figured this out much later than we should have. Here’s hoping you don’t. Our Drum DADI experience is proof that judging panels are blind to the size and nature of the agency or organisation behind an award entry. Long may that continue.

Let your people speak

Expertise is found in individuals, rather than organisations. Make sure the experts inside your agency are given the opportunity to share their knowledge and insight.

You’ll find all of my team writing articles speaking at events and giving their own opinions feely – that’s why they work here, they have an opinion on how to do things better.

Team is everything

In the end, of course, all this is useless without the right team of people. Impero’s team (the Imperians) are a hard-working, dog-loving, smart bunch. They’re a little weird, and wonderful. The employees are truly reflective of the company itself – without them, nothing would be possible. So treat ‘em right.

The big guys may be big, that’s their strength, let them play to it – find yours and play to it, and you should do ok.

Michael Scantlebury is the founder and creative director of Impero

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