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What’s behind the rise of the micro-agency?

By Roland Gurney, Founder

treacle

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April 12, 2023 | 9 min read

Roland Gurney, founder of agency-positioning specialist shop Treacle charts the rise of tiny agency outfits, winning bigger pieces of work and keeping the big players on their toes.

A tiny model village

Micro-agencies: threat to the big players, or benign improvers of the adland landscape? / Phil Hearing via Unsplash

The big agencies win the big brands, right?

Sure, most big-name clients go with big-name agencies. Like tends to attract like, and big players have the procurement teams to do the requisite dance. But it’s not an absolute truth.

More and more large brands are having their heads turned by smaller shops without the bulk and bureaucracy. Rather than relying on the same five faces in every pitch, some brands are actively seeking out leaner agencies: wildcards, weird little outfits, creative collectives, and remote-working crews who offer something different.

What micro-agencies lack in size they make up for in fight

Untraditional company hierarchies and processes mean these micro-agencies can reach new and unexplored places faster and with less fucking about. Their operations tend to exist around a core team of leaders – smart people who got pissed off with the agencies they previously worked at. Around them is a little black book of perma-lancers and contractors with specialist skills; go-to crews of people they can call on for specific projects. Then there are the freelancers dropping in ad-hoc, bringing particular skill sets.

As Tanja Brockmeyer, who runs It’s a Vibe, a one-person operation with a global sports retailer on the books, said: “I connect big companies with freelance or contractor talent who would not be accessible via an agency. It's 100% based on the reputation I have built among large clients as well as creative experts. I interrogate the brief, assemble the right experts, and then PM the projects to ensure both sides get the best out of each other.”

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New models offer new ways to tap into top talent

This tends to be where micro-agencies win, leaving the global brand direction to the big hitters with decks of large-fonted insights and Helvetica straplines. Many micro-agencies offer just one single specialism from the array of things a full-service agency offers. Positioning by niche helps brands see you as an expert in the specific thing they need.

Before Covid, clients often wanted to see shiny agency offices, packed with ping pong tables and beer taps. That was what agencies wrongly considered ‘culture’. But since the apocalypse, with everyone working from their spare room, clients are less impressed with having to commute for a meeting. The playing field was leveled; agencies at the bottom of the size chart got a leg up. Nobody cared where or how you worked if the relationship worked. This is where micro-agencies have an edge.

Brands enjoy working closely with senior leaders

With smaller agencies, there’s a sense of real-world collaboration that’s hard to replicate at scale. It’s often easier for a micro-agency to become embedded in the brand at a deeper level, with easier access and more agility. While trying to navigate the new normal, micro-agencies became invaluable plug-in resources, capable of smart ideas at speed.

Matt Scaysbrook, founder of conversion rate optimization specialists WeTeachCRO won a sizeable piece of work with Nando’s. He said: “We had a personal contact in a senior position which definitely helped, but honestly I think it was our willingness to demonstrate first-hand what working alongside us would be like, via a trial test. Our work is very collaborative meaning that we talk to most of our clients most days, so forming powerful working relationships is key.”

The closeness of working relationships is the key appeal

With micro-agencies, big brands get unmitigated access to a small team of senior people, with no bait-and-switch to a junior team. This plays well in pitches, creating a David v Goliath narrative, making micro-agencies an exciting proposition.

Steve Cross, director of Studio CO2, recounts how they won a large program of work with Logitech: “Our pitch is simple: You could be working with an agency of over 200 people, but how many are actually working on your project? Probably 5 or 6, with 10 others just talking about it. We have a team of 20 people actually on the tools, making things happen.”

Bigger agencies shouldn’t fear micro-agencies…

Many micro-agencies partner with bigger agencies, plugging in when needed in either a white-label or partnership model. While they’re well-positioned to win tactical and executional pieces of work, they’re unlikely to be in huge pitches for huge global oversight projects. If anything, their role is to keep pushing the envelope and to challenge the agencies above them, keeping them sharp, responsive, and agile.

For example, Matthew Ford, director and chief technology officer of Bitzesty, went through a tendering process to eventually win work with HMRC. “We put in the most effort into the tender to really understand what was needed,” he says. “Others, I suspect, said they need to do a one to two-month discovery or something similar, we did more research upfront. The project had very tight hard deadlines, and we were more agile. We also put our best people on the project, we didn't bait and switch.”

… But they can represent a risk for big brands

Micro-agencies run lean with a small cash runway; most have the capacity to shrink down if the world turns to shit again. There’s the risk that the work ends up too small in its conception and creation, but micro-players have normally sharpened their skills as part of big programs of work, so they know the levels expected.

Micro-agencies are often formed around just a few people who drive the whole thing. People, being people, are inherently risky. But then most agencies operate around a nucleus of senior leaders; they just have more people to step in if needed.

More evolution than revolution

Smaller, leaner challenger agencies have always existed, but in this post-pandemic era they’re more viable and visible for big brands. Will they replace the massive agencies and their stellar rosters? It’s highly unlikely. Instead, micro-agencies will continue to inhabit new and exciting corners of the creative, digital, and brand worlds. They’ll continue to keep the big players on their toes, and the big brands interested.

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We're Treacle; agency proposition specialists. Because there are tons of soundalike agencies out there. Everyone's saying the same old things. So you see, if you're...

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