For years big agencies have tried to swallow the branding-advertising-marketing world whole (although the effort to bite off too much can cause them to choke on their deals, as with this year’s abandoned Omnicom-Publicis merger). Nonetheless, as the big get bigger, less-than-global agencies are successfully competing even with the largest firms – but not exactly by following in the behemoths’ footsteps.
Branding Magazine interviewed three branding/marketing firms in the U.S. and Europe – each with just an office or two (or no physical office at all) – to learn what it takes for a smaller agency to succeed in the ever-more-global competitive set. While each firm is unique in its experience, five areas of commonality emerged from our probing:

1.  Do have a real point of differentiation

“Differentiation makes all the difference” should be a truism for all branding firms, but many don’t take the time to clearly formulate and articulate their own points of meaningful difference. Scott Markman, President of The Monogram Group in Chicago (with satellites in Shanghai and Charlotte), says it’s about “owning something of differentiation that is of value, and being able to say ‘You’re Interbrand, but…’ and our China expertise and focus is that ‘but’….” He went on to add, “With Goldwind…our biggest client to-date – and from China – I know that we won because we have this unique expertise in branding Chinese firms for the Western market. That profound differentiator is what won.”

Alyssa Riedel, a partner at Riedel Strategy in Newport Beach, California, notes that her branding firm also differentiates by focus – not on region, but industry:  “We are dedicated exclusively to the financial services industry. We understand the details and nuances that only true natives can appreciate. Wrap that all up in an agile, time- and cost-efficient business model and you have something no one else is offering, but which the industry desperately needs.”

2. Do be more agile and responsive

Agencies and clients alike are discovering that, just as in software development before, agile can pay big dividends in marketing – and smaller, leaner branding and marketing firms are by their nature better able to operate in an agile marketing mode.

Mark van Egmond, Board Member at VBAT, based in the Netherlands, notes, “Scale and network facilities ‘under one roof’ are no longer essentials to be a relevant agency in the global playing field. Our experience is that agility and responsiveness has become a more important asset for international clients. I believe that this is where agencies like VBAT have an increased added value. For VBAT, this is a proven fact:  We are currently active for our clients in over 20 markets, managed from our two offices in Amsterdam and Mexico City.”

Barnaby Riedel, another partner at Riedel Strategy, says, “We’ve purposefully structured our agency to be nimble and agile. Because of that we have said goodbye to brick and mortar and stagnant teams that collect paychecks simply for sitting in their seats. All of our clients work directly with our principals and get custom scrum teams best suited to their needs. This is great for the client in terms of efficiency of time and money. However, it requires a willingness to think innovatively”

SEE ALSO: A Question of Space:  The Next Challenge for Brands?

3. Do think bigger about existing contacts

Well-nurtured relationships may be the most traditional (and powerful) conduit to new business, and today’s small agencies are thinking bigger about what opportunities those contacts might yield.

Harold Woodridge, another partner at The Monogram Group, described the role of relationships in their Chicago-based, 12-person agency’s development as a very particular type of China expert:  “It started [in 2004] with a lunch with a former client. She hired us twice, and was working for a global company. She’s somebody we respect quite a bit, so we asked, her ‘What’s the next big thing? You see trends out there… what should we be paying attention to?’ And she said – and I don’t think she even took a breath before it came out of her mouth – that we should be paying attention to Chinese brands that want to come here, as opposed to at the time, and still to this day, American agencies going to China to try and service the Asian market.”

For VBAT, then with a single office in Amsterdam, the relationship with Netherlands-based Heineken would expand their branding business to Latin America. Egmond says, “The beginning of VBAT’s presence in the Mexican market was our involvement with rebranding Cerveceria Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma [a brewery] acquired by the Heineken Company in 2010. Besides continuing our activities for the product portfolio of the brewery, for example Sol Beer, we have been able to expand our business to other major Mexican brands. We have recently launched a new corporate identity for Telecomunicaciones de México. Our expectation is that the Mexican office will help us expand our business further into the Latin American region.”

4. Do choose your clients wisely

Particularly when a smaller agency is starting out, or struggling to grow, there may be a temptation to view any client as a good client. But the successful agency heads we talked to had this counsel:  Be selective. The Monogram Group looks for clients inclined to consider the value of their offering versus their size. In Markman’s words, “There are certain clients who are going to buy into our value proposition – which is high experience, high skill – regardless to some degree of our size. And they’re the kind that buy the experience and the brains of the partners and the senior staff (and fact that we charge noticeably less than the global firms).”

Riedel Strategy purposefully launched with specific “client criteria.” As the partners put it, “We simply do not have the manpower to be all things to all people. We solve this problem by being extremely selective about the clients we partner with. Because we know our work is only as good as the clients allow it to be, we look for partners with the following three characteristics:

  • They must be good people doing good things in the world. We don’t have the time, energy or drive to work with companies we don’t believe in and can’t get behind.
  • We have to genuinely like the people we partner with. Our client relationships run deep and we find we do the best work when we’re pleasing people we respect and enjoy being around.
  • They must be willing to strive for excellent creative that breaks the mold. Mediocre creative gets mediocre results and that would be the death of our business. We work with clients that accept only the best and we get great results because of it.”

SEE ALSO: Rebuilding that Emotional Connection with Your Consumers

5.  Don’t worry about the size of your competition

Interestingly, none of the agencies interviewed was the least bit phased about going up against what Markman refers to as “the global bad boys” of branding – often feeling that smaller agencies hold the advantage over big firms in today’s environment.  Egmond of VBAT (which, unlike the others, is a subsidiary of a larger firm, WPP) put it most bluntly, “For VBAT, it is not relevant to think of how to compete against larger competitive agencies, but to put energy into providing the best possible solution for the client.”

And for their part, the Riedel team seems to relish going up against “blue chip” firms, and offered this very recent David versus Goliath example:  “We recently pitched a large asset management firm in New York (over $100B in assets under management) and we competed against a number of companies. In the end, we were on a short list of three (one being a global brand everyone knows and respects and another being a reputable mid-size firm).

When we pitched the business we knew that our specialization in financial services and the social sciences would be keys to the success of the project. While we stated our value and why we thought we’d be best for the business, we focused on providing the client with good questions to ask our competitors during their pitches… When our competitors were asked our questions, the room filled with silence or awkward attempts to fill the space with words that didn’t mean much (this is of course second hand information shared with us by the client). Ultimately, we won the business because our expertise in financial services and social sciences was unmatched… Size can’t compete with mastery.”

What’s your big advantage?

In today’s global marketplace, small can obviously have big advantages. If you run a less-than-global branding firm, please share below what provides the key competitive advantages for your organization.

Image: Trey Ratcliff