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Big vs. Small - which ad agency should you pick?

This is the simplistic theory of an industry that lives and thrives on simplification (of products, of brands): if your agency is small you are creative, your ideas sparkle like diamonds, you are so hot it hurts.

If your agency is gargantuan, you are a slovenly dinosaur, Godzilla Incorporated, a coldbed of creativity, so entangled in red tape that it would make any bondage fan faint with arousal.

Small agencies (creative consultants, boutiques, farms factories, brand doctors, idea-circuses, thought-spunkers, whatever they're called) have progressive philosophies. Large agencies have a financial plan. Small agencies pay respect to their staff (i.e. team members). Large agencies pay huge wages to keep their staff (i.e. employees).

Small agencies work with the client - only together can they make the brand strong. Large agencies have account people to keep the client at arms length - don't let them interfere in the advertising process.

So on, so forth.

But there are enough exceptions to disprove this child-theory.

TBWA GGT etc (I think there are more initials in their alphabetic soup of a name) have hundreds of people crammed into their London offices. Yet, they produce some highly creative and imaginative work (Playstation, fcuk) against the odds of a supposedly unmanageable size. The same can be said for Abbot Mead Vickers - take Guinness for example or the monster BMP DDB Needham - they produce the freshest work in the guise of Volkswagen.

Then, the flip side. The relatively small in comparison creative shit-hot-shop agency called St. Lukes in London has an envious philosophy that would make any creative worth her salt pay money to work there. Yet, their work is often embarrassingly bad (I would give examples but am unable to remember any - only their excellent Ikea campaigns manage to deliver). Somehow the self-proclaimed beautiful strategies get drowned; perhaps the result of too many planning meetings or team-building get togethers or too much reverence to 'our friend the client.' The outcome is bland, the antithesis of all that was promised.

Even Mother, London's baby-genius, can, perversely, be said to suffer because of its size. Highly fashionable, it doesn't manage to permeate the mainstream with creative work, and gathers a reputation by working for relatively small clients within the safe confines of a Face-reading target market. Mother works on a planet where over-design masks under-ideas.

Large agencies tend to surprise more by breaking beyond their heavy bulk to produce good ideas, even when they're burdened with briefs that seek global campaigns. When they pull it off, they are producing far more creative work than a small agency which has its sticky paws on a small dotcom client or micro-brewery. Small agencies get the juicy sub-brands where mistakes can be afforded. Larger agencies have to sweat with the main important brands. Real creativity is pulling off a fresh idea for a generic household product, not wacky ideas for a local bagel shop chain.

However, despite this inescapably obvious fact, big agencies believe the hype.

We can see large agencies panic in the face of all these youthful start-ups and desperately grow their own volcanic acne by opening up things called Creative Pods within their own networks. These are small cells protected against the big bad bureaucracy of the actual agency. The cells contain comfier sofas, funkier lighting and idea-rooms for clients. Cross through the door to the other side into the real agency, and you'll be back in the drab uniformity of greying filing cabinets and dusty vertical blinds.

What does this say, this invention of supposedly zesty mini-structures within the rusty infrastructure of the whole agency? Is it an admittance that their working methods are a mess? Would it not be better to invest the money in finding new ways to make their size more fluid, rather than avoiding the problem by dripping the essence of their creativity into a shielded shop?

Isn't it more valuable to think about restructuring the whole rather than disintegrating the parts? It's compartmentalising rather than bringing together. The future surely = disenfranchised disillusioned employees.

(And don't they know? The pod will doubtless break away once the fruits of their labour start to sprout. Soon they will become their own start up without the huge shadow of the big agency interfering all the time. This, of course, has its own problems as the new creative pod will get to fully develop its own highly original philosophy and meet agencies like St.Lukes on Up Your Own Arse Avenue.)

And what about seeking work? Big v. small, what should you choose? Smaller agencies promise freedom, but as often as not, weigh you down with their good intentions. Your way of thinking could become diluted by joining their cult.

Larger agencies, through the anonymity of the size, can offer more opportunities to mess about and make mistakes. If the larger agency has an editing suite tucked away in their basement, or access to all the computer programmes you dreamed of, or a couple of dv cameras knocking about, you can experiment without making so much as a dent in their revenue. A smaller agency may not have the resources to give you a chance to play.

The good larger agencies, if you fight for it, will see no harm in throwing you the moist rump steak of a top tv brief, whereas the smaller agency, despite their reputation for risks, might find that a radio commercial 6 months down the line is a difficult thing to hand to you. The best choice is to try both and see where it clicks. Many hate the Mafia like intimacy of small agencies, preferring the social web of larger outfits.

This rant doesn't really have an end. Only to say, I know where I would rather work. Please end the rant for me, by posting your agreements or otherwise:-

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