Today’s increasing fluidity of brand models and marketing expectations means the agency model itself has become fragmented, with pros and cons associated with each structural variation.  The result?  A fluid and dynamic new agency genre which gives ‘the Big Four’ a run for their money.

It’s unusual to pick-up a marketing or any lifestyle publication at the moment, without reading about the need for flexible working, equality in the workplace, the value of remote working, or ‘burn-out’. Whilst initially framed as a challenge for brands posed by Millennials, this mentality now permeates every level of business with varying industry responses. It stands to reason then that the service agency space has also been impacted, developing its own fragmented response.  

Chris Sutcliffe’s article for the Drum in January, neatly highlighted the growing complexities of the agency model in the face of brand and agency transformation.  Essentially, marketers today have a choice: 1/ to take their creativity in-house (not every brand has Google or Apple talent, so this comes with limitations), 2/ to go with the ‘Big Four’ and access a spectacular 360 service offering through various sister agencies (complete with the politics, cost structures and respective pros and cons along the lines of continuity, creativity and service management), 3/ to focus on niche agencies which are expert in their respective disciplines but which are also feeling the pressure to offer more thus diluting their expertise (or requiring increased resource around management, often resulting in overlaps, less consistency and thus less impact), or 4/, there’s the option to turn to an emerging breed of innovative smaller agency collectives.

In the past, a certain client-side reticence circled small agencies and ‘one-man bands’ – if they weren’t backed by a ‘big agency label’, how could they possibly be any good, or even pass the procurement test?  

In the current climate, marketers and procurement departments are wising-up to the fact that it’s often extremely competent and innovative people leaving the big agencies to ‘go smaller’ or ‘go it alone’.  Starling Bank is one of the latest brands in profile opting for smaller agencies with regard to its advertising pitch list.  L.E.K. Consulting and Liberty Specialty Markets are a couple more examples.  There are a few. 

In fact, the increasing mass exodus of agency pro’s frustrated with the big agency model, is proving a catalyst for what could be described as the true ‘next gen’ agency.  Innovators and collaborators are forming partnerships with one another as proven, trusted extensions of their own offerings, providing a hand-selected network of multi-disciplinary expertise to rival the Big Four. And so the appeal has been growing.  

In light then of the increasing fluidity apparent in both agencies and brands, what does it take to make it as a small agency today?  From experience, good contacts and qualified proof points are non-negotiable, as is real talent.  A network of expertise across various complimentary disciplines (such as research, strategy, Creative, UX, social media, PR and integrated marketing implementation) also hits the mark.  Simon Case, founder of Chromatic – one such agency using the flexible collaboration model ‘Chromatic &’, describes his vision and journey to the sweet-spot: 

Building brands with meaning and momentum takes a whole spectrum of talents. We wanted to create a different type of agency based on an eco-system, as opposed to an empire.  Our core team consists of experienced creative strategists and strategic creatives, as well as various marketing discipline partners, which we hand-pick for the needs of each engagement. The three most important things for us are having the right experience on the job, building solid client relationships which means keeping the same team in place from start to project finish and beyond – there’s never a ‘B-team’, and maintaining a flexible business model to adapt and respond to change as needed.” Simon Case 

Such scalable models address the needs of larger brands too.  James Lloyd, European Marketing Director at L.E.K. Consulting agrees: “working with smaller, more nimble agencies can provide the flexibility on both cost and project base, whilst at the same time providing a high degree of technical expertise, continuity of understanding and team resources.” Naturally it is a no-brainer for ‘big start-ups’ such as Fixxa (digital technology transforming the on-demand and emergency property repair market), whose Head of Product, Matthew Hammond, believes they wouldn’t be where they are without working with Chromatic &: “the understanding of a dynamic set-up and the flexibility to ‘build the plane in flight’ has been fundamental from the outset of this journey so far.”

There’s little doubt the fluidity will continue and the most relevant models will prevail. Potentially we’ll be delivered back to the start of the cycle populated by many smaller agencies, before they are all bought out.  Again. Or perhaps tomorrow’s history will tell a slightly different tale.