Right now, small is hip, but does that mean better?

By Sean Doyle

It's 2006, the age of the fatless, the compact, the streamlined, the blipvert, the sting, the speed-date, the al-desko lunch, the skinny latte, the cram-exercise, the short chapter, the Blackberry, the Smart Car. Our 21st century appetites and attention spans want things short and sweet, want things now, want things in quickly-digestible form, want things to take up as little as possible of our precious space. No longer are we prepared to lug around those huge, unwieldy contraptions known as personal CD players, now we have our iPod Nanos and Shuffles. (What's next, iButtons?) We root for the little guy. We want the underdog to beat the mega-bucks football team. We support our local shopkeeper as he makes a stand against big-name supermarkets on the lookout for even more high street presence. David vs. Goliath? It's almost politically incorrect to say anything other than little is best.

And so it is with agencies. If you're big, you're approaching dinosaur status. If you're little, you're sexy, a hot shop, a boutique, a creative specialist. Undeniably, there is something of a buzz in small agencies simply because they're starting out. They're about to build something. They're taking a step into the unknown. Without a past, they can only look ahead. They're living on their nerves because they're unproven; success isn't guaranteed. This makes them edgier all around and as a result they feel more creative. But are they actually more creative?

An agency's reputation is down to the stuff in its shop window. If you're new, producing your best possible creative work across the board is manageable. You start with a 100-percent, no-turkey reputation and see how long you can hold on to it. So a small agency's shop window, the stuff they shout about, is virtually all of their work. Bigger agencies, naturally, have a bigger shop window, but there's more stuff inside the shop that goes unpublicized. It's practically impossible to get to the stage where you bill hundreds of millions of dollars and not produce some mediocre work, isn't it? Red tape finds its way into the building somehow, doesn't it?

There hasn't been a start-up that hasn't spouted some version of, "We don't want to get too big. Big is bad." Like it's a given that the more money you make, the more likely you'll be to sell yourself down the river, close the shutters on your metaphorical little coffee shop and allow Starbucks to move in. "No," these new start-ups repeat, "we don't want to get too big." But before we let generalizations get in the way of facts, it's perhaps worth stopping for a minute to think just who are the best agencies in the world right now. If I'm cornered for a top five, I'll go for BBH, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Goodby Silverstein, Wieden+Kennedy and Cliff Freeman. All pretty good, and not a 'Just Open' sign amongst them.

So doesn't this make the big-equals-bad/small-equals-good debate a non-starter? Maybe it isn't down to size. Maybe it's down to that old-fashioned people thing. You either have talented people working for you, or you don't. You can be big and good, or big and bad, or small and good, or small and bad. I'm sure any place that had Alex Bogusky working for it would be filed under Good.

Where things get really funny is when you get big, bad agencies trying to make a leap across to the big and good category, leaping there, just like that, and declaring, "We're over here now!" without earning the right, without first sorting the work out. Last year, one big agency unveiled a new motto: "Hold my skateboard while I kiss your girlfriend." Oh dear. A few years earlier, another similar-sized agency re-jigged one of its meeting rooms in a bid for added cool. They threw out their practical, flat-surfaced table and replaced it with a purpose-built, slanted affair. They did away with the chairs, too. The thinking was that such discomfort, pens rolling away, coffee cups having to remain in hand, would discourage overly-long meetings. Here's a thought: You could just have someone say, "This meeting's going on too long, let's wrap it up." Sounds crazy, but it just might work.

If you want to be good, hire good people and create a condition where they can do good work. Don't think that making your boardroom funkier or inventing new terminology will make you seem more creative. Try and be more creative.

Right, now I'm off to our creative pod to ideate some adcepts for a brand interface meeting.

Sean Doyle is Creative Partner at Campbell Doyle Dye in London.

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