Small is beautiful or big is best?

It’s an argument that is never fully resolved and is now rearing its head in the world of direct marketing. Specifically, does the best and innovative work in the field come from small agencies?

The question has come about because of some forthright comments from the chair of the DMA Awards committee, Mike Colling.

Apparently there has been “a disproportionately large number of big agencies” entering work for this year’s DMA Awards compared to small agencies, with a tilt away from a 50/50 split towards more of a 70/30.

Colling says: “This is worrying because I think it’s a symptom of a wider issue: small agencies – the challenger brands of our industry – are being squeezed out and marginalised by large agencies. Either through buying them up or taking their slices of a shrinking pie, large agencies are stifling the industry.”

He goes on: “The unfortunate effect of this is that it also stifles creativity and innovation in the industry.”

This is a debate that ranges across all disciplines, with independent advertising, digital, DM and media agencies arguing they are more nimble, creative and visionary than lumbering network-owned rivals. They all argue that they are not hamstrung by layers of management, cumbersome internal procedures and processes and a duty to shareholders if a listed company.

Also in the background lurks that will o’ the wisp, the “integrated agency” that claims it can deliver across all channels. It’s a phrase bandied around ad-land with abandon but very few are backing up the talk. For instance, speculation suggests that DDB and Virgin Media recently parted company because the former couldn’t deliver the integrated approach it promised.

I don’t know how many “small agencies” there are in the DM sector now but I should imagine the past few years of economic uncertainty will have forced mergers and buyouts purely as a survival strategy. If there are less independents there will be less awards entries.

And on a mundane level it takes time, resource and money to enter industry awards – all the more precious if you are an independent.

But back to Colling’s main contention – that big agencies are not best-placed to produce innovative DM work. First off, it’s obviously important that creativity has to be effective in delivering results. One of DM’s strong propositions that it is measureable and accountable. Experimentation for experimentation’s sake won’t pay the bills.

Secondly, the big agencies hopefully have the resources in terms of staff, data, and time to allow some experimental “lab work”.

If you have a collaborative culture in the agency and people are not reticent in airing their insights and ideas because of hierarchy or politics, then the old adage that a good idea can come from anywhere should prove true, whatever the company’s size.

But let’s hear from you all, please post comment on whether you think Colling’s argument is plausible.

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