Businesses are ditching big-name network agencies in favour of independents

Resting on your laurels is never a good idea. Not for people, and definitely not for businesses. In a saturated, chaotic industry like ours, it may seem like a decades-old multinational agency with hundreds of awards under their belt is always the better, less risky option. But current trends both in South Africa and across the globe are challenging this perception like never before.

Smaller independent agencies are making their presence felt, landing bigger and better clients (and managing to keep them), and in some cases, soundly defeating their network agency competitors that were once deemed all but untouchable.

But why? Presumably, their techniques, processes, and the quality of their staff are above reproach. Big names attract the best talent. The way they work has been standardised across dozens of countries to comply with international best practice, and they are, one would assume, far from under-resourced.

The answer is simple. All of this and more may be true, but these international behemoths have drastically underestimated the changing priorities of the market. The size of your budget doesn’t guarantee success. Neither does the size of your staff. Today, success is measured in great service, original thinking, and responsive agility – three areas in which independent agencies happen to have the upper hand.

The Personal Touch

Network agencies may have vast teams of human resources as well as seemingly endless pools of cash. It’s natural (however inaccurate) for a client to assume that they’ll get their fair share of attention.

In my personal experience, big-name agencies have a tendency to align themselves with similarly famous clients with lavish budgets, often lacking the time and financial motivation to dedicate the same care to clients that aren’t absolutely essential to their portfolios. And if your business happens not to be one of the Coca-Colas or Nestlés of this world, you should ask yourself a simple question. Yes, they have the resources, but how much are they willing to dedicate to you, when there are far more lucrative and publicly visible brands to win awards with?

Independent agencies – frequently owner-managed – know the value of every client, no matter their size. Network agencies, in contrast, are forced to juggle the interests of their clients with those of their shareholders, as well as their mandate to deliver as much money as possible back to the mothership in London or New York at the end of the year.

Independents are more concerned with making each client happy – no matter what. The agency’s growth and reputation, its very livelihood, depend on it.

The Freedom to Choose

The marketers we work with as independents are confident that our actions are not driven by quarterly shareholder dividends. Our long-term view is ours, and ours alone – as is the freedom and flexibility to act as we see fit for the benefit of the client. We are not crippled by any boundaries except those that we put in place for ourselves. We have no rules, and we seek no permissions to do what is best for our clients. Put simply, we have more choice – and our clients do as well.

That extends to the employees we take on, how we decide to reinvest our profits, and all other strategic business decisions. It also applies to the creative approach we take. With no boundaries, anything is possible. New methods can be tried, and old ones further refined, without any permission from above necessary.

Unlimited Flexibility

Hierarchy and flexibility are mutually exclusive in the agency environment. All decision-making in network agencies must go through multiple layers of local and international approval (which may not even be granted), in order to deviate from standard practices. These agencies are defined by their infrastructure, not to mention limited by it.

Today’s marketing landscape is characterised by speed, responsiveness and innovation – the ability to come up with something completely new when the occasion calls for it. And in agencies with a rigid infrastructure dictated from above, the structures available determines the nature of the solutions offered – not exactly a recipe for originality. There’s a reason that the great disruptors of the digital age tend to be conceived by tiny start-ups with extremely limited resources. They are experts in coming up with creative solutions with fewer people and less money than their large counterparts have available.

Nobody’s claiming that an independent agency is right for any and every client, all the time. But we’ve seen the advantages first-hand, and judging from the direction the industry is going, we’re set to see an even greater rise in independents’ popularity in the coming years. If your brand needs an attentive and responsive partner, one that values originality and authenticity, you have nothing to lose (and potentially, much to gain) by going with an independent agency.



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