First, before I pour my heart and soul into this post, here’s a little bit of context: In an effort to be more vocal in 2013, I asked my Twitter followers what content they found useful or enjoyable on my Twitter feed. Most people mentioned things like the tools I post, relevant business or marketing stuff, and development and engineering-related content. A colleague and friend shared that he enjoyed reading my thoughts and insights that involve running a small agency.
But small sounds limiting, instead let’s try the word “boutique.”
I don’t like the term “small” because I’ve seen lots of giants fall at the hand of a small sword or a faster more nimble competitor that they dismissed because of its size.
So what’s it like to run a boutique digital agency? Well for starters it’s awesome. It’s exhilarating and brings with it new challenges each day. It’s also very frustrating. Frustrating as in “I wish brands got it,” that sort of way. For us “small agencies” each and every client matters and every one of us working on their business put our heart and soul into it. With each project, idea, line of code or sexy visual, we leave a little piece of ourselves behind. Credited or uncredited, these artifacts are our legacy.
The day-to-day hustle
Coming to the office everyday to work with a team I love trumps everything. Face it – we all spend more time at work than we do with our families and loved ones. For that single reason it’s so important to go to work every day loving what you do and who you do it with.
Profits and losses matter, but human capital is what matters most
Our boutique agency team represents more than numbers on a P&L to me. I get to share amazing challenges and victories with these people every day. My job as managing partner is to make sure we are energized and well-equipped to help grow our client businesses.
From small local companies to Fortune 500s, we exist to support them. They don’t need us to run their business, but they do need us from time to time to help add to, extend or accelerate their initiatives and to take their brand to the next level. That could mean launching a product or campaign, supporting their online marketing and advertising, or sometimes just course correction for their digital journey.
I have to admit, running a small, excuse me, boutique agency also leaves me feeling smug at times, just from seeing the lightning pace we can move at – accomplishing more in a month than some behemoth agencies do in a year.
Embrace chaos. Change is our best friend.
Embracing change is what sets us apart from others. We don’t just like new, bright and shiny tools and interfaces — we seek them out. And when we don’t find what we want, we invent them (see Gumby). From browser capabilities to using sensors to bridge the physical and digital world, there’s never a dull moment in picking up or inventing the next big thing that will spark and engage consumers.
Our success is directly affected by how aggressively we pursue and embrace the changing digital landscape. Brands don’t need us to execute for today, they want us to plan and execute for tomorrow. Being small and nimble means less red tape, which makes us lean and mean enough to charge ahead at light speed.
We can act faster, think deeper and have the luxury of not being controlled by a parent brand or organization that dictates how we operate, the things we do and what our value propositions are. Need a contract changed or signed? Give us a minute.
Competitors at every corner
Digital agencies are popping up from every corner of the globe. Some emerge from the ashes of traditional agencies, others strike out as one-man armies. Each hang out their shingles for pretty much the same reason. They are sick of the Madison Avenue bureaucratic bullshit and want to get back to what they’ve invested heart and soul into for as long as they care to remember – their love of being creative.
The craft of digital. This ain’t Mad Men.
We don’t live in the Mad Men era anymore. Advertising has changed drastically and the media and measurement available to marketers is an ever-changing landscape.
I come from a design and development background and have always known that having both sides of that coin would be hugely beneficial. Consequently, we don’t hire people who do only one thing. As a boutique we have many hands on deck daily tackling diverse problems and client challenges. Having specialists (or one-trick ponies) would put us in the same segmented straight jacket that restricts bigger agencies. Instead, we hire creative generalists and technologists that possess a wide set of skills rooted in passion and curiosity.
I’m not saying every designer codes or every developer can design, but a deep understanding of the other’s craft through frequent collaboration makes the world of difference for us every time. Sorry, Don Draper, the days of drinking scotch and single-handedly solving the problems of the world in one sentence are gone.
Ideas ain’t shit without execution. Even Zuck agrees.
Not trying to bite the hand that has fed us but I can’t tell you the number of big “full-service” agencies that we have bailed out of trouble because they over-promised big ideas that were so far-fetched they would make your favorite science fiction film seem believable. We have a saying, ideas are a dime a dozen, but a well-executed idea can be worth millions. Don’t take my word for it, even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg attributes the paramount of Facebook’s growth and success to execution over ideas.
Ideas are backed and validated through whatever constraints exist. Just like budgets and timelines change to accommodate bigger thinking, ideas need to adjust to maximize budgets or timelines that have no wiggle room.
For the revolutionary product launching at a trade show to the next hottest blockbuster video game, we don’t have the luxury of spending all day with our heads in the clouds. Instead we have to scale our ideas to fit the need. Creativity in context – that kinda thinking is what big ideas and awesome execution are all about. Call it what you will, lean this or lean that, lean is the way of successful startups. Successful because they get it.
How big is small?
Our growth can be attributed to our practice of hiring the omni-skilled, our relentless drive and being blessed with some luck and amazing people. I never imagined I’d be running a 25 person agency in my twenties but it sorta just ended up that way. My quest to break down the silos that perpetuated the clumsy agency model has resulted in a holistic digital agency that continues its beastly evolution that I marvel at and nurture daily.
Our next challenges will be to remain nimble, innovate relentlessly, and continue to amaze and amuse ourselves and our clients. We think the “boutique” concept can support adding more brilliant people as well as a few thousand square feet. As we said at the beginning, small refers to size. We are certainly not small. But boutique is a state of mind. From that perspective, we can continue to grow, without growing out of our minds.
Thanks for stopping by, you should follow me on twitter I might tweet something you will like or find useful.