Advantages of small-market agencies

You’re looking for an ad agency, design firm or interactive shop. You can work with a large-market firm from New York, Chicago, Houston or Los Angeles — or a small-market firm from Spokane (where I live), Boise or Pasco.

Old friends Wieden & Kennedy



Wieden & Kennedy: 2007 Global Agency of the Year




You’d assume the large markets have the talent, the facilities and the sophistication. So if you can afford it, why not?

The counter-intuitive reality

In my experience, small-market shops beat comparable big-market competition in several important areas:

  • Outstanding creative that in many cases leaves big-market shops in the dust
  • Staff that are more committed to the firm and the client; people are less likely to jump to the shop down the street next month
  • Less middle management and more direct lines of responsibility
  • Innovation in new media and technology that eliminates geographical disadvantage. (It’s good for the client-agency relationship, and good expertise for the client’s marketing plan.)
  • Fairness in compensation plans
  • Genuine appreciation for your business; far less “big-city” self-importance

The president of an international association of independent agencies once told me that small market agencies, by necessity, have always been more buttoned-up than large market shops. To thrive, they must win business from larger markets. To keep the business, they must demonstrate superior performance repeatedly. That’s good news for everyone.

Historical precedent

The creative revolution of the 80s and 90s was led by agencies from Portland, Minneapolis, Raleigh, Austin and Richmond. Not New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. 

Look at some of those same shops today. Many of the same people have led Wieden & Kennedy in Portland, The Martin Agency in Richmond and GSD&M in Austin for more than 25 years. These represent particular success stories, true. But the small market environment encourages team members to pull together through crises and work harder, rather than move on to greener pastures. Wieden & Kennedy for example has certainly seen challenges over the years. But they have been forced to reinvent themselves and now reign as 2007 Adweek and Brandweek Global Agency of the Year. 

This is an opportunity. Embrace it. 

It’s not that all small-market shops are wonderful and all large market shops suck.

But clients in Spokane and other small- and medium-sized markets need to know that the talent right here in Eastern Washington is often world-class, and the service just might be a bit more attentive than you’d find in LA, Seattle or San Francisco. (That’s what Nike once discovered when choosing Wieden over Chiat/Day.) 

And for you in San Francisco and Seattle, the same holds true. The only reason you’ve never heard of Magner Sanborn, Seven2 (and their sister shop 14Four), Quisenberry and imageworks is that you haven’t done your homework. They’re viable alternatives and in many cases will deliver better work, more innovation, and a better working relationship than you’re used to. 

– Barrett Rossie

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