This is not Cosmopolitan – Agency size isn’t everything in a pitch

Cosmopolitan magazine - Miley Cyrus

This isn’t the front page of Cosmopolitan. When selecting agency candidates, size – large or small – definitely isn’t everything.

Small, nimble and cost-efficient. The Big, Small or Alternative Boutique. Sheer Buying Power. Globally Networked Advantages. Big Service, Small Agency. Big Agency, Small Service. Does anyone else feel their teeth start to itch?

Size, in agencies, often plays a central role in positioning, and in sense of identity – not just brand identity, but literally the sense of identity felt by the staff.

I’ve often seen twenty-something agency people in their first job buying into and exuding the smell of a culture that proclaims their agency as ‘we’re the biggest and best’, or ‘screw the global networks, we do it better’.

Does size differentiate you from other agency brands?

I can only assume that size has been used so much because agencies find it hard to differentiate in other ways – and mind you, I don’t necessarily blame them. It’s damn hard to truly differentiate or achieve genuinely rock-solid positioning for an agency brand.

Those few that are, generally have achieved it through history (Ogilvy or McCann) publicity (BBH via John Hegarty) or overwhelming single-brand success association (Wieden & Kennedy with Nike) – more so than via a clever positioning statement.

Of course, the work is there to back everything up. The positioning statement is in place and really means something (how many agencies can truly claim this?) and sometimes the positioning represents a fundamental part of the historical fabric (Truth Well Told, anyone?)

The four agencies I’ve mentioned are all very different, and very good at what they do. Here’s the point: what they have in common is that the size of the agency, large or small, hasn’t driven their positioning – in fact it’s the reverse, their positioning has driven their size.

Clients hardly ever complain about the size of an agency. They complain about the size of their agency team – which is of course a completely different problem. They complain about sluggish thought, poor output, expensive media rates, profiteering, bad creative, elongated process, financial inaccuracy…actually they complain about a lot.

However, I’m not trying to write a laundry list. Mostly, the agency as ‘big’ or ‘small’ is not high on a consideration set – until, that is, it gets to pitch time. Then, suddenly, size can make a difference between an agency getting on to a candidate list or not. And it can work both ways – large size and small size snobbery exists, make no mistake.

So here’s my challenge to any advertiser about to enter into a pitch process. Remove ‘size’ from your consideration set and instead consider ‘tailored fit’. What does that mean? Well, to issue a small plug, understanding what’s out there, and from this the fit between client and prospective agency is one reason to employ a pitch consultant (click here to see more about our agency search & selection offering).

DIY agency search and selection

Let’s say that you’re literally at the start line and have decided to do it yourself, and you’re looking at agencies from scratch.

Here, in no particular order, are some examples of areas to consider:

The profiles of their senior team

Beyond what’s on the website, do some LinkedIn spying. Understand the breadth of experience across the people ultimately responsible for driving the agency culture and direction. You may, via LinkedIn, discover joint connections, which you feel able to talk to you ‘on the QT’ about their experience of working with the individual in question.

Relevant category experience

Relevant experience does not, of course, need to be within your own category. Agencies with great understanding of retail, for example, can often carry a good deal of transferable skills into FMCG Grocery.

Variety of client base

You should be looking for an agency with creative breadth, and this comes from a strong, varied client base.

The explanation of agency culture and approach

Does it ring true to you? Does it fit with your own business values? Can you see its traces in the case study work you see either on the agency website or elsewhere?

Local market fit

Yes, you want variety. Yes, you want breadth of experience. But you also want local market affinity. Agencies should be able to mould any global or regional position to fit a local area. If you look up a networked agency online and find a global ‘one size fits all’ approach, you may want to stress-test the strength in depth (which does not necessarily equate to size) of that agency in the market most relevant to you.

Press coverage

No – not the sheer amount of it, the quality of it. Track back in the trade press – how opinionated is this agency, how much does it participate in industry debates, how much is it prepared to stand up and be counted? Tracking press coverage is also good to see senior hires and fires, not all of which make it on to the agency website.

Business retention record

Try and establish the fluidity of account activity within the agency. Long account tenure and lack of churn, as well as solid incremental growth, can be good indicators.


Again – not the amount of awards, the categories. Looking at which awards were entered, or won, can be a good indicator of where an agency is focused or what it’s good at. Check out Cannes Lions, Effies, Spikes amongst others – you can get entry lists/winners lists from previous years pretty easily – and look on YouTube for case studies.

Industry Case Studies

WARC (World Advertising Research Council) can often be a good source of case study material, as can representative industry bodies such as the IFA. What has the agency submitted?

Client testimonials

Given that not many people will want to risk damaging their own reputation with a bogus testimonial, these are mostly genuine and are a great bench-marker of the truth behind the glossy façade.

Generate best performance outcomes

Ultimately, you’re not looking for a ‘plastic fantastic’ brand, you’re looking for a group of people who have the relevant ability, culture and tools, and who are willing and able to mould themselves around your business to generate best performance outcomes for both.

You can’t solve this with what I’ve written here – but you can at least consider it as a starting point to generate a list of agencies who you may, irrespective of their size, wish to work with.

As for the rest – actually selecting the winning group of people who have the relevant ability, culture and tools, and all the rest of it – well, that’s what pitch processes are for!


To find our how TrinityP3 Marketing Management Consultants can help you further with this, click here.