It's been over a year since I moved from a great big agency, Arnold in Boston, to a great small agency, Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Miami. And there are some major differences in the way I work.
Yes, long pants and socks are overrated. But there are less obvious differences. Arnold and CP+B are very similar in focus. Both have talented creative departments that are entirely focused on doing great work for their clients. Both utilize planning in pursuit of that. But the types of clients they work with are different and, as a result, so is the dominant paradigm of planning at each.
Arnold's claim to fame is working with leading brands (McDonald's, Ocean Spray, Fidelity Investments, Titleist, etc.). They do it very, very well. But leading brands usually have their own research and strategic-planning departments that can do big quantitative studies and large-scale qualitative work. They are staffed by people with fairly traditional training and fairly traditional ideas of what kinds of research and planning are appropriate—usually based on what has or hasn't worked in the past.
Also, with few exceptions, leading brands tend to adhere to a model in which brands are built and maintained over time through consistency and repetition of message. Investment is the currency that makes this possible; brand awareness and share of market are the key measures; and being the market leader is the goal.
CP+B's claim to fame is working with "subordinate" brands ("Truth," Mini, And 1, Bell/Giro, etc.). They are Davids taking on the Goliaths or second- and third-tier brands that need to reinvent themselves to survive. If they even have their own research and strategic-planning departments, they are either too young or too endangered to default to what has worked in the past. Therefore, they tend to have fewer limits on what they are willing to try. They also tend to have smaller budgets, which makes guerrilla-style planning attractive.
More important, they have neither the time nor the resources to choose the slow-build model of brand building. More likely, they use innovation and surprise (vs. consistency and repetition) to quickly gain or regain momentum. Ideas (vs. investment) are the currency that makes this possible; brand salience and share of mind are the critical measures; and being the thought leader in the category is the goal.
Obviously, this puts pressure on planning and creative to come up with the insights and ideas. But it also unshackles us and gives us permission to break rules, both in the type of methods we use in planning and in the type of ideas and creative content we ultimately produce.
In short, leading brands give planners added resources. The tradeoff is they must work with more traditional tools and under more traditional thinking. Subordinate brands rarely offer these resources, but planners are unencumbered by dominant ways of thought. The tradeoff is they must work harder, smarter, more independently and often without a safety net.
I've been lucky to work under both paradigms. Great work is possible with both. My preference? Subordinate brands—more risk, more reward, more opportunity.