Shop-Hopping Clients Threaten Small Agencies

Moves to bigger, diversified ad firms leave boutiques in the dust

The ease with which big marketers like Intel and Hewlett-Packard shift high-profile assignments can put smaller, newer agencies on the map. It can also deflate those same agencies when their relationships sour.

72andSunny finds itself in that position now with HP, which not only has a new CMO, but also a new CEO. The agency’s “Let’s do amazing” corporate image campaign has ended, and the shop’s once meaty assignment has recently been reduced to project work.

The waning of the 18-month relationship means that HP will likely once again rely mainly on big, established agencies like BBDO, McCann Erickson, Draftfcb, and Goodby, Silverstein & Partners.

The episode also illustrates how smaller agencies are generally less equipped to manage account relationships at multiple levels. As such, they’re more vulnerable when the marketing chief who championed them in the first place leaves. “Newer agencies have less people and less points of connection with organizations,” says one leader at a small boutique. “So when a couple of people get fired, it’s a big deal.”

72andSunny’s descension comes just four months after Intel shifted its master brand creative business out of Venables Bell & Partners and into the bigger team of DDB and Tribal DDB. That shift represented an about-face from 2009, when Intel left global giant McCann for Venables Bell, a one-office shop in San Francisco. In making the latest switch, Intel cited “breakthrough ideas” presented by Tribal and DDB.

Of course, the size of an agency does not determine how good it is. And naturally, great ideas can come from anywhere. That said, mega-marketers present unique challenges to upstart shops, particularly in the area of relationship building. The durability of such marriages is not just about the work.

“Holding on to the business is all about deeper relationships,” says Brian Martin of the Source Martin consultancy in New York. “In the end, it is a relationship business, and the bigger agencies just know how to do that better.” Big agencies “definitely embed themselves better,” the small-agency executive admits. “They’re more politically savvy.”

The global reach and deep creative bench of large players also may influence a marketer’s decision to switch back to a behemoth. That partly explains why upstarts like 72andSunny, Anomaly, and Droga5 are planning to expand overseas.

“International capabilities are so important to multinational companies, and the networks the big agencies have created are difficult, if not impossible, to replicate,” says DDB North American president Mark O’Brien. “And I think once you get a killer idea or two out of a creative boutique, it’s hard to dig down deep and find a new idea if the bench isn’t deep. It’s not unusual for us to rotate creative teams on assignments just to keep things fresh.”

Marketers also have the option of hiring another boutique, though. So, don’t expect the big guys to declare victory just yet.