Size Matters: Big Agency vs. Small Agency

Size Matters: Big Agency vs. Small Agency

BY Kathryn Sturm

Thus far, in my relatively short journey in the creative industry, I have experienced a wide variety of company sizes before settling where I am now. Because of this range of experience and all the networking I do within the creative community, I often get questioned about what my best experience has been at each company size, and what I recommend in terms of where a person should settle.

The answer is: you have to figure it out for yourself.

I will, however, take you through my personal experience with the hope it can help guide you in the right direction toward your ultimate decision.

Maybe you’re still in school trying to figure out where to look for your first job; maybe you’re not entirely happy at your current small agency or within the big agency where you work. Maybe you’re freelancing and aren’t sure how you feel about that situation, but are scared to jump back into an office environment. I get it – I’ve been there. So, let’s talk about the options.

Big: Go Big or Go Home

For this to work for you, you’ll need: A strong sense of self and confidence in your work without the need for much hand-holding.

Right after graduating college, I interned at a big branding company. We’re talking big – a 300-person office. Lots of floors, lots of offices, lots of ways to get lost (literally, I did every day… it was embarrassing). This was an incredible environment and opportunity, especially right after college, to really engage in what the industry had to offer. I felt I could thrive in the diversity of the space, the people and the projects because I was used to all those things from school.

Soon, however, I got the feeling that in this environment, I might need a little more individual attention. I had plenty of resources at my fingertips, but felt we should all be closer and more accessible. Instead of emailing someone I had never met – and who was three floors away – back and forth about a design project, I wanted the ability to walk up to that person and talk face-to-face.

Note: I am what you might call an “over-communicator,” so this was something I found would follow me throughout my journey – the need to always be in direct contact.

Pros: Diverse culture, opportunity to touch multiple projects, ability to work with bigger brands, a bigger community feel, lots of free lunches due to big client meeting leftovers (hey, I didn’t have a lot of money back then… well, or now… but I digress).

Cons: Directors, bosses, etc., were not approachable, lack of transparency in the business, lack of total ownership on a project, the need for more face-to-face time and feedback.

Medium: Taking It Down a Notch

For this to work for you, you’ll need: The ability to juggle both large, big-agency clients and smaller, boutique clients in the same capacity.

After my internship, I started working as a contractor at another branding agency that had about 40+ people. I was the low guy on the totem pole doing branding and packaging design. As a major jump down in size from where I had been previously, this took a lot of adjusting. I still considered this company pretty big, yet it was much more manageable in terms of being able to get face time with superiors. I was also brought into more big brand decisions, which was both really cool and really scary.

I found myself a little isolated, working harder than ever before – even eating lunch at my desk almost every day because of how busy I was. It was a learning experience that made me start to understand how much the environment and the size of that environment affected my day-to-day work.

Pros: More responsibility, a considerable change in face time with superiors, a little more quirkiness in company culture, playing bigger roles on projects, opportunities to have a bigger say in company decisions.

Cons: More responsibility (hey, it can be scary when you’re still new in the game), not as broad of a community/culture, less diversity.

Freelance: All By Myself

For this to work for you, you’ll need: Not only to be a self-starter, but also able to make decisions for every aspect of your personal business knowing you’ll feel the direct impact of each.

Allll byyyy myysssellllfffff. Okay, so after my contract ended at the previous agency, I didn’t have much lined up next. So I took some time and entered the freelance world. Which, by the way, is not as glamourous as one would think. I wasn’t that super-cool trendy girl looking pulled-together, working in hip coffee shops with top-of-the-line headphones and tons of contacts. I was the conductor on the Hot Mess Express.

Why? Because I’m the kind of person who thrives on a schedule, which I learned very quickly into my short freelance stint. For a while, I was living the dream. Made my own rules and thrived on it. I felt super creative, and convinced myself that working for yourself was the only way to do things. This was all fun and games until I realized I was running out of money – and then things got real. Fast. Fortunately, it was then that I also discovered the true beauty of freelance: dream clients. I worked with the most intelligent, communicative, responsive people when I worked on my own, mostly because I reached out to businesses that were also getting started in the community. I worked with start-ups, new restaurants, new bars and small-scale businesses. With these clients, there was a sense of both of us having a lot to lose, so there was a lot more mutual respect.

The part I really struggled with, however, was not having people to bounce ideas off. I’m a people person. I thrive on having people around me.

Pros: Really cool blue-sky projects, freedom to pick and choose clients, one-on-one client time, more laid back deadlines, direct feedback from clients, having TOTAL ownership of the project and outcome. 

Cons: Lack of schedule, not as many creatives at hand to bounce ideas off, less money (way, WAY less money), no typical company benefits, the need for constant and major self-motivation.

Small: Just Right!

For this to work for you, you’ll need: A self-starter attitude and the recognition that a true work/life balance is almost impossible.

Just when I thought I was going to be freelancing for the rest of my life, I had the opportunity to contract at a small start-up-ish agency where I was soon hired full-time. When I started, the company had about 12 people working there, and I noticed right away it was going to be a major change from any of the previous size agencies where I had worked. 

First, when you work in an environment that small, you have to be good with the fact that you can’t hide. This is a good and bad thing. It’s good because you know you’re always accountable for your work, but bad because that can also be scary. I loved it.

This size worked for me because I found pieces of every work experience I had encountered so far. I felt the ownership of projects like a freelancer, the ability to touch multiple projects like in a big agency, and that good, solid family culture you find in mid-sized companies.

Pros: Owning a project, family-like feel, moving up easily if you are a go-getter, individual attention, fun office culture.

Cons: The difficulty of getting away from work, feeling like you’re always on call, a little less process stability, lack of big brand exposure.

Although this is my personal story, if you’re trying to make the agency size decision yourself, there are a few universal truths that I have come across:

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In a small agency, it’s a family affair
No matter what, when you work at any company, you’re going to form personal relationships. At a super-small agency, however, you’ll likely be in even closer relationships, simply because you work side-by-side with this same small group of people all day. In my mind, this is a good thing, but keep in mind the need to find your own professional and personal balance. 

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The bigger, the more bureaucratic
When you work for a large company, expect more red tape. As I mentioned previously, you’re not going to get the face time you might want with superiors or directors, and the hierarchy of workplace politics will be a lot more visible.

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Wearing all the hats
Inevitably at a smaller business, you are going to be taking on, and will most likely be expected to take on, a lot more – even if it is out of your comfort zone.

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Smaller culture, more flexibility
Small businesses typically have fewer rules and thus more flexibility for work/life balance. Depending on the kind of person you are, this could work to your advantage. 

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Big company opportunities
Most of the time at a large company, there are more opportunities to grow – not just develop but maybe experience working at a totally different office in a totally different city or country. You are in control of what opportunities find you – but at a big company, there are more paths to get there.

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Company change
Bottom line, a publically traded company has process and procedures documented for everything. At a small company, things change frequently and process/procedures are always getting invented and reinvented.

The world is your oyster and the choice is yours. Good Luck!