1. Bigger isn’t better

It’s good to be small – that was the overriding theme week at Ad Age’s Small Agency Conference in Boston last week.

If you’re a small agency that didn’t get to attend this year, here are my biggest take-aways, both from the sessions as well as personal conversations with small agency leaders.

If you have something to offer a prospect, don’t let the fact that they’re currently with a big agency get in the way of pursuing them. Lisa Colantuono, one of the best agency search consultants in the business, pointed out that smaller agencies are often a refreshing change for clients who are tired of being relegated to junior staffers, haggling over missed deadlines, and “paying for every cup of coffee.”

2. Project work is getting paid to pitch

I don’t need to remind you of the trend towards project work. Rebekah Jefferis of 72andSunny uses it to her agency’s advantage as a way to get in the door at the clients she wants to work with. Rather than bemoaning the demise of the Agency of Record, take a cue from her and think of project work as a way to get paid for building meaningful relationships with new clients.

3. The how is just as important as the what

An agency’s culture, values and operational policies are powerful selling tools. Michael Lebowitz, CEO of Big Spaceship, spends a significant amount of time talking about them when pitching a new client. Unlike the health of the economy or advances in technology, these are things he knows he can control. And they effectively communicate the type of experience the prospect can expect to have if they choose to work with you.

(I’ll add only that it’s crucial to be truthful and specific when describing your values and culture. No generalizations like “holistic,” “fully integrated” or “customer-centric”. How do your values and policies manifest themselves? How do they effect the way you find and retain talent or choose the right projects and clients? And, most importantly, why does that matter to your clients and prospects?

4. New business isn’t about always saying “yes”

Mark DiMassimo of DiMassimo Goldstein gets my vote for best and most numerous quips of the day. One of them I will likely borrow in the future: “New business is about alienating the wrong prospects.”

This can be hard to accept when you’re a small agency with big ambitions, but pursuing the wrong client is a bad investment of time and resources, which are two things that most small agencies don’t have enough of. 

5. The advertising business moves too fast for a five-year plan

Linda Kaplan Thaler was the day’s keynote speaker and, while much of her talk was geared toward selling her new book, Grit to Great, she gave us a lot to chew on. Perhaps the statement that got me thinking the most was “forget about your five-year plans.”

Her point is that the business of advertising moves at such a fast pace that a five-year plan is going to be obsolete almost as soon as you start to execute it.

And while she didn’t entirely convince me (in the same way that rules are made to be broken, plans are made to be changed – but not having one can leave you rudderless and stuck in the same place), she sure got me questioning some long held assumptions.

6. It’s a great time to be small – if you’re willing to bring in the right partners

Nicolas Pimentel, founder of +Castro Innovation House has done big things with big clients at his small firm of less than 30 people. He attributes his success to being willing to lose some control in a way that most agencies would never dream of doing. He seeks out uncomfortable projects – projects that force him and his team to grow by learning new skills, partnering with experts outside their field, and even collaborating with competitors.

O'Keefe Reinhard & Paul, the 2015 Small Agency of the Year, embodies that spirit beautifully. This agency goes beyond just lip service when it uses the word “nimble” to describe its approach. It also has about 30 full-time employees, but it calls on more than 100 teams of professionals -- composers, writers, producers and improv talent -- to help create the agency's work. It’s this approach that has helped them land clients like Yum! and Big Lots.

7. Let the client (or agency) in

Pimentel, with a charmingly thick Argentinian accent and imperfect English, also advised the crowd to “remove the table between you and the client.” Echoing this, but in reverse, was Geoff Cottrill, VP/GM, Brand & Segments at Converse, who urged marketers not to treat the agency like the enemy. Instead, he said, invite them in and be open to building a relationship built on trust. There’s a big upside – good clients, he says, get more work out of their agencies than bad clients (so there, Procurement!)

8. It's nice to share - and it’s good business

Perhaps the most positive things I heard was expressed by Peter Clark, CEO of the CHR Group, one of the new breed of smaller agency holding companies. Participating on the panel discussing how and when to sell your agency, he said “don’t put it all in your pocket. You sell more when you share.”

Forget about competition and its two-faced cousin, co-opetition. You get what you give. And that’s not to say abandon good business sense or the pursuit of profit, but trust that there is abundance for all – especially for those who give as well as get.