Americans are obsessed with size, craving the big house, oversize SUVs, being taller, the biggest burger and the list goes on. I never realized how unique this is to our culture until I traveled to Europe two years ago, but the specter of Donald Trump reminds us that size is a preeminent, albeit misguided, incentive.
Boutique firms such as Elasticity (we have roughly 25 members on our team) often battle this size quotient, as I’ve noted before in examining the democratization of marketing. And this issue of scale has seemingly been with us from the beginning, as in the first six months of founding the agency in 2009, we lost a pitch to a large, global firm. Afterwards, I was told we did not win the business because the boss liked the “panache” of the other firm’s name and size.
This valuation of size doesn’t just apply to clients, but also to talent. I’ve found, in particular, young people working at larger organizations to be reluctant to jump to a smaller shop like ours. I’m trying to understand why.
Perhaps there are psychological hurdles suggesting that going small represents a step back in some way or would mean a decline in professional stature? Although we work with our fair share of large organizations, ranging from Fireball Whisky to the USA Today Network to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis to Capital One to H&R Block, could it be a perception of working with clients of less significance? Compensation is also a possibility, of course. Some view the paycheck as the end-all, although we are more than competitive with agencies our size. However, competing on price alone with a Fortune 500 or global agency is out of our wheelhouse.
All of this comes to mind because during the past two years, I have been told by two people we were recruiting out of larger organizations — one rather recently — that they “had more to accomplish” where they were. They both used the exact same phrase. Thus, I was curious what that meant, and I backtracked to better understand each statement.
“I knew that smaller shops require more of an employee wearing many hats,” one of them told me in retrospect. “Here [the agency where he was] things are so segmented, and you can’t do anything beyond what you are assigned, so I felt like I needed to learn more aspects of PR and communications before going to a place that demanded more of me.”
Fair point. When I worked at larger firms, I was expected to pitch, pitch and do more pitching. It’s not a criticism of big agencies, just a reality of how they function. It was, in essence, a sales role for our portfolio of very large (often global) clients, and agencies of that scale have the ability to have people playing very specific roles. Conversely, at a smaller firm, we must rely on team members — from junior staff to partners — to all think like strategists at all times. It’s not about pitch, pitch, pitching. It’s thinking about determining the smartest way to achieve our KPIs because we must be more efficient and nimble.
“Ultimately, I don’t think I learned any more at [the organization that he stayed at],” he confessed. “I assumed I would eventually be able to spread my wings a bit more than I actually did.”
The second, more recent case was different, but it certainly had similarities.
“Whenever I move jobs, it’s important I’ve soaked up everything I can from my previous agency,” the person said. “I want to be sure, regardless of my experience, that I’ve taken advantage of my time and used every resource possible to become a better PR person. Secondly, I want to be sure that every move is a stepping stone that allows me to build off what I’ve learned at my last agency. If I’m not able to take what I’ve learned and help teach the next agency from my experiences, then I’m not doing my job.”
The candidate went on to specifically cite crisis communications experience they were gaining, feeling that was one of the key skill sets in need of further develop. The irony is that crises are something we manage frequently. I cut my teeth in the energy space, so it’s second nature to me. We simply do not and cannot broadcast our work in the space, as much of it is confidential.
The question being, did this person make the assumption that because we were smaller, we didn’t manage major crisis communications issues and they therefore could not build that skill at Elasticity? Maybe, maybe not. I initially thought so but I took his feedback at face value although many tend to deny their built-in prejudices.
What’s the takeaway here? Did these candidates psychologically make an unfair valuation of size? It’s certainly conceivable, and it’s also possible that size played no role whatsoever in their respective choices. Maybe it’s all sour grapes on my part and I’m the one denying my built-in prejudices.
I know this: I never had aspirations of working for a small, yet quickly growing, business. I always thought I was a big corporate guy, and I certainly never thought I’d take one of the largest risks of my life by co-founding an agency. But, seven years later, I could not imagine trading the progressive, nimble, off-beat culture we’ve developed here. In short, I wouldn’t change a thing (minus hiring Jason Falls).
For me, I’ll take small, but I won’t fault anyone who buys a McMansion.