Opinion: How challenger agencies can compete with the big agency networks

Opinion Hotwire's Barbara Bates: How challenger agencies can compete with the big networks

Barbara Bates, global CEO at Hotwire, highlights the key areas where challenger agencies can go the extra mile to compete with their larger counterparts.


For a long time in the industry, the behemoth agency networks were seen as the only answer. However, times are starting to change. Clients are telling us they want creative excellence and effectiveness in strategy, they want agencies capable of bringing about genuine impact, sweeping away barriers and agencies imbued with the mind set to be limitless.

The mentality that “bigger is better” is changing and, as a result, opportunities are opening up for agencies of all sizes, be they mid-sized independents, small boutiques or even those part of a global network.

How, though, can agencies outside the top ten or twenty really challenge the dominance of the behemoths and networks and offer something different that works?

I believe there are three key areas in which agencies can excel; upping their game, adopting a sensible scaling strategy and providing a truly different perspective to the conventional network agency manifesto.

Upping your game


The good news is that the best mid-sized agencies are already starting to outperform the big guys and put more pressure on the big agency players.

Smaller agencies have been winning sizeable chunks of business from large clients and it’s propelled them into offering both more strategic and a greater breadth of services.

Although these agencies are putting more pressure on the big players, it’s important they take nothing for granted and continually up their game to attract the best talent and develop ambitious, adventurous work that delivers the results clients demand.

Adopting a sensible scaling approach


One of the great selling points multinationals often have in their favour is the promise of implementing cross-border campaigns through smooth international collaboration. Unfortunately, the reality is often different.

Clients are getting burned as cross-border agency unity and cooperation is undermined by agency teams fighting to secure a bigger share of the revenue. The problem is so endemic to the big agency model that clients are increasingly wary and asking if agencies have one profit and loss.

While you can tell people to work better together, until comparison models are driven by client satisfaction across all offices, they will remain inclined to protect and enhance their immediate team’s share of the revenue.

By embedding financial models into their organisations, mid-sized agencies can ensure their people work together in a way that best serves clients.

Providing a truly different perspective


If there is a rallying call for mid-sized agencies, it’s this; use your size as a weapon. Don’t aspire to be like the big guys and work hard to be exactly the opposite.

The market is more ready than ever for brave agencies with a fresh philosophy, agencies that are willing and able to challenge ingrained traditions and business habits that may be outdated.

More nimble, open minded smaller firms have a huge opportunity here, if they’re willing to blaze a new path.


To hear more about how boutiques and niche agencies are disrupting the PR industry, read about our webinar on the subject.