Deja Vu: Big Agencies, Small Agencies, and SXSW

Ben Eckerson, Former Senior Digital Strategist

Article Category: #Strategy

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Like most returning from the yearly tech pilgrimage known as SXSW, I’m as excited and re-energized as ever to innovate and make the web a better place. This is a familiar feeling albeit a different perspective.

In 2011, I went to Austin as a digital producer for a big agency and it opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about and executing digital work. I returned from SXSW on a mission to work differently. Popular panels from 2011, including “Do Agencies Need to Think Like Software Companies?” inspired thoughts of change — but it was conversations outside these panels that led me to challenge the big agency way and to change our process and execution.

This year I went as a member of a smaller digital agency and with fellow Viget folkssome of whom have been attending since 2005 — the experience offered a different perspective. One co-worker stated, “SXSW used to be for the ‘doers,’ now it’s for the ‘talkers.’” I’ve heard this sentiment before, but never talked at length with anyone who has witnessed the evolution first hand. The attendance of smaller, leaner digital agencies that are part of the “old guard” at SXSW is quickly dwindling, making way for larger, louder, and less tech-savvy ad agencies and brands.

The successes of smaller digital agencies working directly with brands to create products and platforms in a more collaborative, faster, leaner way has been well-documented for the better part of the last decade — especially at SXSW. It’s left larger agencies attempting to learn from smaller specialized shops by trying out new processes, roles, or initiatives in order to attract and keep developer talent. These agencies have realized that digital is more than banner ads, social media campaigns, and ad buys — yet it seems they still can’t truly replicate what the smaller, more specialized digital shops are doing right.

While a number of smaller digital shops (like AKQA) have been bought out by larger companies, the smarter, forward-thinking folks are realizing the limitations of the structure and process at bigger agencies and are migrating away. Some join the brand side, others join smaller digital agencies (like me), while others spin up new digital agencies (like this one). But all seek to approach advertising/branding/marketing/making digital work differently than they had done so at big ad agencies.

I had the pleasure of meeting a full spectrum of brand, big agency, small digital agency, and startup digital agency folks in Austin. We discussed the industry landscape at length over a pint of Shiner. I shared a bit about Viget and the pleasantly surprising policies, process, and people that “get it” that I’ve experienced in my short time here. I spoke of the smart, creative, motivated, and multi-talented folks that work efficiently within our flexible process on smaller, more dedicated teams than the bigger agencies have. I explained that all team members share both creative ideas and poignant questions with clients (large and small) in a refreshing environment of transparency on every project.

Others shared similar positive experiences on recent projects, or recalled frustrations from their big agency past — ultimately reflecting on such an exciting time in our industry where brands are getting smarter and more digitally savvy. In a year where I was shut out of panel after panel due to the influx of the “new guard,” it was once again the conversations outside the panels that proved to be the most valuable experience.


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