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The Big and Small of It

Authored by: Ken Nishikawa, Creative Digital Artist

If I had to narrow down one thing I’ve gained over my years working in the creative industry, it’s the value of perspective–from experiences both good and bad that bring life into focus. One such valuable perspective was moving from a large agency to a small one. The three biggest differences? Client rosters, daily workflow and work-life balance.

Client Rosters
Due to the sheer bulk of manpower and budgets available at large agencies, they may be better equipped to handle the high volume of work that larger, high-profile clients tend to want. They also have the capacity to deliver faster due to the wider distribution of workflow, increased internal resources, etc. Larger agencies will likely have a diverse assortment of big name clients—resulting in individuals developing a nicely buffed-up portfolio and resume after only a few years. On the downside, bigger clients require staff to be dedicated solely to that account. So, there is less chance for diversity, along with a lack of experience that is gained while working on different clients facing different marketing challenges.

At a smaller agency, while the client roster could still include big names, the volume and variety of work can be vastly different. With less internal resources available, small agencies typically work on less projects at one time. However, with less departments and red tape from management, communication is often swifter, leading to more efficiencies and faster turnaround times. It is normal for boutique agencies to work with smaller companies, generally utilized as a marketing/creative partner. In my experience, while working on high-profile clients is certainly a plus for your resume, it isn’t necessarily a requirement when finding a job, since both large and small clients require a creative mind to solve their unique problems.

Daily Workflow
Based on my time spent within a large agency, I can attest to the analogy of it being a highly mechanized structure that relies heavily on the use and adherence to process. The advantages of this structure really shine particularly when working with high volumes of work moving at high speed, much like having a finely tuned machine, where the multitude of small parts all move in concert of one another with minimal drag. But similar to the drawbacks found in robots glorified in sci-fi movies, a well-oiled machine may not necessarily possess a certain level of emotional sensitivity. It’s my observation that while levels of empathy exist in both large and small environments, governing policies of a more “mechanized” company tend to yield to the desires of a client over the needs of its employees.

A boutique agency can adopt similar processes found in big agencies, but for me, it feels and functions more like a family collaborating rather than individual pieces operating within a machine. There is much to be praised for the smaller, simpler work community compared to a bulky multi-departmental, heavily process-layered system. Individual actions, abilities and perspectives can carry much more weight within this type of environment. Thus, lending more opportunities and responsibilities that can grow your skill set whether as a creative or in an account position.

Work-Life Balance
I’ve had my share of hectic, challenging periods in both large and small agencies. Ultimately, you just have to be sensitive to your personal limits. Having a work-life balance is no joke. If you aren’t given the time to mentally decompress, it is surprising how the pressure can build on itself, until even the most level-headed person breaks down. It is about understanding which environment you most flourish in, or finding the right “fit,” that folks needs to be aware of. This goes for agencies of all sizes. Some people thrive in the “well-oiled machine.” They love the process and having a single purpose, in a larger, more systematized company. Mega-budgets are gazed upon in awe and anticipation, and make the impossible timelines and high-stress completely worth it. Long hours can lead to rare friendships as teams work together. Or long hours can be the epitome of Hell – depending on the type of boss you have. There is truth in the “work hard, play harder,” philosophies, and some thrive on beer cart Thursday’s, while others see it as a ploy to keep people in the office.

At a small agency, you can build great friendships with the team, but also leave the office at a normal time. There is more flexibility for when you need to take your dog to the vet or you need a mental health day. Working from home may be less frowned upon, and playing ping-pong with the owners may not be a taboo. You might not have a glorified portfolio of huge clients, but you can still have a portfolio of outstanding work. It is very much a “what you see is what you get” landscape, and though there is not an opportunity to move departments, you might find more opportunities for promotion. It is all a matter of perspective. Regardless of what size company you’re in, or wish to go, I highly recommend an environment that allows enough mental breathing space to frequently evaluate your life holistically. What you choose to do from there should be a conscious decision, made by yourself after self-reflection, rather than a decision left to the ebb and flow of industry.

Creative industries are made for every personality, work-type, etc. I am thankful for my own experiences in different landscapes, because they have shown me what I value in my work-life balance. Everyone has their own unique journey in their career, and it may be a road filled with trials and errors before you find the right place for you, but always acknowledge that there are options. If you are looking to be a part of something huge, a large agency might be for you. If you can’t fathom the idea of it, it isn’t that advertising is not right for you, you just might be looking in the wrong place.