Why One Entrepreneur Believes We Need A Movement To Help Save Small Agencies

There are actions we can take to help small businesses to survive the recession, writes Lauren Winchester


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Brands and businesses that are built by entrepreneurs or champion entrepreneurship generally, like AB InBev, the Century Property Group, Coca-Cola, EOH, FNB, Nando’s, Primedia and Sorbet to name a few, must step-up to ensure the survival of small agencies during the recession.

Failure to do so will lead to the closure of small agencies, reducing capacity, capability, choice, competition and creativity in the industry as a whole. Rebuilding won’t be easy or quick, and the depth of diversity and talent in the small agency space will be lost, possibly forever.

Although there are no firm statistics, small agencies employ large numbers of people directly and indirectly. We’re feeling the pinch like never before, particularly since many brands and businesses that traditionally employ small agencies are pulling back.

For example, one executive from an FMCG company e-mailed that "(their) spend is heading the other way, into price discounting. There is no work." Another executive from a quick service and casual dining chain said that "there is not much happening at the moment." The litany of doom and gloom is a familiar refrain that permeates everything and verges on becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Here are two industry initiatives that should be spearheaded to help navigate some of the recessionary headwinds:

1. A portal – modelled along similar lines as Freelancer.com – where member brands and businesses will post briefs and pre-approved small agencies will submit bids or proposals. Online credentials and references will support the emergence of a "virtual community of competence" and a dynamic business-to- business network.

While brands and businesses will be able to search small agencies, follow favourites and engage directly, small agencies will be able to share their work and tell their story.

Member and subscription fees will apply to offset the management and marketing costs and a headline sponsor (or sponsors) is being secured for the development piece.

2. A small agency forum will help drive a small agency-friendly agenda among business leaders and industry influencers alike. Key issues and themes will include the benefits of small agencies, as well as their economic impact. Simpler procurement processes and vendor management systems will also feature.

A "Save the Small Agency" campaign is in the pipeline. In the meanwhile, small agency owners, like mine, are having to dig deep. Consolidating and culling overhead has been my number one priority since the beginning of the year. All non-revenue generating employees have been retrenched, working hours are in the process of being reduced (where possible), and office space has been significantly downscaled. All the bells and whistles are gone.

As a small agency owner, you do whatever it takes to keep the doors open, the lights on and as many people as possible in gainful employment. You forego your salary, you put your retirement annuity on hold, you skip a few bond repayments and hope that the bank will be sympathetic. You preserve cash in case it gets worse, and you juggle creditors to make sure that there are a few bucks in the bank for an emergency.

You feel like a fraud, a failure and a scumbag. You don’t sleep and stomach-churning stress is your constant companion. You worry. All. The. Time. And you can’t show it because you have to inspire confidence and lead from the front. And whenever you roll up a meeting, you park your anxiety, fear and shame, you put on your game face, and you walk the talk like there is nothing to lose. It’s lonely and scary. And it isn’t for the faint-hearted.

When you’ve done the Business 101 stuff, you leverage your network, you cold-call, you reinvent, you initiate, you innovate. And while there is no shortage of creativity, the number of brands and businesses that are willing to pay for it are a rapidly diminishing reality. The ones that are willing to pay for it are frequently attached to large global groups, like Publicis and WPP, where there is very little chance of flexibility or maneuverability. But, you have to keep going because one may bite. And that one could make all the difference.

Despite the enormity of the challenges and deep levels of uncertainty regarding the future, I am hopeful that entrepreneurial brands and businesses will come to the party and help small agencies weather the storm. It’s incumbent on everyone to play their part and give small agencies the opportunity to survive these tough times.

About the author: Lauren Winchester is the founder and managing director of The Red Phone Brand Campaigners

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