Friday, 23 May 2008

Small is the new big.. (or how we run a distributed agency)

If you happen to be a fan of 37 Signals (which we happen to be – and if you don’t know who they are – try this {}) you might read their blog {}, which recently had a great quote about size – ‘“If you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito.” -Betty Reese.

Now we are a decidedly small branding agency – there are less than 10 of us. We have been bigger, but about 5 years ago we decided we wanted to be smaller.

We tend to see the ‘branding agency landscape’ roughly fitting into 3 sizes:

The big – probably over 100 people, maybe lots of offices around the world, working on huge brands, and soaking up miles of PR related column inches and blog pages. You know the ones – Interbrand, Futurebrand, Landor, Wollf Olins – often the grand-daddies of the branding world.

The medium – these are the 30 to 100 guys – with a big tidy business, maybe more than one office.. more ‘middle aged’ – happy with their position, doing good work for established clients – but somehow less ‘newsworthy’.

The small – the 1 to 30’s – one office, maybe hot young gunslingers on the way up, or more long in the tooth and ploughing a more lonely furrows on the way down. Maybe one big client and a few smaller ones, or lots of ‘prospective’ breakthrough clients.

Except we don’t really fit into any of these – because we work differently – and a lot of it is thanks to our friends at 37 Signals… and we think it’s the future for a lot of businesses…

We are small, but we have a number of offices, on several continents. We have a range of clients – from HUGE to tiny. But the way we work now – well I don’t think we could have done it even 5 years ago very easily.

We use a suite of tools that help us stay small, stay connected, keep us apart (in a good way – less travelling), help us manage our business, organise diaries, manage our clients, keep them connected, store all our crucial documents and data, and most importantly help us to be creative. Sounds good eh? And it doesn’t cost much…

This is what we use….

1. Phones for ringing people
3. Basecamp for project management {}

4. Highrise for storing and logging all our client-centric correspondence and ‘stuff’ {}

5. Backpack for our ‘corporate intranet’ {}

6. Campfire for running online chats {}
7. Macs and iPhones because we love them (one of our partners does own a PC - but it’s days are numbered…)
8. A few great applications like Keynote, Pages, Numbers – but most things end up as pdf’s.
9. Some local servers, but once again, their days are numbered…
10. Small IT bills – few hundred dollars a month max

What we don’t have (now) is:

1. Any IT staff – or indeed any ‘junior’ staff at all
2. Big servers with VPN and tricky stuff like that
3. Large maintenance agreements to manage big hot servers and ‘kit’
4.Trouble finding stuff like files and presentations and pictures etc..
5. Anxiety about ‘stuff breaking or crashing’
6. large pieces of capital investment
7. No time to talk and meet with clients
8. There are probably more things but I’m bored with this list now…

The four core products (which all run in a browser) – Basecamp, Highrise, Backpack and Campfire do everything we need, and help us do things better, without the need for IT support or training. You should check them out to see all the things they do, but the most important thing they are is SIMPLE.

What’s the downside? Er…

Well, theoritically there are of course some potential downsides, but any risk is still much less than the alternatives – at least as far as we are concerned.

The benefits however, are that they allow us to manage our clients and their work, and our time and our ‘stuff’ more efficiently, and quicker, and easier. They essentially allow us to get on with what we are paid to do, help solve our clients problems with minimal problems.

This article was written straight onto a section within Backpack, edited (or at least looked at) by all the partners. All our work is managed in much the same way – so whether an assignment is in the USA, or London, or somewhere just outside Paris – we can work and share our ideas, thoughts and conclusions – without the automatic need for unnecessary plane trips, or long tiring journey.

Don’t get me wrong, we do get out though, and we spend lots of time with our clients, wherever they are – in fact that was one of the reasons we chose to work this way – more time dedicated to our clients.

Our objective is to add real ‘grit’ to any branding project, to ask the ‘unaskable’ and challenge the status quo. I guess our role is all to often to be the ‘mosquito in the bed’ – and we have found that by spending less time and effort managing our business, we can spend more time and effort helping our clients to run their businesses.