When we started Bravedog, we always held the belief that we wanted to become a big team, in relative terms, and emulate the well-known agencies that seemed always to be winning the work, awards and earning massive fees.
Early on that was the basis for our ambition, why not? - To grow, and seek to become one of those agencies wasn’t the worst idea in the World. We certainly started out with that kind of mentality and application, indeed having a degree of success we did grow, in fact, at one time we had enough people to crew a decent sized yacht. It felt ok, but were we happy, were we fulfilled in our work and relationships, were we enjoying vast riches and the appreciation and accolades we’d dared to dream of?
Not at all. If I could find a way now to describe it, the word ‘painful' wouldn’t do it justice.
A similar life experience that I can think of is that time in early parenthood when it’s all a blur. You’re in a constant haze of exhaustion and confusion, like trying to decide what to have in Costa before you eventually get to the front of the line. Those excruciating trips with your young children to ‘indoor playland' or whatever it was called, heaving with other screaming kids, running wild off the lead with runny bogy, sweat-blushed, chocolate (I hope) smeared faces. Those seemingly pointless conversations with other parents. Talking utter gibberish in an attempt to ‘join in' with those tedious people, you would cross the road to avoid in real life. The apparent endless torture of just being there pretending to be enjoying crawling through smelly kid-filled tubes, sinking in ball pits and ascending rope ladders, putting in the Everest conquering time, application and effort that came with almost no reward or an inkling of gratitude. Arrrgghhhh!
It sounds shit, right? Well perhaps it wasn't as bad as all that, but you get the picture. It was hard work that put my senior team and me under more pressure than it was worth. Long hours, unfulfilled promises, over-demanding clients that don’t get it, whinging staff that had delusions of grandeur and work that’s exactly that, work, nothing more.
I guess if I’m looking at it more pragmatically, get a grip on my emotions for a minute, around 30% of what we were doing at that time was good. More than good in truth, it was edgy, enjoyable and appreciated but unfortunately, it became overshadowed by all the crap, the politics and pressure of people and sleepless nights that go with pursuing big.
In my experience, as you get older and have earned a few battle scars, you tend to be much less tolerant of doing or putting up with the things you don't have to. Maybe you have a little more financial and life security too which take some of the sharp edges off making tough, perhaps risky decisions.
So that’s what we did, in around mid-2015 we made a choice to change.
We'd long since gotten over the idea of being big. The reality had kicked in that that wasn't what we wanted at all. Quite the opposite in fact. Being big and wanting to be bigger was our Achilles heel, it was holding us back. Not from growing but from being whom we wanted to be and doing what we wanted most which was to be great people doing great work for great clients who appreciate us.
Growing is an interesting concept since we tend to think of it in terms of scale, massive teams, large offices, endless clients, healthy profits and continual investment. BUT is it? What if growing meant something else entirely? What if growing actually meant nurturing your talents, indulging in the things you love, exploring new ideas, opening your mind to possibility, being your best self. Well for me that sits much better, it makes me feel seriously happy to reflect and know now that our manifesto for change, for growth, is based on so much more than we ever imagined before. F##k me bring on the next ten years (yes it’s our 10th birthday next month!)
Don't get me wrong; this is only my/our perspective based on our experiences (in big and small agencies) and how we see things. I imagine many agencies do being big well and thrive individually and commercially as a result. But not us. Fighting our destiny in pursuit of something else wasn’t right on so many levels.
Our journey is following a different path; we're growing smaller.
So what has that meant for Bravedog and the people that are its heart and soul?
I'll list some out; else this will become a 10-page paper on small which kind of defeats the point.
1. Small teams have more fun. Fact.
Our culture puts us first, when we go to work we absolutely immerse ourselves in it, partly for our clients (since they are paying for it) but mostly for our own fulfilment – no surprise then that our work now is in a different league to before. When you take away the burdens pressure and expectation, ideas and application just come easy and without effort. We’ve embraced this way of ‘working’, and I kid you not, at least one day a week ‘golden day' we don't do any real work; instead, we explore, create, chat and debate stuff that adds value and enjoyment to our day. It's usually creative and industry related topics we're drawn to discussing and experimenting with, but equally, we can go off on random flights challenging ‘life stuff'. And when I say fun, I'm not talking cliché millennial agency nonsense like table football, skateboarding around the studio and all that… Hell, I'm 45 for God's sake! I prefer the deep, philosophical stuff that gets to the heart of things, so do the guys here, though they're not as deep-rooted as this old soul. And better still, we actually gain hours by being ‘tuned in' we're more productive because when you work happy you work smart. We make more money now too, but our profit is measured in other ways.
2. Small teams are better for clients. Fact (relative?).
The best relationships are the intimate ones, where trust and appreciation are mutual between agency and client. Instead, I should say between a person and a person. Strip away the big agency formality, multi-team complexity and the transactional stuff, remove the high ground and you reveal something far more purposeful and rewarding underneath.
We foster this kind of clarity and good chemistry across our team, and with as many clients people as we can, accepting that some won't allow themselves to be loved, less so know how to love us back. That's ok. We're all made different.
By putting people and relationships higher up our agenda than winning briefs or generating fees we all get more out of it. We're working together for a common cause, and crucially there's no layers or hierarchy to our team, so our clients have direct access to our best creative expertise, our best people, all of the time. We’re not sending in big hitters to win a brief, then passing the actual work down to a junior team to maximise profit or expecting an intern to administer the glue.
Inevitably the ideas and work that’s borne of these direct, almost symbiotic partnerships, is without a doubt better, more effective - far more enjoyable to do too. It counts because we’re all invested in it and each other, long term.
3. Small teams are free to think… and do. Fact.
Take away the over-engineering, the structures, the endless boring meetings, the rules and you will find clarity.
That clarity means we can think without interference, dream without distraction or pressure, it allows us to tap into what we were born to do – to be creative. Not only that, a small team is agile, it makes exploring, testing, designing and applying great ideas much more straightforward. And if the idea is so big that it needs more hands on deck, then we call in friends to come and sail with us for a time. You don't think all those freelancers are just sitting in their bedrooms waiting for a Mac Mail to ping them into action, do you? No, the best mercenaries are crewing pirate ships and swigging rum (café latte) with people like us. Yo ho ho and all that. More fun, more stories, more sharing, no expectation = happy people = fantastic work.
4. Small teams cost less. Fiction.
That’s a lie, well kind of. Small agencies should charge more for all the reasons described in 1-3. However, some clients still prefer to pay big for all the razzmatazz, the sparkling water-fuelled, 10-person meetings in swanky SoHo offices, and the breadth and scale of expertise and experience they were sold at the start. That’s understandable, the agency they hired (at great expense) work with Coca-Cola and Nike, they put a billboard on the moon FFS, they have more silverware than Arsenal and enough pencils to be the envy of every classmate. That’s all very well, but that comes at a price and paying more for something doesn’t mean it’s better. It inevitably says that the client is less likely to question their decision or admit if the experience was not what they anticipated, likely the results may have disappointed too, but they will probably lie to themselves to ease the pain and never openly share it (hire another 'big' agency) yikes!
It's like when you ask an ex-colleague how they're doing in their fantastic new job, they hate it, it sucks, but they tell you it's amazing because they don't want to look like a dick for making a bad move. Clients are no different, though in truth we all smile through shit at some time or another so never hold this human weakness against someone.
Small is beautiful because we thrive on all the opportunities it gives us.
Being small means the new studio will feel bigger, more space for doing great stuff at our own pace and ideally located just 45 minutes by train from SoHo (new high-speed line), even less from Bristol. Free parking too if you prefer to drive.
Being small means our big agency experience can be put to better use, for little or big clients but doing things our way.
Being small means we have only ever entered one award – we won it. Why don’t we enter more? Well because we don’t need to. Instead, we prefer to judge ourselves and applaud our work on its own merits. If we enjoyed doing it, our clients loved it, and we were paid fairly for our time and effort then it's worthy of as many pencils or shiny things as you care to put next to it.
Being small means we're more accessible to the kind of clients and brands we want to help. We don't work for small change, but we are worth every penny.
Being small means we can be more selective in whom we work with and pick the projects that are best suited to us.
Being small means we get to live and breathe all the things that we do, we get to enjoy ourselves when we are working and playing.
Being small makes us happy.
Why would we ever want to be big?