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Best New Thinking Winner 2010

Craft Topics – Good Company

I have been working on my own for over four years now (gulp). And have had to think through what I’m offering as a sole trader or part of a virtual team versus a whole company. It’s not a question of being in direct competition usually. But thanks to Powerpoint and client meetings in the client’s own offices the differentials between little ol’ me and a company reduce. Substantially. Last summer I pitched for a project against a research agency with 100 employees and another with 25. The client had to postpone the pitch date till I came back from holiday because there was no one else to cover the meeting! In the end (after a recount) I came a close second. My contention when pitching for research projects is that often I can bring more specialist expertise to bear thatn a much larger agency can because I don’t carry it on the payroll – it’s pay as you go and the client is the immediate beneficiary. And the client doesn’t have to subsidize or be forced to use others on the payroll who aren’t working at the moment. So with the minnows schooling up to offer an increasing range of services, what’s the point of being a company?

The first benefit is obviously security for the client. There’s a better chain of accountability – the client can ask for changes in the team and continue to work with the same organisation. It makes a client feel safe to know that the business is being handled by a substantional organisation.

Secondly There’s a greater knowledge base in an organisation which if properly managed far outpaces that of an individual. The company ought to know far more. And should have readier and deeper access to information. Though the internet has also reduced this advantage also.

Thirdly there are greater resources and access to finance so the company should be able to outperform the individual or the independent team.

But at this point the arguments start to sound a little strained. Because all of thise power and resource comes at a price. First from fixed overheads – they all need to be housed usually in the same place and hopefully more or less the same time. They each need to be given workspace, so they can work done. And they need to have a whole structure of communication and co-ordination so that everybody stays up to speed. The larger the organisation the greater the level of bureacracy and information entropy (miscommunication or absence of communication) – all of which adds cost.

Which is why client organisations are happy to buy more and more services from small companies or sole traders. Some are even opting to assemble teams themselves – this is what John Grant calls the 7 Samurai model. The virtual team has the benefit of having few if any fixed overheads – it can be moved across the country or across borders much more easily than conventional companies which still have pay for the office space wherever their people happen to be working. Enter hotdesking I hear you cry. Well the Chiat Day case study is well documented. Because whether or not people had lockers desks or laptops they still needed to brief and debrief each other. And this proved more and more difficult to do. People opted not to come into the workspace so they could get on with their work. But then nobody was clear what work had and hadn’t been done.

So is this a predictable rant against the company? Is the company doomed to shrink to insignificance? And isn’t this just what a sole trader would say. Well not at all. In fact despite the predictions of Charles Handy that the workplace would polarise between elephantine corporations and freelance fleas there is every sign that companies are flourishing at every level of size. The number of extremely large companies is growing. Companies which have too much overhead or are crap at communicating with their staff are flabby or unco-ordinated. It used to be the case that they could muddle through. Because their customers had no alternative. However the increase in the number of ‘fleas’ and client’s increasing willingness to use them has meant that companies have to get fit or get out.

Agencies don’t have the best track record here. Because they are structured around task based teams – it’s very easy for the specialists to do what they do and to forget about the relationship between their work and the work of the whole company. Ways of working which might differentiate their way of working from that of specialists working for competitors. Learnings which might leap across markets or disciplines or skillsets within an agency. But that is exactly and perhaps principally what the role of agency management ought to be. I remember being very impressed when Steve Barton, MD of the late lamented Leonardo used to gather the whole agency for drinks at the end of every week to review the work, talk about new business and the direction of the business. Everybody knew what was going on without needing a 30 page status report and 3 hours of progress chasing on a Monday morning. Because companies ought to be able to outperform the sole traders. Every time. There really isn’t an excuse.

There’s another reason for banging on about this. It’s APG Creative Planning awards submission time. And though the substance of the awards is still about insight and canny briefing and challenging thinking – it remains a fact that to date I don’t think there has been a single submission from a virtual team or a sole planner servicing creatives though I’d love to be proved wrong. In other words however many planning freelancers there are out there – they can’t get a paper together even though we are just as capable at doing the insights, and the briefing and I would argue we can do it a dam sight faster too! But what is still unique about the function is actually not represented properly in the APG awards process. It is the ability to persuade – to take a whole team of people with you. And to make sure that the insight doesn’t get lost or knocked to one side half way through the process OR that the creative idea gets lost halfway through development. As happened to me once – it actually got lost on the shoot >;-(

Which is why agencies will put forward case studies and sole traders and the samurai teams won’t be. Good luck to all of you working on your papers this in the next few months – I wish you happy writing!




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