In my agency/consultancy life, I’ve snatched a big client out of the jaws of a big agency twice.

Here’s how it worked both times.

In both cases, the client asked me for advice. I knew the decision makers and they called on me because they wanted my opinion on either the big agency itself or of going the big agency route.

Credibility comes from knowing the answers to questions they haven’t thought of yet.

The client asks for a recommendation and you give it. You tell them the good, the bad and the gotchas. It’s the gotchas that tilt the scales.

Once they see what you tell them they’ll see, they understand that you know what you’re talking about. The hairs on the back of their necks stand straight up and they see the unhappy future that awaits them working with the big agency. And they turn to you because you’re smaller and are un-big agency-like.

Your being a hammer doesn’t necessarily make them a nail.

You offer them a plan that is an exact DNA-level match to what they need. This is very different from the big agency approach. Look, when you’ve got a PhD in anthropology on staff, everything becomes a question of observing customers in their natural habitat, doesn’t it?

When you’re a hammer, everything does, in fact, begin to look like a nail. So your job is to be very, very careful and deconstruct exactly what the client needs and assemble exactly those elements and team members that match the needs. No fluff, no filler, just a perfectly matched pairing of truth serum and testosterone.

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

You give them what they want, just not the way they were expecting it. I’m paraphrasing a McKee-ism here, but the point is important to grasp: the uniqueness of their problem needs to be mirrored by the uniqueness of your approach.

If you’re just another guy doing what a hundred other guys can do, you’ve put yourself at a disadvantage. So question the what and the how of your approach.

Showing up is 90% of winning. Well, at least 50%. A lot. Let’s agree on a lot.

The senior guy and the creative director both show up at all the meetings. This is something the big agency can’t – or won’t – do, which means it’s your advantage. You get the CEO involved early and often.

And you end up doing inspired, great work.

Why clients like this.

Clients like it when small agencies get the nod because they know they matter to the new partner. This is a first step in the decision trigger of implied reciprocity: I’m giving you the “gift” of a public display of trust – and in return, you’re going to give me 110% of your best work.

They like the fact that they’re getting top notch work and personal involvement by the people whose names are on the (sometimes virtual) doors. You never, ever, ever get this from a big agency. So the client needs to think hard about whether it’s better to hire a small agency and get a senior level professional’s full attention or go with a “name” and get someone 2 years out of undergrad handling their business on a day to day basis.

And they like saving the overhead that would have been going to the receptionist, the loft and the holiday parties. Hopefully, that cost savings is just enough to notice and not so much that you’re wondering what you’re doing for a living. Benchmarking helps.

Key takeaways:

  1. DNA-level matching of needs with capabilities. You’re smaller, faster and flexible enough to actually spend time with the client and do what they, uniquely, need done. Big agencies are hammers. You are a smart phone.
  2. Big brains in the room. You’re not sending the she-was-an-intern-two-years-ago account rep in now that you’ve landed the fish.
  3. The economics of no overhead. The CEO likes it because they’re saving money and getting great work. The decision maker likes it because you’re saving them money that they are re-investing in other things. Yes, you’ll be cheaper than the big agencies.

This is the how and the why of taking a client away from a big agency, at least from my personal experience. But I’ve only been in this game a few years. So here’s what I want from you, dear readers:

Tell me what I’m missing. Tell me what I haven’t seen yet, would be glad to hear and should know now as opposed to stumbling upon it later. Tell me. I need to know. And so does everybody else.

As a fairly low grade spoiler, I’ll tell you on Wednesday the how and the why of losing a client to a big agencies and how to avoid it happening (with any frequency, at least – or so I hope). And again, I’ll be looking to you for inspiration! Thanks.