The Lure of The Big Design Agency

June 8, 2020

There's this belief among companies looking for a design partner that more people means a greater success rate, implying that larger companies are innately better than smaller competitors. While that may very well be true in certain industries, in the design realm, creativity and problem solving are paramount and tend to puncture holes in this belief. Taking it a bit further, when it comes to choosing a design studio to work with, size shouldn't be one of the deciding factors. In other words, bigger isn't always better.

A short story

Not long ago I had to submit a proposal to a company that had put out an RFP. Now, normally I don't do that, as I believe RFPs aren't great. But this was for a company I had done quite a bit of work for over the past few years, so I bit the bullet and wrote up the longest proposal in my 20-year career. (RFPs often have silly requirements that mean pages and pages of "stuff". I often wonder if anyone actually reads it all.)

To be fair, I had a bit of an edge in knowing the ins and outs of this particular company's website and how it could and should be improved. Armed with that, and hand-picking my perfect team for the new project, I was confident in the proposal I submitted. Long story short, we lost to a much larger agency. On the positive side, we were in the client's top three final choices and I got good feedback on what we did right and why the other agency won.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed as I know my team and I would've kicked ass. I try to take these moments as opportunities to reflect and learn and this one was no different. This experience reaffirmed a few things:

  1. RFPs are often a waste of time. I'm not 100% convinced that was the case here, but it wasn't far from it either.
  2. I have no desire to grow Block 81 into a larger studio or agency. I firmly believe Block 81's small size contributes to our success.
  3. The diversity of our portfolio and client base is an advantage despite others not seeing it this way. (I may write about this later.)

No matter how I spin it, losing sucks. It sucks even more when you're as competitive as I am, but it's a part of life. Onward and upward as it were. But I do think there's something to be said about placing too much importance on the size of a design studio, which I've little doubt played a role here.

And I get it. The lure of a big design firm is strong. And perhaps to industry outsiders it makes the most sense and seems obvious: a larger design agency is in a better position to support their clients due to their size and access to resources. Often though, the opposite is true. Small studios and boutique design shops, have a number of traits that can give them an edge over the larger agencies.

So before you make studio size a deciding factor on who to hire for your website redesign, take a look at the following reasons why going small can be better.

Individualized attention

Large agencies are responsible for dozens, if not hundreds, of clients at the same time. That means teams are stretched thin and that can lead to minimum required effort. And that gets you "meh" results. If team members have too much on their plate, or are constantly switching between client projects as priorities shift, it becomes extremely difficult for them to fully immerse themselves into a single client project.

Couple that with bigger accounts (i.e. clients with more money) that often get pushed to the front of the priority list and smaller or mid-sized clients end up getting less than ideal effort or results.

Then there's the issue of junior level folks taking on whole projects because senior creatives are told to prioritize a bigger account.

Smaller studios, on the other hand, generally have fewer clients and rarely, if ever, is there is a "B" team. This results in personalized attention from the whole team. It also means you're in direct contact with the people creating your website. In Block 81's case, you're in touch with the owner (that's me) throughout the entire project. That means one-on-one communication and no game of telephone.

Because of this more personalized attention, a small web design studio can feel more like an extension of your own team rather than just a company you hired.

Quality over quantity

Smaller web design studios are generally more focused on the craft. That is, doing the job right in every way possible. That means we're more open to doing things differently if a project calls for it. We rarely get stuck in the "this is how we've always done it mentality".

In smaller design companies, creativity and problem solving rule. Bureaucracy and rigid rules do not. This allows us to be more willing to take risks in getting to the right solution for your project. A big part of the reason we can do that is because we're not focused on the number of clients or projects. We focus on the quality of those clients and projects. Because of that, smaller studios are a bit more invested in your success because, in a much bigger way, it means our success too.

Flexibility

A large web design agency tends to have many layers of management that can easily lead to miscommunication. Not so with a small design studio. Because the team is, by definition, smaller, we're able to shift gears a tad bit faster and easier because the company structure is flatter, there are fewer people, and there are fewer projects to work around.

This flexibility also generally means faster turnarounds, especially on the small requests that border on trivial. A large web agency may have more bodies, but sometimes the internal process slows things down when it comes to getting even the simplest of tasks in the work queue.

Pricing and budget

As we've established, large design agencies mean more people. That means more overhead. There's just no way around that. And that overhead gets passed on to you. That's why a website will cost you so much more the larger the agency.

Now that's not to say that small web design studios are "cheap" or do cheap work. Quite the contrary in most cases. In fact, some smaller design companies can do just as good a job as the larger agency; occasionally even better. The difference in pricing usually boils down to the overhead. Chances are, with the right small design shop, you'll get more bang for your buck.

Is smaller always better?

No, of course not. But then, bigger isn't always better either. Like with anything, there are pros and cons to large and small web design companies.

The key thing to remember is that each web agency is different. And each project is different. So the next time you're looking for a design or development partner, consider a small web design studio. You might be pleasantly surprised. 😃