Punch above your weight

Large, high-profile clients are increasingly commissioning much smaller agencies for all sorts of projects. Five such minnows reveal how they took on the big boys – and won

As an individual freelancer or a member of a very small creative agency, it’s easy to assume that large, well-paying clients used to dealing with huge agencies simply wouldn’t be interested in working with you. That they would – metaphorically or even literally – laugh in your face if you so much as attempted to pitch to them. Overcoming this fear of rejection is key to punching above your weight.

Tony Richardson Advertising is a very small creative ad agency, based in Australia, which has worked for huge brands such as Unilever, Citibank, Zurich Insurance and Kimberly-Clark, specialising in TV commercial creation, TVC adaptation, web video and integrated advertising campaigns. Right from TRA’s inception, Richardson aimed at landing large, multinational clients – despite the fact that initially, the studio consisted solely of himself.

“I had a home office and worked alone, and a lot of friends and colleagues thought I was nuts,” he laughs. “Someone said ‘Elephants don’t sleep with mice’ or something like that. He was wrong.”

Richardson drew on the knowledge and contacts he had gained while previously working for large agencies, but decided to eschew the normal pitching process, perhaps as a result of that very experience. “I never did the traditional ‘competitive pitch’ where a client puts out a brief to three agencies and picks the best,” he says.

“My aim was to answer a particular project or problem the client had. This under-the-wire approach seemed to get me in the door, and then I was asked to do more work.” For example, he says, his relationship with Unilever and Colgate began with small, one-off jobs for OMO and Dynamo laundry detergents. “When the clients saw that I provided great service, low cost and good creative, they gave me more and more work. I think they realised that one or two people could actually do most of the work of a mega-agency.”

Those one or two people do need be prepared to put in a lot of effort, though, especially in the earlier stages of dealing with a new, larger client. “On each of those accounts I ended up doing all of their TV commercial work,” Richardson says. “That is scripts, research material, and TV production supervision. We hired production companies to shoot the ads.”

But the results have been worth it: TRA’s website is littered with praise from large clients who actively appreciate the fact that they didn’t have to deal with the faff that larger studios often incur.

“Probably every job I did was a job that a large agency thought was theirs,” Richardson says. “They felt like I was robbing them. In fact I think I lost a friend because of this… or maybe I’m just no fun anymore.”

It’s all the same

Inkymole, aka illustrator Sarah Coleman, says she rarely has to pitch personally these days, as her agent tends to handle much of the bidding and other processes that lead up to a job being awarded. However, she still feels that there’s no need to be intimated by what might be regarded as a larger client.

“I’m not sure any brand or client should be thought of as being ‘above’ anyone,” she says. “A large name is simply one that’s high profile, or has been around for a long time. Ultimately, you’re all members of a team who’ve been assigned to get a job done – they’re looking to hire someone with the skills they need. That person might be you, it might not. It’s not personal; it’s just a question of who fits best.”

Of course, there’s also the anxiety associated with pitching to anyone you consider out of your league – possibly followed by self-flagellation and self-doubt if the pitch doesn’t come off. Even this, Coleman thinks, needn’t be a big deal. In fact, it’s something to be embraced.

“It’s rare that anyone outside the pitch would even know you’ve done it, unless you tell them, so why worry if you don’t get it?” she says. “It’s part of the job and it’s good practice. In fact, I once sent promotional material to a lady at Saatchi in NYC for eight years without a single response – until one day she rang and said, ‘I’ve been waiting eight years for the right job to give to you, and today I have it!’ See? Nothing wasted…”

A fresh approach

US creative ad agency Questus has built up something of a reputation for itself as a small studio that takes on major clients – and isn’t afraid to talk about it. “Without a doubt, we feel we have an advantage over big agencies,” says Jordan Berg, Questus’ co-founder. “Most of our clients have sought us out for a fresh approach, one that isn’t hindered by a big, siloed holding company.” Last year, it fought off several huge opponents to land the campaign for Martha Stewart Home Office with Avery – a specialised line of products designed by the domestic goddess herself.

“We were invited to pitch, but we didn’t know who our competition was until after we won,” says Berg. “To our surprise, we were matched up with some real agency studs.” The studio’s approach in this case was simple: “After extensive research and ethnographic studies, we realised that running a household for many of the women at which the campaign was aimed was an emotional experience. Keeping the house and the family running smoothly was a frustrating and anxiety-filled job. By tapping into that truth we were able to find our creative platform for the campaign.”

So what advice does he have for creatives in a similar position? “Use your close-knit culture to create seamless experiences – big agencies have a tough time collaborating. The client invited you for a reason.”

With a good portfolio of creative material under your belt, it might not even be necessary to pitch to land high-profile projects: you just need to be ready to accept the opportunity if it arises and put in the necessary work. For husband-and-wife character design studio Meomi – aka Vicki Wong and Michael Murphy – this has been the case not once, but twice.

Meomi’s Octonauts characters, for example, began life as simple desktop wallpapers, created purely for the duo’s own enjoyment. Over time Meomi developed the cast of Octonauts and made up stories about them, until eventually they were approached by a publisher to create a picture book. Nowadays, as well as expanding into a series of books, Octonauts is also a hugely successful animated TV series shown all over the world.

It was a similar situation with designs for the Vancouver 2010 Olympics mascots, which Meomi ended up creating. “It normally would never have occurred to us to go after a project as massive and mainstream as this,” says Wong. “But we were contacted by the creative director, Leo Obstbaum, to submit our portfolio for review. After the portfolio reviews and interviews, we found ourselves to be one of two finalists hired to create concept designs of characters based on the themes of the Vancouver games.”

In this case, one experience of working on a high-profile project fuelled the other – even though Meomi hadn’t anticipated either scenario. “We think our work as children’s book authors and illustrators probably gave us some advantage,” says Wong, “as we had experience developing not only what the characters look like, but also their personalities. It seems they liked our work, and the final mascots came from those concepts.”

Grand beginnings

You don’t necessarily need to be an established creative to punch above your weight: younger designers and even students regularly land high-profile commissions. Lapsed Pacifist is an animation company set up by Tom Rourke, Andy Payne and Nathan Brenville – three students who are currently in their final year of the MA character animation course at Central Saint Martins.

The company has already been commissioned by BBC Radio 4 to create an animated sequence for a radio show called Two Episodes of Mash, which currently appears on the BBC’s website. “A friend of ours who is a comedy filmmaker told the producer of the show to take a look at our work,” explains Rourke, “and we were then contacted about the possibility of making an animation to coincide with the second series.” In addition, Rourke and his friend Adam McNicol have set up Brainwrap Comedy Cinema, a regular event for screening short comedy films from both established filmmakers – including Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz – and industry newcomers.

“We’ve also have been working with an advertising agency so that once we graduate we can begin work on ad campaigns and maybe some music videos,” he adds. “The key thing we’ve learned is to make the most of your opportunities, don’t sell yourself short, and put as much energy as you can into it.”