Thinking Small.

I just finished the first installment of Bart Cleveland's excellent series of "Interviews with Small Agency Leaders" on the Ad Age site. What struck me most was not just how smart and strategic these small shops sound, but just how much their survival strategies sound like what media sales organizations ought to be doing. In stark contrast to the platitudes and wishful thinking that leaked out of the recent 4As "Transformation" conference, the views of small agency leaders sound immediate, realistic and compelling.

To kick off the piece, each agency leader answered the question What do you believe is the greatest opportunity for small firms? My own comments follow each...

Paul Crawford, Scout Branding Co.: "Small agencies should spend less time trying to impress their friends and competitors with their press releases and blogs and pick out a big company that they have a passion for and pursue them with well thought out ideas. Not headlines and killer ad layouts, but rather help them solve the business problems that wake them up at 2 a.m."

Over the years, I've watched far too many small and mid-sized publishers trying to win the hearts and minds of advertisers and investors by fighting a proxy war in the press. Problem is, even if you do it well the benefits last exactly one news cycle and then the pack moves on. Instead, as Crawford says so eloquently, make some choices; Pick a customer for whom your 'firm's' talents and resources match up well and form a strategy for winning a permanent place in their hearts. The war is won in the boardrooms of major marketers, not in Valley Wag or MediaPost.

Chris Staples, ReThink: "The bottom line is this: Clients don't need a digital agency. They need strategy, ideas and content for the digital age. [They] don't need a social-media agency, they need a communications strategy that is inherently social."

Loved this one, too. Too often publishers lose site of the marketing forest for all the digital, social and mobile 'trees.' We complain about being relegated to the ghetto of paltry digital budgets, while failing to realize that our own parochial language and thinking are what's keeping us away from the big table of strategy. Unless we ground our teams and our approach in smart, holistic marketing strategy, we run the risk of being the next generation of 'clueless ad people.'

Alec Beckett, Nail: "Our scale allows a kind of intimacy and immediacy in the relationship with many of our clients that morphs our role from being a vendor to becoming their de-facto marketing [department]. That feels like a model that will have more and more relevance as brands need to become more nimble and creative in the new world of 'dialogue based' marketing that we're entering."

Small and mid-size publishers: strategic engagement is a great leveler of the playing field. When you're engaged with marketing strategy, there's no such thing as being 'too small.' You may not have the biggest boats in the sea, but you can turn and maneuver them to great effect. To all ad sales organizations: the loaded phrase here is "...the relationship with many of our clients that morphs our role from being a vendor to becoming their de-facto marketing [department]." This is the real promise for the sales organization in the digital age: to transcend the vendor's role and to move ever close to brand strategy. And today's brands are increasingly open to having new players at the table, be they small agencies or smart media sales teams.