Beyond Big: How Your Agency Can Benefit from Small Towns
Go beyond big cities and you'll find talent and businesses that need your help. Learn how to tap into these opportunities in this article.
What place do you think of when you think of “creative agency”?
A swanky Madison Avenue glass skyscraper office? A sun-kissed open space near Malibu? Or a cozy studio somewhere on Market Street in San Francisco?
You, of course, think of big cities because that’s usually where the best talent and the biggest clients can be found.
But in the post pandemic era, this isn’t necessarily true. Some of the best employees you can find have moved away from cities to suburbs and small towns. And some of your biggest clients have shut down offices and gone remote-only.
This new reality might bring some challenges, but it also brings incredible opportunities. You can finally venture beyond the cities and tap into an entirely new set of clients and employees.
In this post, I’ll talk about the brimming opportunities in smaller towns and how your agency can best position itself to take advantage of them.
Tapping Into Smaller Markets
Smaller towns are usually underserved by creative agencies. Local businesses typically have access to 2-3 agencies that handle everything from web design to social media.
For the most part, this arrangement worked well enough. Local businesses would have limited marketing needs and the lack of specialized expertise in local agencies wouldn’t be a problem.
The pandemic, however, forced these businesses to sell online.
Their competition, suddenly, wasn’t just the store down the block, but thousands of online shops (and Amazon).
In this situation, their existing local agencies were simply not enough. Marketing online needs specialized knowledge that’s rarely available in smaller towns.
And that’s precisely where you come into the picture.
As a seasoned creative agency, you can bring specialized expertise to businesses in small towns that want to reach a global audience. Often, these businesses have deep competence but lack local resources that can help them get online and win.
The demand is massive.
When we touched on this topic in August last year, we noted how search traffic for queries like “how to sell online” had shot up with the first lockdowns.
A year later, the trend is still up.
Normally, these local businesses would be closed to you - they would just head over to the agency across the street for their marketing needs.
But the pandemic has changed the equation. Because of the sheer urgency of their needs and their increasing comfort with digital-first relationships, these businesses are now willing to work with partners remotely as well.
According to a survey by CMI, 70% of B2B businesses in a survey said that they made changes to their marketing strategy because of the pandemic.
These changes haven’t been easy, with less than a third of respondents saying that they were “very successful” with their new marketing approach.
More significantly, the biggest challenge for these businesses has been finding partners with adequate expertise.
Essentially, you have a situation where businesses across the country (and especially in smaller towns):
- Want to sell their products and services online
- Lack access to deep digital expertise
- Are increasingly comfortable with partnering with non-local experts
For an enterprising agency, this is a massive opportunity, and one that can define your business.
So how do you tap into it?
A few suggestions:
1. Learn to Scale Creativity
The approach you use to create campaigns for your larger clients can’t really work for small businesses. Given the smaller contracts and lower margins, bespoke creations will eat into your profits.
Instead, you need to embrace “scaled creativity”.
In simpler terms, you need to:
- Use templates and off-shelf collateral to speed up content creation
- Outsource aggressively
- Cut administrative bloat and streamline operations
Ideally, your goal should be to create ready-to-implement blueprints for clients in different verticals. This can help you hit the ground running and avoid the costly custom solutions that eat into your margins.
2. Embrace Transparency
When you start working with small local businesses, you’ll find that they’re not used to working with agencies. This lack of familiarity can be intimidating, especially if they’re not familiar with how you work or your costs.
You can ease a lot of their worries by embracing transparency.
For example, in our survey of agencies across categories, we found that content marketing and SEO agencies are far more likely to disclose their prices up front than, say, branding agencies.
Coincidentally, agencies in these sectors also tend to have more local clients than, say, a big creative studio. Disclosing prices up front is a way to place their clients at ease and make their service appear less intimidating.
This doesn’t only apply to prices - the way you work impacts potential clients too. Most small businesses have never worked with large agencies. Your processes and jargon can feel completely alien to a small business that’s only worked with local agencies.
Try educating your clients about how you work. Tell them about your processes, the jargon that you use, how you charge, and the normal life cycle of a project.
Your goal should be to help small businesses ease into the agency experience. Transparency and educational content are the best ways to achieve that goal.
3. Think Small
Working with small businesses requires a completely different approach than working with your larger clients. Their problems are simply not the same. Retraining yourself to think “small” is often the biggest impediment to winning over small clients.
For instance, if a new client comes to you with a marketing challenge, you might dream up a full-fledged digital identity makeover for them. And for larger clients, that might even work out splendidly most of the time.
But for a small local business that just wants to sell some of its products online, this “big picture” thinking would be a costly catastrophe. The business might get far better results from an Instagram page and a Shopify store than with a cohesive, multi-platform digital identity.
Essentially, when dealing with small businesses, you have to be laser-focused on a) cost-cutting, and b) immediate results.
Creative agencies are used to the idea of making a big splash that gets them coverage in AdAge. But with small businesses, you have to think in terms of incremental changes. There can’t be a huge cross-platform campaign - your clients simply don’t have the budget for it. Instead, you have to make small, high-impact changes, and snowball them into lasting results.
This requires a drastic change in approach, but if you want to win small business clients, it will be worth it.
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Tap Into Small Town Talent
The second part of this “small town opportunity” is the wealth of talent that’s now available outside of big cities.
According to one study, nearly 16M Americans changed addresses in 2020, up 27% from the year before. Big cities accounted for the bulk of these migrations as people moved to smaller towns for more space, fewer crowds, and lifestyle changes.
Some of these big cities were once the key talent hubs for agencies. But with cities like NYC down by over 200,000 residents, your talent pipeline is suddenly starting to run dry.
And given that we’ve always stressed out agencies are a “people-first” business, it stands to reason that you need to start looking for talent outside big cities as well.
This is a monumental shift - one that has the potential to change how agencies run their businesses. If more and more of your future employees are spread across smaller towns instead of localized in one big city, is it even worth it to have an office in a big city?
This shift also impacts who and how you recruit. In a big city, you might have relied on a feeder source such as a local university or your agency network. But if your talent is everywhere, your recruiting approach has to be wider than it is narrow as well.
And while you’re at it, don’t forget that your competition now isn’t just the agency down the block, but everyone - local businesses, huge corporations with remote teams, and of course, other agencies.
While there is no foolproof solution to winning the remote talent war, a few things can help:
Commit to Remote Work
The first thing you need to do to win the remote worker war is to truly, truly commit to remote work.
Remember that a lot of your future employees have uprooted their big-city lives to move to smaller towns. Give them even the slightest hint that your remote work arrangement is temporary and they’ll flee in the opposite direction.
Outside of overt promises, a few things can help persuade future hires that you’re not going to jettison your remote work plans soon:
- Your leadership team works remotely
- You don’t have an office or have only a minimal office setup
- You have a large number of remote workers already
- You’ve invested in tools and technology to make remote work easier
- You have a large number of remote clients
If you check any of the above boxes, make sure to emphasize it when you send out your recruitment pitches. You want your hires to believe that you’re not going to ask them to come into the office six months down the line.
Go Beyond Resumes
Resumes are essentially a form of “structured” data. And like any structured data, it works well when it is applied within an established organizational order.
But remote-first companies are patently unstructured. The order that underpins traditional office setups - clear hierarchy, meetings, cafeterias, fixed timings, etc. - is either missing or muted in remote companies.
“Diligence” in a traditional company might mean showing up at 9 am sharp every day. In a remote-first company, it might simply mean getting work done on time - regardless of when you check-in.
Within this new context, resumes are a poor tool to evaluate candidates. They might tell you how a person performs in a structured environment, but you have no clue whether that performance will translate to the asynchronous, unstructured nature of remote work.
Thus, when you’re trying to land remote talent, look beyond the resume. Instead, consider the following:
- Past work and portfolio of projects
- Experience with remote work
- Entrepreneurial bent and ability to “figure it out”
- Communication skills
You’ll find that someone with entrepreneurial leanings and a strong portfolio will often outperform an Ivy League grad when it comes to remote work.
Over to You
The post-pandemic world might be challenging, but it isn’t without its share of opportunities. Some of these opportunities can be found in smaller towns and cities across the country in the form of businesses that need help and talent that needs work.
Tapping into these opportunities can be truly transformative for your business. And with tools like Workamajig to help you manage your agency better, you can focus on these big, transformative ideas instead of juggling your day-to-day.
You don’t have to take my word for it - see for yourself how Workamajig can change your business.
About The Author
Hannah C recently joined the Workamajig Marketing Team. She enjoys a healthy lifestyle, loves all things furry and is always looking to learn something new. Send her your best recipe, a picture of your dog or your secret tip for marketing success at firstname.lastname@example.org.