Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Ask Mary: Should I take a job at a big network agency or small innovative shop?

Mary Keane Dawson  is New Digital Age’s Digital Therapist. One of digital’s most experienced and well-known leaders, Mary will be dispensing her hard-earned wisdom each month on NDA. If you’ve got a problem and no one else can help, simply send the burning question you need answered to

NDA reader Andrew: “I’ve just returned from Singapore and have been offered two new leadership roles. One is at one of the big six agency networks and the other at a very innovative and creative, though still small, independent digital agency. How on earth do I decide?”

Dear Andrew,

Well there’s a good dilemma! It’s always nice to be in demand.
However, it’s a very serious choice you’re facing.

Big Six vs small independent innovative creative agency. Not easy to compare, and without knowing your previous experiences or personal circumstances, I can only suggest some processes you can use in making your final decision.

If I were you,  I’d probably be asking myself, “how brave do I feel?” Why brave? Well, to my mind you’ve just been in Singapore – South East Asia is booming, so I doubt you’ve been managing decline and media agency reinvention in your recent past. Leading a Big Six UK-based media agency will require courage, because being simply big really doesn’t hack it any more.

You will need to call on your and your teams’ strategic resources to lead the re-imagining, re-invention and re-vitalise both your talent and your clients. You will also need to deliver the numbers, embrace AI and there will be blood on your shiny new dance floor before you know it  – whether that’s wrestling the old guard out of their corner offices, or using genuine automation tools instead of people.

This can be either a fascinating intellectual challenge, or an emotional roller-coaster that can leave even the biggest gorillas emotionally drained.

But what of the challenges you face with option 2? Small and independent, sounds like a lot of potential autonomy for a leader. But, when you lead a small agency, you have to be sure that a) your innovation has good market fit and is best in class and b) you have a new business machine either in, or nearly, ready to take-off mode.

I’d be squaring up the pipeline vs in-house capability vs cashflow vs need to build brand presence and convert bigger and better clients. Finally, I’d be politely interrogating the founders regarding their current, and future role, exit strategy and make-up of their Board ( is it made up of value-adders or value-takers for example).

Both of these roles will be challenging, but remember, which ever one choose, negotiate on your way in, not on your way out. Lay down some ground rules, set your own goals and if you meet resistance, ask yourself, “Is it worth the fight?” Then you’ll know for sure.

Good luck my friend, and let me know which one you choose.

Big hugs,