The World's Leading Independent Agencies: Why small is still more beautiful

Independent agencies can capitalise on their local, more personal character to reach today's demanding consumer.

Welcome to the second edition of The World's Leading Independent Agencies.

You'll see two differences this year.

The first is geographical.

Of course North America, Europe and Australia are still represented. The wonderful agencies from these regions who inspired the first edition are still setting standards for others to follow.

But this year we have also invited independent agencies from Brazil, from Russia, from Japan and from Africa.

As many people pointed out after our seminar in Cannes, it's a numbers game. There are fewer than 500 million people in the US, the UK and France, but more than five billion in the rest of the world. Any lingering belief that American, British or French multinationals offer the best way to communicate with consumers in these markets belongs in the dustbin of colonial history. Thinking global now means thinking local.

The second difference is cultural.

Last year, a major theme running through the essays was "we can". How digital technology had enabled smaller companies to compete on the global stage, where talent had become more important than financial clout and numbers of staff.

This year, the theme I sense is not just "we can" but "we have to".

How can you expect to produce differentiating advertising for your clients, if you can't create a differentiating offer for yourself?

How can you change and adapt to the demands of the digital age, if your agency is controlled from thousands of miles away?

The best independent agencies want to stay "small", to keep their own culture. Most are still owner-managed. Others have found ways to raise outside finance without losing their distinctive character. All of them are still actively run by the founders. And that's the difference.

The 2000s is the decade of the little guy. The individual. We know the themes: fragmented media, Wikinomics, The Long Tail, "You" as Time magazine's Man of the Year.

In the internet age, the long tail of increasing choice - the search for individuality, authenticity, the personal rather than the mass - is driving consumer marketing today.

My local bar, my local team, my friends, my (i)tunes, MySpace - right?

Right. So the big guys start to pay attention, to "get" digital. Vodafone decides to buy real estate in Second Life. Publicis buys Digitas. Murdoch buys MySpace.

Order is restored. Or is it? If only it were so easy. The world moves on to Facebook and MySpace looks like yesterday's papers.

Is there an alternative, is there a better way, for the big guys to do business with the little guys?

Yes, there is.

Don't buy them and absorb them. Engage with them.

See how big companies outside our industry are reinventing themselves.

Look how successfully Procter & Gamble, once the archetypally closed-society company, has opened itself up to outside R&D ideas through the InnoCentive programme.

Look how Boeing, in creating the Dreamliner, threw out its 400-page prescriptive rulebook for suppliers and replaced it with a 20-page book that left space for new ideas and contributions.

So let this be a theme, perhaps. Don't buy up. Don't sell out. Don't go along with yesterday's command and control ideology.

Instead, find new ways - to engage.

- Julian Boulding is President of thenetworkone www.thenetworkone.com.