Next move Big Agency or Boutique: What is so great about working for a boutique anyway?

by Kate Langford April 24th, 2017

What is it about the Market Research Industry that makes our people so suspicious of big agencies ?  In most sectors employees vie to join the big names in the industry – what FMCG Brand Manager doesn’t fancy having a stint at Coke or Unilever ?

Market Research is very different.  For as long as I’ve worked in recruitment I have been greeted by candidates at all levels with the first sentence ‘but I won’t consider working for any of the top 5 agencies’.  For an industry that is all about understanding and insight, it is pretty short-sighted to lump vastly different organisations into one big bundle just because they each happen to have over 100 employees.  If you have worked for big agency ‘A’ it doesn’t automatically mean that big agency ‘B’ will be exactly the same.  It is like dismissing Weetabix because you have grown tired of eating Cornflakes.

Many researchers start off in a big agency on a graduate training scheme, they take the great training and exposure to top clients and later leverage this as a way into a smaller, ‘more creative’ environment where they can be a bigger fish in a smaller pond.   Alternatively, those who start off in a smaller agency are warned about the perils of joining a big agency where they will be ‘just a number’ and drown in ‘bureaucracy’.  Whichever route you take the chances are that by SRE/RM level you will feel that you want to avoid working in a big agency.  Researchers come to see me dreaming of working for a ‘boutique’ where their work will be ‘disruptive and cutting edge’ and they can really feel that they are doing something creative in research.

So what are researchers worried about with the big agencies and what is so great about working for a ‘boutique’?

Can it really be true that the big agencies are all factories that churn data as well as employees and that boutiques are a paradise where creativity is King ?

Of course this is not true and I would highly recommend to researchers at all levels to consider a range of opportunities as sometimes that dream job is in the place you least expect it to be.

Big agencies are not just a huge floor of people but a collection of much smaller departments and teams, often with their own unique culture that may not be anything like as corporate as their global website feels.  As with almost everything, it comes down to people.  A truly inspirational leader in a particular team in a big agency can be every bit as disruptive, engaging and creative as any boutique.  In fact the big agencies are often more secure in their ability to innovate as the company isn’t going to go bust if something goes wrong.  This doesn’t mean that all big agencies are hothouses of creativity but there are undoubtedly pockets of gems worth exploring.

It is also something of a myth about the bureaucracy of working for a big agency – yes they will have quality standards in place (which ensures top class work), but they also have teams of people to work on all stages of a project.  The model of client service and project management teams working in partnership as used by several big agencies can be very liberating.  You know your remit and you play to your strengths.  Client service people have time to think and be insightful while project managers get on with running the job without having to concerned about what it all means.  In a boutique agency you have to do both these roles at once.

This applies to Qual too – the big agencies tend to have qual project management teams in place to take away all the stress of respondent recruitment, viewing facility management, sorting out incentives and the visual stimulus materials needed for your groups.  Often you will be compensated for your evening work with time off in lieu.

Another huge bonus of working for a big agency is that client briefs regularly just come through the door because of the company name and profile.  In an industry more and more focused on sales targets at AD level and above, it is a lot easier to be successful when you don’t have to beg clients to even give you a brief to tender for.  The breadth of clients definitely helps too – the big agencies are not overly reliant on that one big client to keep them afloat.

Often a bigger agency will allow their junior researchers more autonomy on projects or a chance to take part in the presentation whereas in a boutique the client may well expect to be debriefed by the MD.  The chances are that the client relationship is so crucial to business performance that juniors are seen and not heard.

Boutique agencies can be a huge shock to the system – too often I have witnessed researchers being totally shell-shocked by the sheer amount of things you have to manage in a small agency – there isn’t a team to check the survey links, run those extra cross tabs or create amazing data visualisation, you have to do that all yourself.  What you have never done your own SPSS analysis, charting or photocopying ?  You can be quickly found out in a small agency if your skills aren’t quite up to scratch in every area.

Please don’t get me wrong, boutique agencies can be absolutely fantastic and undoubtedly look great on your CV if you have the broad skills to survive.  If you find a company where the culture fit is right, you are fascinated by the work and you love being hands on then it really could be the perfect job.  You can work really closely with the senior people in the business, really get to know your clients and learn a lot quickly.  They are absolutely the right destination for many researchers.

My point is simply do not dismiss a broader range of jobs out of hand before you see for yourself.  There have been numerous occasions where I have really had to persuade a researcher to consider a particular role that they weren’t convinced by but when they went along to the interview their views changed entirely and they realised it was their dream job.

It would be lovely to never hear the ‘I only want to work for a boutique’ words ever again.  Researchers need to consider all the aspects that they enjoy about their work and what they are hoping to gain from a job move before even thinking about the size of agency they work for.  Believe me, some teams in big agencies can be awe inspiringly creative and thrilling and some boutiques can be dreary and dull … and vice versa.  In the end personality fit is key – everyone wants to work with people that they like, respect and can learn from and you won’t know where that might be until you meet them.  So give the pre-conceptions a rest and meet people – you might surprise yourself where you end up.