The idea of agencies and companies thinking small is no new notion. People have been saying it for years, including Greg, who’s gong to push the point further in his upcoming book, microMarketing. The problem is, very few have actually been practicing it. At the PSFK Conference in New York last week, Andy Spade and Anthony Sperduti of Partners & Spade gave a “Think Small” presentation highlighting the work they did for J.Crew.
Prefacing their lecture, they shared their passion for film, publishing, and product development, which helped guide the work they did for J.Crew. The brand’s menswear had little equity. Partners & Spade felt that regardless of how they tackled the problem, going in waving the J.Crew banner would make their plan fall flat. It was a big brand that everyone already knew, and expressly didn’t care about. They had to develop a strategy that shrunk J.Crew. Something that made the brand more intimate and approachable. Because, like the partners said on stage, “no one likes big.”
To answer the call, the partners decided to open a liquor store. But not your average slipshod speakeasy. It was an abandoned TriBeCa tavern restored and restocked with J.Crew’s menswear instead of booze. The boutique is affectionately named “Liquor Store“. The shop is adorned in a way that gives it a lot of classic male character and makes is very distinctive from a typical J.Crew outlet; to the point that you wouldn’t know it’s a J.Crew store. The partners went so far as to staff the store with their own people, including Tremaine Romeo, the “Storetender”; sell some exclusive clothing and accessories; create specialized products, such as throwing darts and shot glasses; and even published a book, “What A Man Should Know”.
The Liquor Store was deemed a great success by the partners, and was written up in dozens of blogs and magazines who they said wouldn’t have written about the store otherwise if it had been branded as a typical J.Crew location. It was the small, cozy and personalized nature of the boutique that made people especially interested in it. In other words, a big brand acting small made it that much more compelling. The partners believe that the bigger a brand gets, the smaller it needs to act. An idea defended by a quote Spade likes to use: “For every accountant you hire, hire an artist” to maintain the delicate balance of big and small.
Jason Fried, co-founder and CEO of software development company, 37Signals, spoke at the AdAge Digital Conference this week and blasted “full-service” ad agencies, using the same grounds as those used by Partners & Spade: think small. He made the point that agencies are trying to do everything for everyone, instead of focusing on a small number of things that they do very well, championing specialization over full-service end-to-end.
“Companies end up hiring people to do these things they don’t know how to do, they get really big and then they slow down. That’s how you get big and slow and expensive. What’s wrong with doing just a few things really well?,” Fried said. He recently co-authored Rework which reiterated this point.
It’s easy for agencies to think too big. Oftentimes they assume they have to in order to stay competitive, or successfully launch a project. But the Liquor Store, and the story of 37Signals for that matter, act as as testaments that bigger isn’t always better. “Think small” is often looked upon as an idealistic buzz phrase, hardly ever applicable in real world situations. But there are numerous examples where thinking and acting small paid off. It’s about sticking to your guns when you have a good idea, big or small. Big Bang Theory sized strategies are not the best solution most of the time, and tend to be filled with elements that underperform.
Years ago, before giving up “the noble profession of journalism,” as my father puts it, I remember going to the CSPA convention and listening to a New York Times writer who said something that stuck with me to this day, and something I think applies here: It’s not about using big words. It’s about using the right words.