January 29, 2024

What size client do you want to be?

Not too much, not too little. There’s a Goldilocks zone for how hot or cold porridge should be, and if you find yourself hiring a team to help you do stuff, there’s a Goldilocks zone for how big they should be.

I used to run a marketing agency, so I’ll talk about this through the lens, but the same rules apply to nearly every client/provider relationship. The core idea holds true for law firms and landscapers.

It’s relatively easy to understand why you don’t want to be somebody’s smallest client. As much as every agency promises to give you the same care and attention as their larger accounts, the client with the bigger wallet will probably get their calls returned faster when push comes to shove.

The unfortunate truth is that smaller engagements get pushed down the line to junior staffers and get pushed down the calendar to deal with sexier RFPs. You might be stretching your budget to afford a name-brand agency or other partner, but then you’ll be disappointed that the relationship didn’t measure up to what you hoped.

You’re paying them, and you don’t want (or deserve) to be treated as if they’re doing you a favor by working with you.

However, being the biggest client isn’t a great place to be either. This is for two reasons – capacity and power.

If you’re the agency’s biggest account, the question becomes: can they actually handle your work? Are they up for the project, or are you simply too much for them? This applies both immediately and down the line.

Think of the relationship like buying a jacket for a five-year-old – you want something that comfortably fits but gives you room to grow. You don’t want an agency that isn’t going to be able to keep up once you get a shoutout from Oprah or your next round of funding hits. The search process is long and costly, so ideally, you don’t have to do it all over again a year down the road.

When it comes to power, you actually don’t want too much of it. The best relationships come from partners who are willing to respectfully push back when the moment calls for it. Ideally, you want to hire an ally, not a yes-man.

But when you account for half of an agency’s entire billings, they don’t have the safety to call you out on your bad ideas. The risk of blowing up their business is far too high, and the result is everybody just shuts up to keep you happy.

Too small is a problem. Too big is a problem. So, where do you want to be?

I find that the best fit is hanging out around the 75th percentile. You want to be one of a firm’s most important clients but not be all the way at the top.

At the 75th percentile, you’re a big enough account that the agency really wants to keep you happy. But they’ve also “been here before,” and they know what you need now and as you grow.

When I’ve helped clients select vendors, I always ask this question (and I recommend you do it too, please steal this): “Where would we rank in your current client roster?”

The answer will tell you a lot about how that relationship will go.

(BTW: If you want to know more about how to think about this for the agency side, I recommend Peter Kang’s writeup on client concentration.)


About the Author

Ben Guttmann ran a marketing agency for a long time, now he teaches digital marketing at Baruch College, just wrote his first book (Simply Put), and works with cool folks on other projects in-between all of that. He writes about how we experience a world shaped by technology and humanity – and how we can build a better one.

Get my new book, it just came out.

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