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Going tribal: How small and big are beautiful

No business is ever finished. The perfect way of working today becomes riddled with problems tomorrow. The day after that it's the old way your dad used to work. And whatever one thinks of one's dad, the way he used to work is almost universally not cool.
NATIVE VML is approaching its third birthday this October. Born out of a merger of three smaller agencies it has come a long way in that short time. At its heart is a kind of secret ingredient that I believe makes it unique in our industry.

We call it our Tribal Model - or, Tribes.

And it's definitely not the way your dad used to work.

This secret ingredient isn't unique in the world. It is based on a litany of models and ideas we researched before we restructured this way, and a lot of advice from smart business consultants.

But ultimately our Tribe model is something all our own. It is as much a product of the personalities and styles of our leadership team as it is of any business book or logical way of thinking about how to run an agency.

So how does it work?

To put it simply, NATIVE VML is not one agency but, at present, four. Each of these sub-agencies (or Tribes) is a cross-functional, semi-autonomous mini-agency with its own set of clients, its own team and - critically - its own culture and way of operating.

Setting a distinct culture in place sets this model apart from simply organising into business units. Tribes each have names and brands, and their own leadership teams who are held accountable for turnover, profits, and staff and client satisfaction. We actively fund and encourage distinctiveness in processes and approach on a Tribe-level.

Whilst this may sound like a lot of trouble to go to - there are several reasons why we believe it answers some of the key challenges in an agency business.

Small but Big

One of the things about most services businesses is that they have a tendency to grow. You win that big account and you hire people. Wash, rinse, repeat. For us, a product of a merger, we got bigger rapidly.

The truth is that whilst shareholders want scale, employees often find this kind of growth alienating. Organic processes are replaced by flow diagrams; and you start seeing faces around the building whose names you don't know.

Having said that, staying small is also not an answer. Unless you can find a way to charge more and more money per hour for the same people the only way to make an agency sustainable long-term is to add more customers and find economies of scale.

A model like ours allows for both structures to co-exist - a small agency, with deep personal connections and a strong sense of ownership, within a large agency that offers support services, domain experts and organisational learnings to each Tribe.

Lots of Leadership

Growth also has another unintended and pernicious consequence: people care less. Feeling that you're part of something huge and beyond your control can be comforting and make you feel safe in someone else's hands but that can work against a business that is trying to ensure excellence at every level.

Again, this isn't the only way to solve this challenge, but our Tribe model puts a strong leadership team right where the work is happening. This team (we call them a Tribal Council) has a lot of authority - these are the people who run each of these small businesses and we spend time teaching them business management.

At a NATIVE VML Executive level this gives us at least four groups of empowered and ambitious people who are fighting as hard as we are for the business.

Silo Destruction

Listen to agency people and you will hear a lot of talk about the deficiencies of other functions. In a digital agency this is even more complicated because there are dozens more functions, many of whom can hold their best in a prima donna contest with any typical agency creative.

This kind of thing may be both understandable and predictable but it doesn't get the best result for the client. Talking about breaking down silos is common but few have figured out how to do this.

By contrast, anyone who has worked in a small business knows that there aren't enough bricks to build any silos. Everyone has to do whatever needs doing. And while this has its own frustrations it is highly efficient. Great people surface; weak people have nowhere to hide.

Our Tribe model restores much of this small business-like feeling inside the agency. Disciplines sit together and people are assigned and allowed to work across typical boundaries. This creates all the leanness and drama of a small, tight-knit team.

A Cautionary Conclusion

No business is ever finished, and no business structure is perfect. With autonomous businesses comes extra consultation time and management effort. Decisions can be slower and empowered people have, by definition, the power to disagree. This is not a good model for authoritarians but it's a great model for lean, efficient, distributed teams.


About Jarred Cinman

Jarred has worked in the digital industry for more than 15 years, founded two of SA's leading digital agencies (Cambrient & VWV Interactive), & is now one of the founders & directors of NATIVE, one of the top three digital agencies in the country. He sits on the Bookmarks committee & spearheaded the development of the entry & judging system. He was a founder & chairperson of the Digital Interactive Media Association, a pre-cursor to the DMMA, now the IAB SA, in the 1990s.

NATIVE VML's press office

NATIVE VML is a digitally-led full-service marketing agency that strives to forge deep relationships between its clients and their customers.
Read more: Jarred Cinman, Native