Small Budgets Are Big Opportunities for Young Strategists - McKinney

Small Budgets Are Big Opportunities for Young Strategists

July 12, 2019

McKinney Senior Strategist Kerry O’Connor on how young strategists can find opportunity

When I was getting ready to graduate from the Brandcenter in 2015, I remember a lot of conversation about the brands we all wanted to work on. It was a lot of the usual suspects, you can probably guess what they were.

But if I could go back and give 2015 Kerry some advice, I would say this: Run toward smaller clients with smaller budgets.

I may have been focused on working for big, sexy brands, but the truth is one of my biggest moments as a young strategist was working on a brand hardly anyone had ever heard of: Marpac, a small white-noise machine company based in Wilmington, North Carolina, that had a tiny budget and was being outspent and overshadowed in their category.

Basic agency math explains how it happened: The more resources a client has, the bigger the teams, meaning less opportunity for younger strategists like me. But working on smaller clients with leaner budgets meant the more I got to lead. And anytime you have the opportunity to own something — do it.

Here are some lessons I learned along the way:

Be proactive. When I first started working, I kept my head down waiting for someone to give me an opportunity because of my witty off-hand comments and great taste in t-shirts. But that’s not always going to happen — even if you have seriously great taste in t-shirts. At the very least, you have to raise your hand when you see an opportunity to lead. You might even have to grovel.


Before we even started working on Marpac, I offered to help put together a pitch backgrounder on the company and the category. I also went to Bed, Bath & Beyond, bought the product, and I used it every single night. When we won the account, I was a natural choice to work on and eventually lead the Marpac business because I already had all that knowledge and passion for the brand.

Own it. The nature of the biz (always wanted to say that!) means more energy will be spent on bigger clients with bigger budgets. Your team will very likely be stretched across multiple clients, with smaller projects taking a backseat. This is actually good news — it gives you the opportunity to lean in even harder and maybe even dip your toe into swim lanes where you don’t usually get to tread.

Our Marpac team worked as a taskforce. With big goals and only a tiny budget, we spent a lot of time in meetings trying to solve problems by any means possible. I got to see how different departments approach a problem, and I walked away knowing how to stretch a production budget, how our media team negotiates with vendors, and how to educate a client on the value of an idea. It was an invaluable crash course filled with stuff strategists don’t often have the opportunity to learn firsthand. And I soaked it all up.

Take it seriously. I’ve heard people say you can make great work for smaller clients because expectations and risk are both low, which means you can come up with crazy ideas. While I think the opportunity to make smart, kickass work for smaller clients is absolutely there (look at Effie and Cannes winners for proof, they aren’t all big clients), I have a slightly different take on why: I think there’s more risk and higher expectations with smaller clients, and that’s what leads to great work.

Before working with McKinney, most of Marpac’s advertising relied on partnerships and creating content for their owned channels. This was the first time they were putting money behind a campaign, and they needed that budget to work hard to get results in a category where giant name brands were spending millions.

Our clients were like many small business owners — passionate and invested in their company. And they were handing over their entire budget for the year, asking us to change the way people looked at their band. That responsibility motivated us to find a way to bring our Marpac Competitive Sleeping League Championship to life on a shoestring budget. Ultimately, the event, streamed on Facebook Live, generated 2.47 million views — that’s a lot of cheap, sleepy eyeballs.

Check in. This one is important when taking ownership of something for the first time. Running something doesn’t mean you’re completely on your own — it means it’s your responsibility to know when you need help. There’s no shame in taking a problem or roadblock to your boss or another strategist. If anything, they’ll see you know how to manage up, which is an important skill to have as you take on more responsibility.

In a recent performance review, my CSO said Marpac was my big debut. What he meant was everyone knew I was a good strategist but working on Marpac proved I could do it on my own.

In the end, it wasn’t a big opportunity that led to me being in the room during new business pitches or running strategy on bigger clients. It was taking full advantage of what others might call “the small stuff.”

(The Marpac Competitive Sleeping League Championship earned Adweek Media Plan of the Year honors for McKinney in 2018.)