ImPRessions

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August 4, 2011

When Choosing A PR Firm, Does Size Matter?

Sure, it does, for PR, and other creative services. From the agency perspective, size can be a powerful differentiator. But just how it stacks up depends on your point of view.

Smaller firms are a better value, right? Not necessarily. I’ve held senior positions at firms that range from mega-agency to midsized. When I was with the big guys, a pitch involving a small firm always rankled, in part because we immediately felt pressure to be price-flexible. And, make no mistake, even mega-firms can be very flexible. During tough times, large agencies bring out the big guns, drop their prices, and punch below their weight.

Small agencies also have wiles. It’s energizing to be the David in an agency shoot-out. My favorite is closing with lines like, “We service clients, not shareholders.” And it’s true that owner-operated firms can more credibly promise senior-level involvement, especially for clients who aren’t billing seven figures.

So which is better? Though as a small agency owner, my bias is clear, I know that a smaller firm doesn’t suit every client. Here’s my checklist on how to assess the size factor.

What’s the program scope? If your needs are regional or national, you may get great service and value from a small or midsize firm. But a global campaign often requires a mega-agency with offices all over the world. You can also consider a network of independent firms, depending on your needs and market demands.

Is a range of services needed? If you don’t require much beyond core PR services, you’re better off going smaller. After all, you’ll be paying for that public affairs specialist and the graphics group in the form of overhead.

Are multiple offices required? If not, why pay for them? If your needs fluctuate, you may be better off with a smaller firm in a regional or national network, or one that has alliances in key markets.

Where do you stand? You never want to be the smallest client in the house, and in general, it’s best to be in the upper third by budget size. The exceptions to this occur with fast-growth companies, or those who require specialized sector experience, like the big-agency contacts that can help accelerate fundraising or partnerships.

Who’s accountable? The staff bait-and-switch in order to win business is so notorious that even inexperienced clients are wary. Pushing the work down to junior staffers can happen anywhere, but it’s far more likely at a large firm, particularly when economic pressure leads them to drop their prices to win business in the first place.

What about cultural fit? Large, brand-name firms are often hired for “ego”  reasons, especially by companies who manage by committee, or by second-tier players striving to break through to the next level. Though in my experience this is a recipe for dysfunction, it’s important to recognize that checklists only go so far.

At the end of the day, Unilever CMO Keith Weed has the right idea. When asked about the importance of agency size at Cannes last year, he summed it up by quoting Mark Twain. “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight. It’s the size of the fight in the dog.”


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Comments

  1. Barb Cochran

    I’ve been on the client side, where I’ve worked with large global agencies as well as specialist boutique firms. The boutiques offer better service, more consistent results, and good counsel roughly 80% of the time. They’re also more trustworthy. The large firms shine in a crisis, or when depth of talent is called for. But, if given a choice, I’ll go with a small or midsize agency nearly every time.

  2. Piia Aarma

    As the owner of a small firm, I am also biased. However, the bias is based on my experience in corporations and other organizations dealing with some of the largest firms. With some exception, I think the smaller firms with experienced and talented people serve their customers more effectively.

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