As the owner of a relatively small PR agency, I appreciate it when clients and prospects tell me how much they value a firm of our size compared to the large agencies they know. Having worked at two multinationals and one midsize PR firm before starting my own business, I know the difference.
But the cliches about smaller agencies don’t tell the full story.
When the topic comes up, words like “agile” and “nimble” are used. But what do these words mean? Is a quicker decision a better one? Does faster project delivery ensure quality?
Not always. Not every smaller firm is a giant-killer, and “nimble” can mean quite a few things….or nothing. But digital technology has democratized many services that used to be expensive or out of reach for smaller firms, enabling them to pack a punch that goes beyond head count.
All other things being equal, I maintain that the best smaller agency beats a mega-firm nearly any day of the week, but not always for the reasons you may think. Here are a few from my experience.
More time spent more productively. Let’s face it, the typical large agency has far more levels of approvals and reporting than a smaller firm. A press release may be drafted by an account executive and routed to a senior account executive, account supervisor, group head, and so on. Long hours are spent on beautiful client reports and clip grids.
Reporting and outcomes measurement are important, of course. But a multilayered structure translates into more time spent on documentation, meetings, and timesheets and less time on….work. With just about any PR agency, clients are paying for time. So, more staff time spent more productively is a good thing.
Senior-level attention. It’s actually not axiomatic that a smaller agency will offer more personalized service or commit more senior-level talent than a larger competitor. Available staff time depends on how the firm is organized and its fee structure. Beware the small agency that takes on too many clients for below-market rates, as it may not be able to afford top talent, or staff may be overwhelmed with too many accounts. But with the right structure, the lower overhead of a smaller firm and gentler billing rates, coupled with its less-bureaucratic organization, should free up quality time from the people who matter.
The pitch team is the team. One of the more compelling arguments for a smaller agency is its transparency. What you see is what you get. That’s unlike a large multinational agency, which uses a professional pitch team to vet prospects, create proposals, and staff the pitch meeting – never to be seen again. A smaller group doesn’t have the luxury of the new business team, so it will rise or fall on the merits of the day-to-day account group.
A smaller agency may be more objective. A friend and fellow agency owner talks about “objectivity through independence”, and it’s true. At a mega-firm with large investments in SEM or video production, for example, those disciplines have a way of becoming the solution to just about any client problem. (Got a crisis? Let’s do a social video!) An agency without the pressure to feed the beast may actually find it easier to seek the creative tactics that serves a client best.
A small agency has one P&L. It’s ironic that so many large agencies work hard to recruit and train stellar talent, but they’re organized by individual profit centers that discourage the participation of relevant expertise. In my large-agency days, the individual profit center was the single greatest inhibitor to my being able to deliver awesome client work. I was surrounded by amazing colleagues, but my manager constantly warned me about giving away billable hours. That’s why I applaud Golin Harris for its reorganization into four major specialist teams instead of vertical sectors. A departure from the typical agency hierarchy is about making it easier to deliver an objective solution for client problems. It’s also proof that a more client-centered structure isn’t limited to small firms, although it’s certainly easier when you’re small.
Smaller agencies care more. Okay, this one’s more like “nimble” – it’s subjective and a little vague. When I worked at large agencies, I sure cared about my clients. But the accountability was distributed among several players, and the institutional attitude was very different from that of a boutique. It stands to reason that the agency with 20 clients will feel a loss (or any kind of client dissatisfaction) more keenly that the one with 200 clients. And in a smaller firm, the owner is likely to be involved. That means that, when it comes to matters of quality and client service, the buck doesn’t travel very far. Trust me, this can be a challenge, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.