It’s nearly Independence Day, which is a good time to reflect on what independence means in the business of public relations. Lots of ad and PR agencies tout their independent status in their marketing. Judging from a quick review of the websites of midsize PR firms, most think it’s a differentiator. But what does the label really mean? Is independence a meaningful benefit or just so much PR?
Early in my career, after stints at two very different independent PR firms, I worked in the PR unit of a large ad agency. It was a dramatic contrast from my previous positions in that the PR team was expected to dream up stunts and tactics to support ad campaigns. We had our own clients, but we depended on “below-the-line” budgets of large integrated marketing clients where the relationship was owned by our advertising siblings. My advertising colleagues were delightful and talented, but they had no incentive to understand PR and what it brings to the table. In joint presentations, my time was typically cut from 20 minutes to 5 as we worked through rehearsals. In the end, they usually told me just to promise awesome media coverage and leave it at that — no separate strategy or even tactics. It was laughable.
So much has changed since that time. Traditional ad agencies like the one where I worked have been badly disrupted. Most have been replaced by creative digital marketing companies. Meanwhile, public relations has grown and matured as an industry. Our agency largely focuses on an ecosystem of high-growth technology clients for whom PR IS marketing. So, what does independent status mean today? Is it just a nicer way of saying cheap?
There’s more to it than price. An independent PR agency will probably have a lower overhead than a mega-agency, but many are substantial in size and depth. In my view, independence is cultural. It connotes a certain agility, an openness to new approaches, and a valuable resilience when it comes to change. What’s more, it translates into real and tangible benefits for clients. Here are the most important ones in my view.
In an “integrated marketing” environment, the ideal outcome is a bold campaign idea that can be executed across multiple channels. The Always “Like A Girl” campaign, for example, blends paid, earned, owned and social content to deliver a resonant branded message about empowering girls. Yet, that very campaign was executed by different agencies, as great campaigns often are. The problem is, an “integrated” team means that the highest-margin service can dominate the client relationship, and even the creative product. That means risky ideas are discouraged. This is suboptimal because, in PR, which is typically more tactical than message-driven paid media, ideas and their execution really matter.
Objective advice is not always easy or reflexive in a politicized corporate environment. Any recommendation that shifts budget from one column to another is fraught with peril and subject to multiple approvals. But undiluted and objective feedback is, above all, what clients ask of their agencies, and it should not be compromised by internal politics or bureaucracy.
An entrepreneurial agency culture rewards initiative and quick execution. Most clients appreciate this, but its value really depends on the nature of the client and whether there is cultural compatibility in the relationship. For an agency like ours, which works with high-growth technology companies, it’s essential. For a larger, bureaucratic organization, a slower cadence and an agency team with multiple levels and layers might actually be a better fit.
An owner-operated agency is in a better position than most to create that entrepreneurial environment. An entrepreneurial culture incentivizes not only proactivity and fast action, but individual accountability. That goes hand-in-hand with risk tolerance. A risk-averse team will be afraid of big ideas or contrarian strategies. A punitive or bureaucratic culture will reward a herd mentality that hews to the safety of what has worked in the past. At worst, it frustrates star performers and creative types who will inevitably look elsewhere for their psychological career rewards. An independent environment, by contrast, promotes top performance and independent thinking.
I resist equating independence with small fees or smaller programs, because I’ve seen huge campaigns come out of small, independent PR firms. But the trappings of global status and integrated services, coupled with the demands of holding-company margins, can absolutely undermine client service. It can also inflate costs. It’s the most common complaint we hear from clients who switch from large, intergalactic agencies.
Having worked at a midsize owner-operated agency, followed by the largest independent PR firm, and then an integrated ad and marketing agency before starting my own business, I’ve seen a lot. There is no one model for a creative services or PR advisory business. But I’m biased in favor of less bureaucracy, greater simplicity and flexibility, and fewer deciders. At a PR agency, independence is not about size or business model, but about compatibility and culture.