Dorothy Crenshaw July 3, 2013 | 12:59:45

In Praise of Independent PR Agencies

As we celebrate our national independence, it’s a good time to ponder what independence means in the PR agency world. For years, PR and other creative services firms have touted their “independent” status. What does that signify to clients and employees? Is it valuable?

Sometimes it’s a euphemism for “small,” which is itself another way of saying “inexpensive.” Or, it can mean flexible, as in, willing to work with early-stage companies, or nimble in creating and developing programs. Only in rare cases, e.g., our sister agency Widmeyer’s “Independent Thinking” slogan, has it become a meaningful selling proposition or cultural statement.

For the most part, independent status is a bullet on a powerpoint slide, and it doesn’t translate to a tangible client benefit or staff differentiator. But it should, and it can. Here’s what “independent “means to me in the PR or creative services world, with bias acknowledged.

Client-serving counsel. Honest counsel and objective advice is not always easy or reflexive in a politicized corporate environment. Any recommendation that leverages client dollars from one sector 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.

Risky creative. In an “integrated marketing” environment, the highest-margin service can dominate the client relationship, and even the creative product. That happens less readily in a truly independent firm, even if the tradeoff is depth of service offering.

Value. Good value shouldn’t mean “cheap.” But it’s true that the trappings of global status and marketing “integration,” like multiple brick-and-mortar offices, coupled with the demands of holding-company margins, can undermine client service. It’s the most common complaint we hear from large-agency refugees.

Entrepreneurial culture. The most client-friendly agency culture will reward staff behavior that shows accountability and a bias in favor of action. For some clients, that’s not desirable in a strategic partner. Those who define their needs precisely and look for cultural compatibility will be most successful here.

Culture doesn’t have to depend on size, or management structure, of course. But having worked at a midsize owner-operated agency, the largest independent firm, and an integrated ad and marketing agency, I have a bias toward less bureaucracy, greater simplicity, and fewer deciders. An owner-operated organization is obviously better positioned to create a truly entrepreneurial environment that rewards proactivity, accountability, and, yes, risk.

One thought on “In Praise of Independent PR Agencies

  1. Love the fish! I’ve worked with agencies of many sizes and orientations, and the midsize, owner-operated model has delivered most cost-effectively. But having said that, I’ve benefited from the “independent thinking” of talented comms pros on agency teams of all stripes. The problem in a large, matrixed organization, however, is that high-potential young people often grow discouraged and leave. That’s the risk of a larger agency in my experience.

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