The Case For The Independent Agency
Smaller and independent ad and PR agencies like to tout their size and status as a competitive advantage. The problem with some of those claims is that they can boil down to cost, and the message too easily becomes, “Hire us and pay less for essentially the same creative service, or a better publicity result.”
Depending on the client and its needs, these can be valid claims. In the PR world, if your budget is less than half a million annually, you’ll probably be better off with a smaller, independent firm. But I’d like to think there are other reasons for bringing on an agency that’s not owned by an ad conglomerate, a holding company, or a marketing network.
Value. Yes, the typical structure of the independent firm is likely to maximize service for the investment. A large-firm structure is usually a triangle, with a few highly compensated and experienced practitioners at the top and a wide base of junior staffers at the bottom. Which means the typical account team blended billing rate is that of an Account Executive, usually someone with a year or two of experience. By contrast, an independent agency is more likely to have more experienced staffers running accounts, if only by virtue of having fewer layers.
Senior talent. The account team triangle isn’t necessarily a bad bet for clients. That depends on the allocation of senior-level time and attention. After all, it doesn’t make sense for someone with a 30-year track record to be doing media monitoring or compiling lists. But the problem with highly layered firms is that big overhead adds up to constant pressure to “feed the beast.” Most senior officers are consumed with chasing new business, not servicing clients.
Personalized service. This is where I’ve most often experienced the difference between a multinational firm with hundreds of clients and a small or midsize owner-operated agency. Some say larger firms are more likely to offer off-the-shelf or template-based programs, simply because they have to. I’m not sure about that, but in my experience, it’s after the contract is signed that the personal touch disappears. The economics of a multi-faceted agency simply mitigate against deep senior-level involvement, and turnover among less experienced staff hinders continuity at other levels. Independent agencies have greater control over their operations, by definition.
Independent thinking. This is another way of saying “autonomy,” and it can be a subtle advantage. Yet in many ways it’s the most critical, since the most valuable creative offering of any agency is its talent and depth of thinking. After more than 20 years in PR, including a stint at the PR unit of a large ad agency, it’s my belief that ad and marketing teams don’t understand PR programming beyond the lowest-common-denominator of publicity results or the urgency of crisis response. There are exceptions to this, however. The lines continue to blur among digital marketing, social media, advertising, and PR companies. Yet the most successful PR campaigns depend on an innate understanding of the practice.
A great idea can come from anywhere, of course. And the lines are blurring, to the benefit of everyone in the marketing picture. But the starkly different economics among the paid and earned media models usually mean the paid-media guys control the bigger budgets, and he who has the larger pocketbook usually prevails when it comes to pushing creative product on a client.
Of course, the challenge for independent firms in the PR industry lies in pressing our advantage. Too often, we rely on the value proposition to win clients, or we fail to leverage our more powerful tools and talents to benefit clients and our own teams. I’d like to think that for an independent PR agency, at least, the cost-value relationship is only the beginning of the case we make to clients, employees, and ourselves.