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Gini Dietrich

Boutique PR Agency vs. Large PR Agency: The Pros and Cons

By: Gini Dietrich | August 16, 2011 | 
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Most of you know I spent the early days of my career at Fleishman-Hillard. I loved that job. It was where I learned all about PR, but also where I came out of my shell.

When I interviewed for the job, the GM of our office, Gary Kisner, asked me where I saw myself in five years. I remember looking around his office and saying, “In here looks good.”

He laughed at me and offered me the job on the spot.

It was going really, really far out on a limb for me. I was incredibly shy and saying something like that took every cajones I had (clearly I’ve gotten over that).

I became somewhat of a pet to him. I used to bite my fingernails, clear down to the cuticles. He pulled me aside one day and said, “Gini. You are so smart. You’re beautiful. In this world you can have just about anything you set your mind on. But you have to stop biting your fingernails. It’s demeaning your credibility.”

And stop biting my fingernails I did. So he began to put me in new business presentations. And suddenly I also came out of my shell.

Leaving there was bittersweet for me. I was on the fast track to making partner and to getting a company-owned BMW and parking spot…by the time I was 30.

But something was pulling me out of Kansas City. I had to move.

From there I went to work at Rhea & Kaiser to help build their PR department, which didn’t exist in 2001. And I learned what it was like to work for a mid-sized company.

By the time I opened the doors at Arment Dietrich in 2005, I had big and mid-sized agency experience. Now I needed to create boutique agency experience.

Boutique vs. Large Agencies

I’m often asked by young professionals what are the pros and cons for working at a global agency vs. a boutique firm. And clients typically usually work with one or the other. Having been inside both, I can tell you.

Pros of a Global Agency

  • You have access to minds smarter than your own all around the world.
  • Your access to software, expense accounts, and newest technologies is unlimited.
  • Bringing together a team that is right for the client is as easy as calling another office.
  • You learn how to do one job really well. If you’re in media relations, you learn that skill until you’re an expert. Then you get promoted.
  • The process and procedure is already in place…and works pretty well.
  • No one, from a client perspective, ever got fired for hiring a global agency.

Pros of a Boutique Agency

  • You have direct access to the CEO, both as staff and the client.
  • Your team knows how to react quickly and get something done, even if they’ve never done it before.
  • This may sound trite, but there is a personal touch because you’re working with the owner and a select, very carefully chosen team.
  • The team that pitches a piece of new business is the team that works on that business when it becomes a client.
  • As a team member, you become a jack of all trades and learn different parts of the job very quickly…because you have to.
  • The team is always very flexible and nimble.
  • A small budget to a global firm is usually a gigantic budget to a boutique firm.

Cons of a Global Agency

  • Learning a new skill takes years, if ever at all.
  • Flexibility and being nimble are like asking the Titantic to turn quickly.
  • The team that pitches new business is always the most polished, smartest, best presenter the office has to offer…and they almost never work with that client.
  • Clients that have smaller budgets are left to the young professionals to manage, which is great for the employee, but not so great for the client.
  • Having access to the CEO, unless you’re a Steve Jobs, is almost non-existent.

Cons of a Boutique Agency

  • The shininess of presentations, projects, and work isn’t as slick; some of the stuff we have to bootstrap with you.
  • Clients have been fired from their jobs for taking a chance with a boutique agency, if that agency screws up.
  • Bringing together a team that is right for the client sometimes means calling in other agencies.
  • Process and procedure are almost non-existent; you create it as you go.
  • The resources available are sometimes pretty slim.

The lists could go on and on so I leave it to you now. What are the pros and cons of each…either having worked inside them or having worked with them, as clients?

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, a Chicago-based integrated marketing communications firm. She is the lead blogger here at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. She is the co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Her second book, Spin Sucks, is available now.

85 comments
JayB2B
JayB2B

Hi Gini!

I really enjoyed your article. We work with varying sizes of PR firms, but definitely find Boutiques to be the most nimble and communicative.

For a company like mine, we are always looking for ways to get in front of as many PR firms as possible...can you recommend an effective vehicle for getting our message out directly to as many PR firms as possible, preferably Boutiques?

Thanks, and great work. Happy New Year!

Jay Cooney

@JayB2B@biz2blogger

Business2Blogger.com

jamescrawford
jamescrawford

Boutique agencies are the way forward.

Small agencies can attract the top talent because they have the freedom to pay what they want. Their salaries aren't dicatated by company structures, HR policies or shareholders.

Mentioning shareholders brings me on to another point. Any company that is publicly owned and not independent, has to pay a dividend. This dividend is cash that is not being used to pay staff. This means staff at bigger agencies are "overworked and under paid." while shareholders take home all the winnings.

Of course, independents might not necessarily pay that well all the time either but it is in their interest to be able to pay to retain the best. An owner manager won't think twice about dishing out a bonus to those that deserve it.

All this rubbish about big agencies being more to pay for systems and technologies is rubbish too. On a day to day basis there is very little technology that a PR person needs.

All in all, go Boutique. I've just launched my own http://www.pragencyone.co.uk

JGoldsborough
JGoldsborough

First of all, having worked at FHKC for two years now, boy do I have some stories to tell about you, @ginidietrich :). Kidding. I think your assessment is pretty spot on. What I would add is that the people you work with at whatever size agency you work at make or break the experience. For me, your manager and your team are the most important factor in your growth potential at any agency or company for that matter.

I always tell prospects/clients that FHKC is the best of both worlds -- access to resources of a global agency and flexibility of a 40-50 person office. I think a lot of the time that holds true. One example...We are really trying to get away from the "this team goes in and pitches and then this is the team that actually does the work" mentality. Clients don't like that and we are trying to get better at listening to our clients. That said, there are plenty of times I wish we were a bit more flexible. Just being honest.

I am still very new to the agency world, so I appreciate your perspective. Extremely solid line in the interview, btw. All I would say is choose where you work based on who you get to work with. Life is too short to work with jerks and people that will hold you down, big agency or small. And just like we preach to our clients all the time...people and relationships are what matter when it's all said and done. Cheers!

ElissaFreeman
ElissaFreeman

As 'the client' here's what I've done based on experience of dealing with both big and boutique: my current AORs are a mix bw one big int'l agency and one niche/boutique agency. One is more strategic, the other more 'where the rubber hits the road. Each presents their own strengths and challenges. Whereas I need to work to get the Big Guy to think "how the strategy boils down to what it means to the people" - at the same time I'm working with my Niche Guy to elevate his thinking to be more strategic. It's an interesting 'push/pull' relationship, but I believe our business will be all the better for it. (And? For the record, I'm NOT saying smaller agencies aren't strategic!)

lauraclick
lauraclick

Ok - I'm going to pull a page from @soulati 's book. I'm going to officially hijack this blog post and let folks know that "hey, I'm guest posting on Spin Sucks today about tips for finding jobs!".

So, since there are lot of really smart folks here (and it's a little lonely that direction), why don't you scurry on over to my guest post today and help the fine folks looking for jobs by offering your advice on what they need to do to land their dream job.

And, if you're one of the fine folks looking for jobs, you better check it out. There's some good stuff there (not that I'm biased). Oh, and if you have questions or want help, head over there and let me know that too.

Ok, come say hi, why don't ya?

lauraclick
lauraclick

I've never worked at a large agency - only a boutique firm right out of college. I wouldn't have traded it for anything. Although I was ready to leave when I did, it was a great way to learn a lot - and FAST. You're synopsis is right on - you have to become skilled at so many things and be able to spin a lot of plates. I thrive in that kind of environment (for the most part).

While I've never worked at a large agency, I've worked for government and can say I totally get the Titanic comment! Man, change is hard in larger companies and in government agencies. I'd rather fly by the seat of my pants any day! I love being flexible and nimble - I'd rather find the resources to get the job done than being constrained by process. But, that's just me.

sydcon_mktg
sydcon_mktg

I think the "Boutique vs Agency" is a issue that can be debated in many an industry. And, I think you listing pros and cons of both shows that ultimately it is what is best for each company/individual and that may even differ from project to project. I think in the end the decision has to be made by what speaks to you, and where you feel the best results lie.

Dont get me wrong, I am pro-boutique all the way, since this is how we roll. However, we have had initial consults when even though our products/services was better the potential client was more comfortable with a big firm because of habit. If the comfort level isnt there, it will be a rocky start.

han_ma
han_ma

I think one of the key advantages of working at a boutique agency (for both the client and the indiviual) is the increased ablity to develop and establish a stronger rapport, both internally and externally.

Working in a smaller team, you have the opportunity to become more personable and build stronger bonds with your fellow colleagues, hence creating a more trustworthy and comfortable atmosphere for you to flourish in.

And simultaneously as a result, your improved efforts produce stronger results for the clients in the long run. And in an industry that is founded upon maintaining relationships... that's a win/win in my opinion.

Disclaimer: I've worked for both a boutique (@formulapr) and global mid-sized (@bitecomms) agency.

EdwardMBury
EdwardMBury

First, I have a hard time believing my friend Gini was shy -- ever.

But seriously, I think any conversation regarding hiring public relations counsel should also focus on confidence, trust and determining whether the team in place can tackle your threat or opportunity strategically and deliver measurable results.

You can get all the above -- in many cases -- from the firm next door or the one with offices all around the world.

danieleagee
danieleagee

@ginidietrich Hold up, you're from Kansas City too? How is that I find myself surrounded by Kansas City folk?

Billy_Delaney
Billy_Delaney

I'd no idea until this post about agencies that supplied the PR. But, I did understand the size issues. This makes a lot of sense, and your authority shows through, a lot.

I expect that the smarts you have online that show up as rankings and such, transfer to the offline world you really work in.

Gini this post gave me some really good insights into the pull and push of your world.

Thanks Billy

TheJackB
TheJackB

I haven't worked for a PR agency but I have worked with them. Nonetheless I suspect that my experience working for Fortune 500 firms and small companies provides enough background to comment.

So much of our work experience is contingent upon people and their ability to make use of resources. Some of the best experiences I have had have come from working for smaller companies where we had to take on multiple jobs and build our skill set. I loved learning and growing from that.

But there were moments of angst that came from the craziness that emanated from owners who panicked because they feared that the clients would figure out that we were flying by the seat of our pants.

Most of the time I think that the clients were well served because good people worked hard to make sure that they were, but there were times....

And in regard to your comment about large agencies and change- damn if that didn't make me laugh. So very true.

C_Pappas
C_Pappas

During a recent search for PR representation, we reviewing both boutique firms and large firms. The difference that stuck out was that if we hired a boutique firm, we would have access to the senior team (partners) more often than the junior PR group when it came to building strategies and gaining coverage. When asked, the individuals who worked for the boutique firm also said they loved the environment because they had so much access to the partners. They also seemed to be less traditional in their approach and open to new ideas (they wanted us to give them content and infographics instead of product stories) and ways to reach the media.

But, and this depends on who exactly the boutique is you are talking to, their connections were what they were and we found it difficult to break out of their network to capture more media attention (we really needed to focus on a boutique who had a client list within the same market but not directly).

On the flip side, we noticed very quickly that although they wanted new business and new clients, they could only handle so much given their intimate size. At times we felt that either we were not getting the representation we had bought into or their other clients were suffering because they spent so much time with us.

Nic_Cartwright
Nic_Cartwright

Great photo.

It's all about people (as most of business ends up being) - and whilst I have had good (and bad) experiences working with both Sumo and Kid sized agencies - the main difference for me was making true friends when dealing with the smaller agencies.... (plenty of buddies at both)

Maybe it's something about each client being more important (you have less to look after), maybe it's because smaller agencies tend to be more interested n your brand (larger ones may be more interested in your larger competitor's brand), or maybe it's just the kind of people you meet (and gravitate to the boutique).

It might also be the psyche of wanting to give the 'little guy' a break - but I would always go boutique and then take on the world together!!

Loving the nail biting story aswell - yet to meet my 'prevention guru'

jeanineblack
jeanineblack

Speaking as a fellow introvert, as well, Gini. I also wonder if a bigger agency would've helped me come out of my shell faster. But, I've come a long way! Still hate the telephone, too, though. :)

jeanineblack
jeanineblack

Although I've enjoyed my career working at smaller agencies and for myself, (although now I'm on the client side), one thing I have always regretted is not getting big agency experience. I think, as Soulati commented, and everyone else, the education alone is priceless. Plus, you're tested - you make it or you don't. I feel like my experience is missing a huge chunk of the overall PR/marketing picture and I wonder how I would've done in that environment.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@jamescrawford I'm quite partial to boutiques, as well, but was trying to show an unbiased bent. :) I LOVE the name of your new agency. Good luck with it! It's the hardest (and most rewarding) thing I've ever done.

timepass
timepass

@findsujit i guess it would be subject to what a client would need as well as what the goal is

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@JGoldsborough It's interesting how much it's changed since I was there. We were a 250-300 person office. I have to say I think I'd like it even better at the 40 person range.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@ElissaFreeman Boy I'd really love a pros and cons blog from you about working with both. Don't know if you can do it right now, but maybe after the Games?

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@lauraclick See, you're a better person than me. I would not last a week working inside government. The red tape, alone, would kill me.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@sydcon_mktg Totally agree. And, I'm telling you, people whose jobs rely on the perception of a big name behind them are better off with a large agency.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@TheJackB LOL!! Flying by the seat of our pants...so true. And could be seen as both a pro and a con.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@C_Pappas That's a very interesting perspective, Christina. My guess is they oversold their capabilities and didn't budget correctly. That happens a lot with smaller agencies. The big agencies do it, too, but they have room to absorb over-servicing. Small agencies can't do that.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@Nic_Cartwright I tried to find a David and Goliath photo and didn't find one I liked. So Sumo and Kid were it!

It's interesting that you became friends with those at smaller agencies, and a great perspective. One of the things I push my team hard on is developing the personal relationship with clients. That didn't happen at the big agency.

P.S. Guys can get away with biting their nails. Girls, unfortunately, cannot.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@jeanineblack My friend Mark Wiskup talks about communicating (at the leader level) with introverts. He always makes the comment that, if you know you have to call an introvert, the best way to get their attention is to call after hours and leave a VM. That way they can return your call on THEIR terms. Isn't that true?!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@jeanineblack I was just talking with a friend about how people with an agency background can go to the client side, but those who start on the client side have a harder time going to an agency. I'd love to hear your perspective (guest post perhaps??) on the pros and cons of agency vs. client side.

findsujit
findsujit

@timepass bigger the team greater ur chances of gaps and dus lower efficiencies and missed opptys

findsujit
findsujit

@timepass PR is a cmplx funcn esp in 2day's hyper-connected wrld. It is imperative 2 hve a PR agency dat hs dedictd & cls knit teams.

danieleagee
danieleagee

@ginidietrich That's at least a tie. First 6 years of your life don't count. 12 years until you left for college. 12 in KC. Yep.

Nic_Cartwright
Nic_Cartwright

@ginidietrich that's the way (for me anyway) - as long as it is 'real' - nothing better than seeing an agency you are paying get truly excited about you and your product.... you can up your rates then!!!

I am in partial control now of my nails - as long as I stay away from the cinema and long car journeys ....

jeanineblack
jeanineblack

@ginidietrich Ha! That is absolutely true. I much prefer to get a voicemail, gather my thoughts and return the call when I'm ready. So funny, though, I never thought of it as a "tactic" for dealing with introverts! But I like it.

jeanineblack
jeanineblack

@ginidietrich I would tend to agree with that as well. And thank you for the suggestion, I would love to do a guest post on the pros and cons!

Nic_Cartwright
Nic_Cartwright

@ginidietrich lol... It's like Jaws in there - not one nail survives.... don't..... go...... in....... the......... cinema!!! Have a cracking Tuesday.

Lisa Gerber
Lisa Gerber

I'm with you, @jeanineblack . I regret not having any big agency experience either. Would love to talk to you about a guest post. can you send me an email at lgerber at armentdietrich dot com? (See @ginidietrich ? I got my email right this time.)

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  1. […] Dietrich recently wrote about the pro’s and con’s of large PR agency vs. a Boutique agency explaining how smaller agencies can give the human touch and the transparency that larger agencies […]

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  3. […] or four links to this blog or our website. The links include our pricing page (under development), boutique vs. large agency, and then content specific to their business needs (i.e. blogger relations, inbound marketing, […]