Gini Dietrich

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

By: Gini Dietrich | August 16, 2011 | 
109

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, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks,ย co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She alsoย is the lead blogger atย Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

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109 Comments on "Boutique PR Agency vs. Large PR Agency: The Pros and Cons"

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Soulati | PR
4 years 11 months ago
What? I’m first??? I spent my agency days in Chicago — 18 of them avoiding the largest firms. I freelanced with them, interviewed at them and somewhere along the way decided the cut-throat environment wasn’t necessarily what I wanted. Getting chewed and spit wasn’t for me; so I got chewed and spit with mid-sized firms and small agencies until I started by own at age 30. What I can say to anyone — the experience of an agency is priceless. After 7 years with my own firm hiring kids out of school and paying office rent, salaries and health insurance,… Read more »
Soulati | PR
4 years 11 months ago

W00t!!!!! I’m first! Kewl!

KarlSakas
KarlSakas
4 years 11 months ago

I haven’t worked at a large agency (marketing vs. PR for me) but I really like my experience at a small agency now (we have 7 full-time people). I like that I can see ways to improve the company… and actually implement them. As a member of the management team, I can see the impact of what I do, rather than being a cog in a larger machine. But indeed, there’s no massive expense account…

JodiEchakowitz
JodiEchakowitz
4 years 11 months ago
This post is fabulous and should be shared with anyone that is trying to decided whether they want to be a small fish in a big ocean, or a big fish in a small pond. Here are some other Pros of hiring a boutique agency: ** Budgets are often flexible vs. fixed all year round. ** Billing rates are typically lower than in a global agency. (For example, we offer flat-rate billing across our team, which provides a huge advantage to clients.) ** Teams are often highly experienced so companies are not paying big $$ to train juniors. (People on… Read more »
John_Trader1
John_Trader1
4 years 11 months ago
Good job on pointing out the differences Gini, I would say that you deftly covered most of them. At a job I recently held, during an RFP for our marketing and PR services we had five firms make it past the first evaluation round and to the stage of a presentation to the committee we established to review their pitches. The differences in their live presentations based on whether they were large vs. boutique were truly amazing and reflected a lot of what you pointed out above. 3 of the 5 bidders were large agencies and they sent a team… Read more »
Maranda
4 years 11 months ago
You had a shell Gini? I just can’t see that. ๐Ÿ™‚ As a “young professional” I think that I’ve always been more into the “boutique” lifestyle than a corporate one. Like Jayme said, the idea of getting chewed up and spit out doesn’t really appeal to me. Now, I don’t work for a PR agency, but we are a business, and naturally – we have people who handle that. (*wave, that’s me*) I agree with Karl, I like being able to see that what I’m working on is directly affecting a larger goal — and I feel like I’ve had… Read more »
HowieSPM
HowieSPM
4 years 11 months ago
I think a Boutique Agency will serve the clients better in an ethical way. One thing I use in my Advertising Pitch is would the Agency that has a $100mil media buying account ever tell a client ‘I can reach the same number of people and save you $10mil’ thus reducing billings and their revenues? Never. I feel a quality Boutique Agency would. A major Ad Agency would never tell a client ‘I was looking at your goals and while we do TV stuff I think you would be better served going Digital here is a number to someone who… Read more »
ginidietrich
ginidietrich
4 years 11 months ago

@Soulati | PR LOL!! You were the first. And your last sentence cracked me up!

I totally agree with your synopsis about paying your dues and understanding how a big agency works. You’ll find stuff you love and stuff you’ll hate. The stuff you’ll hate you can use to make change if/when you leave.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
4 years 11 months ago

@KarlSakas Really great point about seeing your work actually changing the company! A couple of years ago, we changed our business model and I gave people the option to stay or go. That never would happen in a large agency. If your manager felt your skills weren’t aligned with the new direction, they’d just let you go.

But the expense account….I learned all about wine taking clients to dinner.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
4 years 11 months ago

@KarlSakas Really great point about seeing your work actually changing the company! A couple of years ago, we changed our business model and I gave people the option to stay or go. That never would happen in a large agency. If your manager felt your skills weren’t aligned with the new direction, they’d just let you go.

But the expense account….I learned all about wine taking clients to dinner.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
4 years 11 months ago

@JodiEchakowitz Yes, yes, yes, and yes! I like the flat billing rates that you employ. In fact, your business model is one a lot of small agencies should emulate.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
4 years 11 months ago

@JodiEchakowitz Yes, yes, yes, and yes! I like the flat billing rates that you employ. In fact, your business model is one a lot of small agencies should emulate.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
4 years 11 months ago
@John_Trader1 This reminds me of a gigantic pitch we had a couple of years ago. We were up against three of the largest PR firms in the world. We didn’t win the business. You know why? Because our presentation had creativity and even gave some ideas (just like the agency you chose). The big firms just did capabilities. And, in the end, the CMO was more concerned about keeping his job (and even told us so) than about doing something risky and, likely, more successful. So, in that case, the lack of capabilities with multiple offices and skills hurt us.… Read more »
ginidietrich
ginidietrich
4 years 11 months ago

@Maranda OMG, yes! I am an introvert and painfully shy. My mom used to make me call to order pizza on pizza night just to get me to talk to another person. I still hate the phone because of those early days.

You know, you’re right in that it doesn’t matter if it’s an agency or not. Small vs. big works for any company. I had a lot of value from working at FH. I was given a ton of opportunity. I was not chewed up and spit out. But it isn’t a job you keep forever, either.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
4 years 11 months ago

@Maranda OMG, yes! I am an introvert and painfully shy. My mom used to make me call to order pizza on pizza night just to get me to talk to another person. I still hate the phone because of those early days.

You know, you’re right in that it doesn’t matter if it’s an agency or not. Small vs. big works for any company. I had a lot of value from working at FH. I was given a ton of opportunity. I was not chewed up and spit out. But it isn’t a job you keep forever, either.

KarlSakas
KarlSakas
4 years 11 months ago

@ginidietrich Yes, I love flat billing rates — they’re just more transparent for everyone. A long-time client shared how a PR agency had pitched them on a proposal that included “blended” rates, and I can only imagine how the firm planned to game that at billing time.

My employer (a web design and interactive marketing agency) charges a single rate for everyone. We also don’t bill clients for most account manager time. Beyond that, we actually publish a transparent Client Bill of Rights, explaining how everything works: http://www.coalmarch.com/client-bill-of-rights.php

KarlSakas
KarlSakas
4 years 11 months ago

@ginidietrich Yes, I love flat billing rates — they’re just more transparent for everyone. A long-time client shared how a PR agency had pitched them on a proposal that included “blended” rates, and I can only imagine how the firm planned to game that at billing time.

My employer (a web design and interactive marketing agency) charges a single rate for everyone. We also don’t bill clients for most account manager time. Beyond that, we actually publish a transparent Client Bill of Rights, explaining how everything works: http://www.coalmarch.com/client-bill-of-rights.php

KarlSakas
KarlSakas
4 years 11 months ago

@ginidietrich Yes, I love flat billing rates — they’re just more transparent for everyone. A long-time client shared how a PR agency had pitched them on a proposal that included “blended” rates, and I can only imagine how the firm planned to game that at billing time.

My employer (a web design and interactive marketing agency) charges a single rate for everyone. We also don’t bill clients for most account manager time. Beyond that, we actually publish a transparent Client Bill of Rights, explaining how everything works: http://www.coalmarch.com/client-bill-of-rights.php

KarlSakas
KarlSakas
4 years 11 months ago

@ginidietrich Yes, I love flat billing rates — they’re just more transparent for everyone. A long-time client shared how a PR agency had pitched them on a proposal that included “blended” rates, and I can only imagine how the firm planned to game that at billing time.

My employer (a web design and interactive marketing agency) charges a single rate for everyone. We also don’t bill clients for most account manager time. Beyond that, we actually publish a transparent Client Bill of Rights, explaining how everything works: http://www.coalmarch.com/client-bill-of-rights.php

Shelley Pringle
Shelley Pringle
4 years 11 months ago
Like Gini I’ve worked at a big shop (in my case Hill & Knowlton), at a mid-sized integrated marketing communications company and now run my own boutique agency in Toronto. I think clients (and employees) can benefit from both kinds of agencies–it just depends on what clients’ needs are and where employees are in their careers–but I am a bit partial to boutiques. At my company our tagline is “Big agency thinking. Small agency attitude” which attempts to summarize some of the advantages. @JodiEchakowitz offers up some really good points. There are many benefits of working with senior practitioners, including… Read more »
Shonali
4 years 11 months ago

I’ve worked at one large agency (Ruder Finn), one boutique agency, and now running my own biz – I don’t know if you’d call it a boutique agency, but I *think* I operate long those principles (except my presentations are *always* slick, LOL).

You know, if I had to go work for someone else, I think I’d opt for a boutique/medium size. They’re just more fun. You get to think more, do more, learn more, without having to jump through all the hoops that a boutique agency normally puts you through (granted, I’m generalizing, but you know what I mean).

Shonali
4 years 11 months ago

@HowieSPM Howie, I’m not standing up for any “big agency” here – I don’t have a vested interest in any – but I don’t think ethics are dependent on whether an agency is boutique or not.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
4 years 11 months ago

@KarlSakas Wow Karl! This is great! I just scanned it and will read fully later so I can shamelessly steal!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
4 years 11 months ago

@KarlSakas Wow Karl! This is great! I just scanned it and will read fully later so I can shamelessly steal!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
4 years 11 months ago

@Shonali@HowieSPM I agree with Shonali. I was thinking about your comment and my experience of working for a global agency was quite the opposite. I remember sitting in a Bridgestone/Firestone meeting where the partner told them where to stick it because their board wanted us to do some unethical things. He fired the client right then and there, in front of all of us.

Shonali
4 years 11 months ago

@KarlSakas@ginidietrich I’m going to steal that too!

jackielamp
jackielamp
4 years 11 months ago
I literally just had this discussion with someone this morning. I’m at a smaller agency and she works at a larger one. She’s worked at a couple larger ones, actually, and I was surprised to find there are big differences between them. But, it was interesting to hear the big agency perspective. I’m a young professional who always thought eventually I’d make the switch from small to large. After hearing more about the larger agencies and even reading these comments, I’m not so sure if I’d like it. I think a lot of what I love about the small agency… Read more »
jeanineblack
jeanineblack
4 years 11 months ago

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.

jeanineblack
jeanineblack
4 years 11 months ago

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. ๐Ÿ™‚

JodiEchakowitz
JodiEchakowitz
4 years 11 months ago

@Shonali@KarlSakas@ginidietrich I love it! Think I need to steal that too ๐Ÿ˜‰

Nic_Cartwright
4 years 11 months ago
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… Read more »
C_Pappas
4 years 11 months ago
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… Read more »
TheJackB
4 years 11 months ago
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… Read more »
Billy_Delaney
Billy_Delaney
4 years 11 months ago

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

Busy_BOO
Busy_BOO
4 years 11 months ago

Enjoyed this! RT. @PamMktgNut Boutique PR Agency vs. Large PR Agency: The Pros and Cons http://t.co/BgBkCi4 via @ginidietrich

danieleagee
danieleagee
4 years 11 months ago

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

Clarity4theBoss
Clarity4theBoss
4 years 11 months ago

@ginidietrich – Nice ๐Ÿ™‚ thanks for sharing.

HowieSPM
HowieSPM
4 years 11 months ago
@ginidietrich@Shonali ahh but you are talking PR. That is different. I come from an Industry that accepts 50% of ad spend is wasted and does nothing about it! LOL I feel like it is congress where elected officials become lobbyists etc. BUT there is a big CHECK and Balance in all this. CFO’s! There is a reason CMO’s at Fortune 500 companies have tenures averaging less than 1 year. Shortest of any C Suite position. Seriously look at how many ads were created for the superbowl that did nothing to sell product. Pepsi is a great example. 3 commercials showing… Read more »
ginidietrich
ginidietrich
4 years 11 months ago

@Billy_Delaney Thanks for the nice comment, Billy!

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
4 years 11 months ago

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

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
4 years 11 months ago

@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
4 years 11 months ago

@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
4 years 11 months ago

@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
4 years 11 months ago

@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
4 years 11 months ago

@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.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
4 years 11 months ago

@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.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
4 years 11 months ago
@jackielamp I LOVED working at FH. I mean, loved. I had all sorts of opportunities. But, as you know, I’m a take the bull by the horns kind of person. And you really have to have that kind of personality in order to make it in a very competitive environment. I remember they used to post billable hours every Monday and you’d see where you ranked among your peers. There was only one person who ever beat me. I don’t like losing…even if it is second place. But they also rewarded hours worked vs. results produced. If you didn’t go… Read more »
ginidietrich
ginidietrich
4 years 11 months ago
@jackielamp I LOVED working at FH. I mean, loved. I had all sorts of opportunities. But, as you know, I’m a take the bull by the horns kind of person. And you really have to have that kind of personality in order to make it in a very competitive environment. I remember they used to post billable hours every Monday and you’d see where you ranked among your peers. There was only one person who ever beat me. I don’t like losing…even if it is second place. But they also rewarded hours worked vs. results produced. If you didn’t go… Read more »
ginidietrich
ginidietrich
4 years 11 months ago

@Shonali If you had to go work for someone else and I had to go work for someone else, we’d form a girl power conglomeration and work for one another.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich
4 years 11 months ago

@Shonali If you had to go work for someone else and I had to go work for someone else, we’d form a girl power conglomeration and work for one another.

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