Gini Dietrich

PR Agency: Boutiques vs. Large

By: Gini Dietrich | August 18, 2014 | 

PR Agency Pros and ConsBy Gini Dietrich

I loved my job at Fleishman-Hillard.

It was where I learned all about PR, where I was rewarded for the work ethic my parents instilled, where I made lifelong friends, and 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.

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 PR agency experience. Now I needed to create boutique PR agency experience.

Boutique vs. a Large PR Agency

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

Pros of a Large PR 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 PR 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.
  • You can rest assured the agency doesn’t work a competitor.
  • Small agencies can attract the top talent because they have the freedom to pay what they want. Their salaries aren’t dictated by company structures, HR policies, or shareholders.

Cons of a Large PR 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 someone like Steve Jobs, is almost impossible.
  • Sometimes the CEO doesn’t even have communications expertise.
  • A large PR agency will set up “firewalls” so they can work with a client’s competition. There is one agency, in particular, that works with both Apple and Microsoft.

Cons of a Boutique PR 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 PR agency screws up.
  • Bringing together a team that is right for the client sometimes means calling in other agencies or freelancers.
  • 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 working in or with a large PR agency versus a boutique?

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, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • humaidx

    Your team knows how to react quickly and get something done, even if they’ve never done it before.
    If they’ve never done it before how does your team know how to react quickly and get it done? Doesn’t make sense to me, especially since i too work at a boutique PR agency. Would appreciate your clarification on this.

    Well-written post otherwise! I would agree with the other points you have made.

  • humaidx I think with a boutique agency, the reaction time has more to do with having fewer hoops to jump through to get anything done. At least that’s my view.

  • humaidx I think with a boutique agency, the reaction time has more to do with having fewer hoops to jump through to get anything done. At least that’s my view.

  • It depends on the expectations every person has (as a client or as an employee). I´ve worked in the comms department of a very large bank and I enjoyed my time there. However I remember how difficult and frustrating was to get the internal client to give us something so we can communicate, organize, etc. There was an infinite number of “bosses” and approvals to get and almost always we sent late the information to the PR agency we worked with. We could have worked faster and better without so many barriers in between.
    Now working in a small company, I wouln´t change the freedom to experiment, to get involved in all type of projects and to make decissions in every moment.
    Why? Because you can learn so much about the job and about yourself, how you react in different situations and how you get out of them, how you can handle several projects at once, etc.
    I am not saying that in large PR agencies you don´t get the chance to do all the above. I suppose you do (I haven´t worked in one). My feeling is you have to make a lot of “juggling” to answer/help a client faster. I did have to learn to do it while working in the bank. It was the only way to finish projects and meet deadlines. It´s a good life lesson, but I rather concentrate at being great at my job.
    What I am saying is when the “life/death” decissions are on your shoulders you get better at your job with every moment.

  • many of these points hold true from small vs big company no matter what the industry. I have experience in sales, marketing, warehousing, customer service, purchasing, account management, project management, vendor management, ISO9001 quality systems, shipping, inventory management, R&D, Product Testing, and IT. All from holding inside sales and outside sales positions in 2 companies. One was 100-200 people and one was 50. I even was on the CSA America Standards Committee for performance and safety standards for natural gas and hydrogen fuel cell fuel systems for  road vehicles: buses, trucks and cars. So when your kid is picked up in a natural gas bus….I helped ensure it was safe…or at least blew up the same way every time (just kidding about the last part).

    Good luck learning all that at a big company.

  • humaidx

    ClayMorgan I would agree with that. The organisation is much more leaner therefore communication is quicker.

  • Howie Goldfarb Well said Howie.

  • ClayMorgan humaidx I think as to go with my comment on my background, in a big company there is often a specialist expert for everything. But to get access to that expertise isn’t always easy. If you decide you can’t wait a big company doesn’t always allow you to go figure it out. A smaller company usually will allow it or go find the help from an outside source like ginidietrich mentioned.

    But these events are what expands the in house expertise of a smaller business and for those workers.

  • humaidx I’ll add that in a smaller agency, the hiring process is less rigid, as Gini mentions above. Fewer hoops to jump through – Gini, for example, can hire whoever she wants, for whatever reason she wants, and is the ultimate decision maker when someone gets hired. Something most CEOs at large firms don’t get their hands dirty with. Heck, let the HR department handle that, right? 😉 So, Gini hires people who are multi-skilled, perhaps from different yet related industries (for example, I spent twenty years working in TV), and people who are fast, creative thinkers and quick on their feet. That’s what allows us to achieve “Your team knows how to react quickly and get something done, even if they’ve never done it before.”

  • The interesting thing is how this has changed recently. I read a piece recently which said that Big companies grew because the cost of communication was less inside the business than outside it. Now, they argued it is the other way round – it is harder to get through the layers of “if you want to talk to X, you need to book through Y” within a company than it is to simply connect on social, wherever they are in the world. They argue that is has tilted the playing field away from the big company towards a matrix of small ones.
    Because this communication is so easy, it is easy to create a network where you have access to minds smarter than your own (or with different perspectives or knowledge which is just as valuable). Technology has also become cheap as chips – small companies can do what big ones can, while the big ones are held back by big slow old legacy stuff.
    Perception lags reality and small, agile matrix companies still need to work on credibility – at least until evaluation moves to more agile metrics than “credibility”. And quite frankly many small businesses haven’t even seen the possibilities – they deserve to die just as much as the dinosaurs.

  • steve_dodd

    Great discussion.  The key in my mind is to first of all decide if you are a “big” or “small” company person.  There is no way to really make this determination without experiencing both.

  • In my experience there’s more of an entrepreneurial attitude at a small firm. There are some pretty great opportunities to shine (and, conversely, to let your mistakes shine) when you’re on a small team. 
    Whereas probably the one thing I miss with a bigger agency is having a really wide pool to collaborate and pull ideas from. If you’re struggling, you have a bunch of people to run things past and bounce ideas off of – with a smaller group (of super busy people – it also doesn’t seem like there are as many people just killing time, haha) it’s not always so simple.

  • From the larger agency side, I would say that every agency is different too. Whether big or small, every agency typically has their forte and tries to play to that strength. 

    There were several places I interviewed with on a job hunt awhile back, and as a social/digital nerd, I realized some were clearly not a good fit because the agency was more focused on media relations, events, etc. (even if they marketed social/digital or wanted to go that direction). 

    It wasn’t big or small that was the deciding factor for my in that instance, it was matching up the right opportunity with my skillset. 

    …with that said, I’ve heard they drink more at smaller agencies (defer to my boutique friends to verify that one…).

  • steve_dodd True.

  • JasKeller They drink more…water, you mean. :)))

  • corinamanea JasKeller Right… yes they keep very hydrated… right?

  • MaryCrone

    I love your posts but I have one request. Do you think you can move your text over when your text goes alongside a picture. It blends into the picture and is difficult to enjoy. Thanks!

  • Howie Goldfarb ClayMorgan humaidx ginidietrich Yep, +1 to Howie. Plus often part of what you look for when hiring for a small agency is the ability to be nimble, agile, and react in this way. This is a combination of both background, skillset, and basic personality. For example in looking at our team, I came from politics, Lindsay came from TV, and Clay and Ellie came from news. All fields where you MUST develop the ability to act/react this way or you’ll sink quickly.

  • belllindsay humaidx oh…yeah, so ignore my comment above and just refer to this one! #whatlindsaysaid 🙂

  • I’m a small agency girl for many reasons, but they basically simmer down to be a combination of my personality (and what jives best with my natural tendencies and quirks) and my background. 

    I like having my hands in all the working pieces. My brain works better that way and I can produce better, more creative results in any particular focus when I have a full and educated understanding of the others. I also not only like, but require the extra “personality” small agencies afford. There is a personal touch and closeness with both internal team and clients that’s unique and priceless to me.

  • MaryCrone It kind of drives me crazy, too. But it’s the design so there isn’t anything I can do about it…unless we have the entire site redone. 🙁

  • humaidx It goes to the flexibility of a smaller company. They have the opportunity to learn on the job. At a large company, they don’t have that same flexibility. It goes to someone who has the expertise and has been put into that box. For instance, seven years ago, no one had any social media experience. The small agencies quickly took the lead because they had the flexibility to try to figure it out. At a large firm, you aren’t given a part of your day to learn new things.

  • LauraPetrolino I don’t know…I think you’d thrive in a large agency, too. I got promoted quickly because I’m type A and took charge. You’re like that, too. Lots of companies respect that.

  • JasKeller Oh please. Every Friday, we would drink at lunch and then they’d come by with the beer cart at 3 p.m. From noon on, my Fridays were…not productive.

  • Eleanor Pierce I think you’re right. In a large organization, people can skate by more easily. You definitely can’t do that in a small organization.

  • steve_dodd I agree with you, Steve. For a long time, after I started my business, I thought if it didn’t work out, I could always go back to the big agency world. I still could, but I’d hate every minute of it.

  • PeterJ42 I agree … and you’re right about the credibility. I remember, when I was first starting out with this business, I finally said to someone, “How can I build the credibility if no one will give me a chance?” Well, give me a chance they did, and they were a client for nine years (until they were sold and the parent company wanted a large agency).

  • Howie Goldfarb Or at least blew up the same way every time. LOL!!! You are terrible.

  • RonellSmith


    I’ve working with PR firms at all levels in the last decade. I have a number of friends, too, who run midsize PR firms, and PR is an area of service I have consulted clients on. (I’ve even written my share of press releases.)

    For my money, I’d much, much, much work with a small to midsize PR firm. Why? The No. 1 thing PR firms get wrong is creating a “you-first benefit” to the folks they are reaching out to. It’s always about the “amazing product or service” their clients are offering. I’ve said numerous times, PR folks should NEVER need a pitch a media person. They should have a rapport in place already.

    Too often, at bigger PR firms folks either don’t stick around long enough or don’t take the time to foster a sincere connection, something that’s often not as much of an issue with midsize firms.


  • corinamanea I agree, Corina. And what you describe here is something I think about A LOT as I grow this business. I don’t want us to get bogged down in policy and red tape for this very reason.

  • RonellSmith Amen, amen, amen! AMEN! You should write a blog post for us on this topic. People are sick of me saying it. I could use some help!

  • ginidietrich JasKeller I drink a fair bit. 😉

  • I think the best benefit of working for a smaller agency is that you don’t get silo-ed into one skill. I worked for a mid-size agency and almost exclusively did media relations – pitching the client as an expert source and trying to place expert articles/case studies/news releases that I had written. Throw in a few trade shows a year and that was it. I loved that agency, too, but after I left I thought, “If I never had to make another editor call I think I’ll be okay.” I’m so thankful for the smaller agencies I’ve worked for because it really has expanded my skill set.

    With the speed at which public relations is changing, I think you’re so much less marketable if you only have one skill.

    I think the biggest downside to a small agency is the lack of budget – both the agency’s and the client’s. No new shiny software programs or lavish events in Vegas. 😉

  • RonellSmith

    ginidietrich RonellSmith I’m sure NO ONE is tired of hearing you say that 🙂 I’m certainly not. Actually, I’m very, very disappointed in PR firms overall. They’re eerily quiet in the content marketing game, and the SEOs/link builders walk right onto the school yard daily, then take lunch and eat it in front of them. (Not that most link builders get the outreach right, either, though. They don’t.) 

    It’s as though PR folks are content to be “far-back” followers. It’s a discussion I’ve had with contacts at some of the big firms in the country. Never a sufficient answer. Maybe my rant is just tired 🙂

    I’d love to pen a blog for your site. I mean, if @eleanorpie and say that’s OK 😀


  • MaryCrone I’m going to try something with tomorrow’s blog post. Will you stop by and tell me what you think? I don’t know if it’ll work, but I’m going to try!

  • RonellSmith THEY SAY IT’S OKAY!!

  • Jen Novotny OMG! Right?! I did a lot of fun media events and the like, but I was so tired of media relations when I left. I’d so much rather do the stuff we’re doing now. I totally get it!

  • andrewpickup

    mikeliew30 Re:”Small budgetsto a global firm are gigantic budget to a boutique firm” Will endeavour to keep INFOM budgets small 🙂 voal

  • mikeliew30

    andrewpickup voal Nonetheless, you’ll still get the biggest bang for your buck. 😉

  • andrewpickup

    mikeliew30 voal I cannot possibly comment, Mike, I love all our agencies equally 🙂

  • mikeliew30

    andrewpickup voal But some agencies are more equal than others, right?

  • andrewpickup

    mikeliew30 voal Good try, but this is not Animal Farm, Mike 🙂

  • mikeliew30

    andrewpickup voal If you think about it, we are all animals in a big farm 😉

  • humaidx

    ginidietrich humaidx That makes sense 🙂 Thank you for the clarification Gini!

  • ginidietrich

    arikhanson Thanks, Arik!

  • ExtremelyAvg

    ginidietrich What are you doing up at this hour? Are you always a morning person?

  • ginidietrich

    ExtremelyAvg I am. Always 5 am

  • ginidietrich

    ExtremelyAvg But this is super early for you!

  • NancyCawleyJean

    ginidietrich ExtremelyAvg 6:30 a.m. for me. I will never understand that 5 a.m. thing. That’s when I have my best dreams! 😉

  • ginidietrich

    NancyCawleyJean But what about that extra 90 minutes of work??

  • NancyCawleyJean

    ginidietrich I know… wish I had your drive! Hmmm. maybe not. 😉

  • ginidietrich

    NancyCawleyJean LOL! By Fridays, I wish I didn’t have it.

  • ExtremelyAvg

    ginidietrich I hadn’t gone to bed, yet. I have since gotten 90 minutes, but now I’m up gathering data from my Free promotion on Bookbub.

  • ginidietrich

    ExtremelyAvg OMG

  • ExtremelyAvg

    ginidietrich Data is important. I take readings every 15 minutes. I’ve had 2,514 free downloads this morning.

  • NancyCawleyJean

    ginidietrich But then we wouldn’t have #GinAndTopics!

  • ginidietrich

    NancyCawleyJean Good point! That’s my favorite blog post to write.

  • aimeelwest

    The advantage of working for a small agency in a niche market is that we really get to know our clients and they suggest us to others – which helps us all grow. Also I am constantly doing something different and learning new skills along the way. 

    Ahhh but a big firm with an over seas office would be fun to try out 🙂

  • ginidietrich

    humberPRcmte Thanks!

  • humberPRcmte

    ginidietrich No problem – we really enjoyed the insider’s take! Very interesting 🙂

  • EmmaRose1

    This post is so relevant for
    me right now. I am at the end of a 12-month long journey in Public Relations
    and Marketing studies. I’m now at a fork in the road and I have to make a
    decision about which path to take. My choices, as I see them, are to either
    join a large corporation in a PR or communications capacity or branch out on my
    own. So finding this blog post today was very timely. Thank you so much for
    weighing the pros and cons of working for a large corporation versus a boutique
    firm. My dream is really to branch out on my own and start my own social media-marketing
    firm. I say thank you, because reading this post has not only re-affirmed a lot
    of my own beliefs and feelings but also pointed out some solid distinctions
    that I had not previously though of.

  • ginidietrich

    TylerNelsonCO Thanks, Tyler!

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