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Gini Dietrich

PR Agency: Boutiques vs. Large

By: Gini Dietrich | August 18, 2014 | 
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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, 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.

61 comments
EmmaRose1
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. 

aimeelwest
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 :) 

andrewpickup
andrewpickup

@mikeliew30 Re:"Small budgetsto a global firm are gigantic budget to a boutique firm" Will endeavour to keep INFOM budgets small :-) @voal

Jen Novotny
Jen Novotny

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
RonellSmith

Gini,


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.


RS

LauraPetrolino
LauraPetrolino

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
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!

JasKeller
JasKeller

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...). 



Eleanor Pierce
Eleanor Pierce

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. 

steve_dodd
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.

PeterJ42
PeterJ42

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. 

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

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.

Latest blog post: Poor Design Can Kill

ginidietrich
ginidietrich moderator

@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). 

RonellSmith
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  @belllindsay say that's OK :D


RS

ExtremelyAvg
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.

ExtremelyAvg
ExtremelyAvg

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

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  1. […] many of you work for agencies, you should take a gander at Gini Dietrich’s post about the pros and cons of boutique versus large PR agencies. There’s plenty here for employees, entrepreneurs, and clients all to […]

  2. […] month, Gini Dietrich wrote on her blog, Spin Sucks, about the pros and cons to working with a large PR agency versus a boutique one. It´s a very interesting post, so go over […]