By Jason Sherman, founder, SHERMAN communications & marketing, inc.
Who you trust your public relations needs with makes all the difference to your marketing communications success. One selection criterion a lot of folks begin with when shopping for PR services is a firm’s size.
And, yes, size does matter.
Say you’re a very large organization looking for one communications partner / firm to manage multiple elements of your communications strategy. And, you need services such as trade-show marketing, social media, media relations, public affairs, investor relations, customer engagement, internal communications, etc. across several geographic regions where you do business. Well, a boutique firm may likely not have the bandwidth to meet your needs. And, your $15-40k/month budget should be big enough to attract and retain a large agency.
However, if your budget is less than $10k a month and your needs have a narrower scope than the above example, you will likely get a much better bang for your communications buck with a boutique firm (granted its skills, experience and philosophy are a match with your needs). Here’s why.
Three ways boutique firms beat the big boys
[Disclaimer: I have run a boutique PR firm since early 2002 – serving clients ranging from publicly held, multinational companies to start ups. Prior, I worked for a large ad agency; real estate company; dot-com; and two mid-sized and one international (Weber Shandwick) PR and marketing firms.]
“Results may vary” depending on various factors; but if you pick a solid* boutique firm, these benefits will usually hold true.
1. Client has big-fish experience
It’s hard to dispute that smaller firms pay more attention and give greater focus to clients that they consider large (but larger firms would actually consider small). It’s simple economics: your budget that feels small to a big firm will feel big to a small firm.
Being a big client with a smaller firm has its perks, including: the amount of attention you receive, the brainpower devoted to your needs, your ability to negotiate costs (yup, fees can be negotiable), among other things. It takes a hefty budget to be a “priority” client at a large firm. Also, boutique firms have fewer clients—making every single client count tremendously. On the flip side, you could be one of 25 or more clients at a large firm.
2. More senior-level talent
Working with a smaller firm usually means more direct access to its top talent. With some boutique firms, like mine, the founder manages every client account. Many clients don’t need a four-person team—one that can cost you $1k each time they meet to discuss your account.
Having a senior-level person doing the bulk of your work produces economies of scale; gives you the benefits of this professional’s experience, judgment and wisdom; and avoids you paying for mistakes and fundamental skill development more commonly associated with junior-level practitioners. Also, your ROI becomes greater as your senior-level partner builds more knowledge about your business.
Speaking of which, staff at larger firms (such as your lead person) can be reassigned off your account, moved to another office, laid off or leave for another job. Any of these can be very disruptive to your account. When your agency’s founder is working on your business, there is no chance of these things happening.
3. Better value
Boutique firms typically have a lower fee structure (due to less overhead, no investors to appease each quarter and the need to be more competitive) than the large firms (many of whom are owned by publicly held, international firms). Also, what you’ll receive for $5k a month with a larger firm vs. a boutique firm—in terms of the sheer number of hours, brainpower and time devoted by senior-level talent, and attention paid to your needs—is very different.
In support of large firms
I worked at Weber-Shandwick for four years and had a tremendous experience, as did, I believe, my clients. The firm is surely different now—likely even better. It did great work for all sorts of clients and had terrific systems in place to help ensure client satisfaction, professional development and more. Also, large firms like this have a deep bench of talent in many areas. You may be a healthcare company and need public affairs and tech expertise. A large firm can pull in the right people. But, you need the necessary budget to even be of interest as a client to these larger firms to then access this talent.
Speaking of talent, we often bring in top-tier, senior-level talent to help our clients with everything from website design and SEO to niche, industry-specific skills to greater reach in overseas markets. These pros are committed to our clients, work seamlessly with our firm and have produced great results within our budgets.
Bottom line: depending on your needs and resources, a boutique public relations and marketing (or any professional services) firm can give you more time and attention, more senior-level brainpower and talent, and an overall better value than a larger firm.
Jason has helped more than 100 businesses grow through strategic, targeted public relations and marketing. After running PR for a dot.com, creative services agency and clients of two PR firms, he started his own firm in early 2002, SHERMAN communications & marketing. SCM is a boutique PR and marketing firm focused on helping businesses better differentiate and compete in their crowded markets, build strategic alliances, gain significant third-party endorsements and grow. Jason and his firm have a particularly strong background in housing/real estate, healthcare, financial services, professional services, technology, logistics and manufacturing. SCM offers strategic planning, media relations, social media, research, branding, interactive and marketing communications services to help companies realize their potential.