Making the case for small and mid-size PR agencies

Along with the trends toward tiny houses and craft beers, there is a growing affinity for boutique public relations firms, the author writes. He outlines his rationale for such a shift.

This article originally appeared on PR Daily in May of 2018.

More and more, less is more.

Of all trends that cross American sub-cultures, industries, and media, nothing is winning like minimalism. From agile teams, “lean” startup methodology and open floorplans to tiny houses, paleo living and “craft” everything, less is better.

We associate smallness with innovation, quality, authenticity and scrappiness.

Size matters in PR, too. Boutique and mid-size firms are in, and the goliaths look like McAgencies. Large clients who would traditionally use multinational firms have turned to smaller shops.

Are we all being brainwashed by Silicon Valley gospel and “Tiny House Hunters,” or is there something to the leaner-is-better trend?

Belonging and purpose

Size changes how members of a group relate to one another. Generally, our sense of purpose and self-worth is defined by belonging to a community or a “Tribe,” as journalist Sebastian Junger titled his book on the subject.

In the industrial era, economies of scale were everything, and Americans supersized their companies, subordinating individuals to the machinery of industry and government. As Junger puts it, “Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”

That pointlessness is acute in massive, impersonal companies. Movies such as “Fight Club,” “Office Space” and “The Matrix” were revolts against the existential absurdity of corporate culture. The protagonists revolt against cubicles, bureaucracy and a pointless day-to-day life.

Perhaps the flight to startups, craft brands and smaller agencies was a reaction to the era of dehumanization and disengagement, which, Gallup surveys assure us, continues today.

At big companies and agencies, people feel—and are—interchangeable. The two-year account rep knows a fresh college grad can replace her, and the company won’t suffer nor care if she leaves. At work, talented people want to make a footprint in concrete, not on a sandy beach in a windstorm.

Little agency, big edge

It seems big agencies crave competitive edges that a mid-size agency takes for granted:

1. Access to leadership

If you’re the client of a 5,000-person agency and call asking to speak with the CEO, good luck. Countless gatekeepers protect the CEO’s time, and frankly, the CEO has no idea what’s going on with your account. The giant agency can afford to lose you.

The reverse is true for a small or mid-size agency. If you need to get the CEO or VP on the phone, it happens quickly. Why does that matter? Well, your account manager with three years’ experience might be stellar, but if a PR crisis hits (e.g., a cyber breach), you want guidance from veterans. I’ve seen my CEO jump into unfolding crises on Saturday afternoons.


2. Awareness and flexibility in talent


At big firms, managers closely guard their budgets and talent. They’re not interested in lending their star workers to a rival who’s vying for the same promotion. At the 5,000-person agency, the managing director in San Francisco won’t know about the rock star social media analyst in Philadelphia who could turn around one of SF’s struggling accounts.

At mid-size agencies, we all know each other, and we know who excels at what. I’m based in Chicago, but when I need help following AP style, I check in with Kathleen, our grammar guru in Philly. We work flexibly, so she can lend a hand on my project. At smaller agencies, we’re not jockeying for resources and trying to kick rivals off the corporate ladder. Our tribe is too small for factions.

3. Learn it yourself (LIY)


Big agencies need machines—human machines. Efficiency, their golden calf, comes from doing one thing repeatedly. However, creativity and unconventional problem-solving come from a broad understanding of PR disciplines and unrelated subjects. The jack-of-all-trades sees on the PR canvas opportunities that the press release drone would never imagine.

The big agency says: If you don’t know what you’re doing, find or pay someone who does. The mid-size agency believes in LIY: Learn it yourself.

4. A marketplace of ideas

If you work for a 5,000-person agency and want to pitch an audacious idea to the CEO, good luck. He or she doesn’t have time for you, and the corporate ladder jockeys are afraid your brilliant ideas will overshadow theirs. Grassroots innovation is highly unlikely at companies structured as top-down, hierarchical firms.

One of our accounts was launching a wireless generator that you could take into the wilderness with you to power your campsite. Without asking anyone, I pitched it as “Netflix and Chill While Camping With Portable Energy Hub.” It was a risk (one reporter thought it was inappropriate), but it ultimately paid off with decent coverage. I could not have done that at a McAgency.

5. Best idea, not ‘best practice’


A “best practice” is, to me, an oxymoron. Once an action has been encoded in rigid processes and documentation, it’s on the highway to obsolescence. Big agencies love best practices, because they’re comforting: “Look at our success; we’ve always done this; let’s keep doing that “best practice.” Innovating in environments shackled by best practices is like trying to brainstorm with blindfolds on your eyes and duct tape on your mouths.

In small agencies, we have histories and legacies, but we have significantly less procedure. I can go to my team and say we’re trying something different without kowtowing up a chain of executives for approval. Perhaps that what’s one way to measure innovation: The fewer people you need permission from, the more you’ll experiment.


Jake Katz is the media relations director at SSPR.

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