How niche PR firms are taking on the giants of the industry

In my previous blog post, we talked about whether it was time to rethink the traditional PR agency structure to reflect an evolving media landscape and changing work models – all enabled by technology.

Today, I want to expand on that theme, inspired in part by a recent Axios article around a growing trend in Washington: small public affairs firms “taking business from NY agencies and the big traditional PR shops.”

According to Axios, these small agencies are attracting potential clients on the premise of sound political expertise capable of handling crisis communications – and they are then expanding those partnerships by creating full-service agencies that do everything from digital placement to media booking, even as they remain small.

The article focused specifically on the political consultancy space, but its focus on smaller agencies adding a full range of offerings is intriguing, and I thought it raised a number of points that can apply across the communications industry as a whole.

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Many larger agencies adopt a “jack of all trades and master of none” approach. That can make a lot of sense when there are hundreds of PR people on staff, all working on multiple clients and across multiple verticals. As a rule, these kinds of agencies embrace a staffing model based on hourly billable rates that are aligned with the team’s level of experience and expertise. The result is that a large number of junior or mid-level account staff are servicing accounts while senior, more experienced team members provide strategic direction and input as needed.

But there are several limitations to this approach.

We are seeing a growing trend in the market where clients truly expect a higher level of input, partnership and counsel from their communications agency. I have spoken to multiple companies that want the entire team to understand their business, their story and their technology at an in-depth level. They expect us to be able to talk their language and meet them on their level. And they don’t want that level of engagement to come only from the account SVP who’s on the account 5% of his or her time.

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In addition, we are also seeing communications becoming increasingly aligned with a company’s overall business strategy and go-to-market goals. That’s exactly as it should be. That places pressures on larger agencies to have more people who are extremely well-versed in multiple aspects of communications strategy management and are subject matter experts as well, rather than actively segmenting the work among clearly defined team roles.

Take cybersecurity as just one example. Long considered the purview of the information security and legal teams, cybersecurity is now viewed as a business-critical issue that demands a cohesive, proactive strategy to mitigate risk and manage perceptions – and a challenge where the communications team plays a crucial role in shaping planning, policies and responses.

In such a crisis scenario, I have seen that companies are now far more comfortable working with a small, trusted team that already understands their business intimately, rather than having crisis communications experts from other offices or practices helicoptered in to service the account. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for expert outside counsel. But if your small core team is able to serve as point for the client in these scenarios, your strategic value to that client increases substantially.

In addition, I have also seen a company’s budget practically swallowed in a crisis situation. Bringing in senior skilled teams from other areas on an hourly basis – or a specialized crisis communications practice itself – can result in the consumption of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of consulting expertise in a very short space of time. But if you’re a smaller agency that already understands the client and has crisis skills on tap, you in a far better position to serve and the client will likely get better value for their money.

Consider also the role that technology and innovation now play in more politically charged discussions. Whether we are talking about the implications of artificial intelligence on future job growth or the ethical ramifications of driverless cars, those in the communications business need to be well-versed in the subjects that matter to clients and to the media. Again, if a small agency team can demonstrate that competency, they have a chance to win business that would ordinarily have been reserved for the global powerhouses.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for companies when searching for a communications partner. Large agencies offer a breadth of services and scope that for many clients is exactly the kind of resource they need – and which smaller agencies simply cannot offer. However, the days of large agencies automatically winning the business based on team size and the brand over the door are largely over. Smaller agencies across numerous verticals are demonstrating their value by offering subject-matter expertise at a senior level at a better price. And that can only be a good thing for the industry, for clients and for the media landscape as a whole.