Dec 12, 2018 / in Comms Best Practices / by Shane Schick

Erin Bury and her team were not the only ones at the table with the brand. Far from it, in fact — besides the client, there were two other PR shops, one of which held the coveted agency of record (AOR) position. Was there tension? A sense of unspoken competitiveness?

According to Bury, managing director of Toronto-based Eighty-Eight, there’s little point in jockeying for position in those situations, much less trying to steal a bigger share of the PR budget.

“When you are a smaller, boutique agency you don’t face that problem, because you’re just not big enough to be AOR for a big brand,” Bury said, recalling the meeting during a panel discussion at Comms Week Canada. “Instead, you become more of a complement to the AOR, or there is none.”

While other sessions at Comms Week looked at broader trends in PR and marketing, the panel featuring Bury offered a look at the changing dynamics of those working in small to mid-sized shops.

Opportunities for Professional Development at Small Shops

Bury admitted, for example, that she got her start in PR with a larger, well-known agency before pursuing an opportunity with Eighty-Eight that has given her more responsibility and greater opportunity to build her personal brand. Others are establishing or joining boutique PR firms to capitalize on opportunities among startups and emerging companies that want to work with like-sized agencies. Then there is the rise of virtual PR firms that may not own a physical headquarters but which can quickly assemble and scale teams of experienced professionals who want greater flexibility in their careers.

Boulevard PR, which specializes in PR for B2B technology companies, is a good example of the latter trend. Jodi Echakowitz, the firm’s founder, told the Comms Week Canada crowd that her clients appreciate the fact that every member of her team has worked in PR for at least 10 years, and that they’re not having work delegated to a junior account executive after being pitched by a senior leader.

The Ability to Grow Accounts

“One of the best parts is that we’re effectively growing with them,” Echakowitz said, citing client relationships that stretch back 14 years in some cases. “We had one client that had a particular budget, but they saw the results and said they’d like to double it. You’re not always going to get that big fish to start off with, but if you become a partner to the client over time, things can change.”

Boutique firms can also work in an organic, on-the-ground way that gets them closer to the right influencers, which makes meeting PR needs more viable, suggested Corey Herscu, founder and CEO of RNMKR PR. All companies need that help, which is why he said PR work will continue to flourish even if it occasionally seems displaced by other marketing priorities.

“I think it will evolve to just being that bridge between the startup that wanted the story planted and the journalists who say, ‘My inbox is a nightmare — just tell me something I actually care to hear about,’” he said.

Thrive in Niche Areas

Part of the secret is developing niche expertise, Bury suggested. Eighty-Eight has been called in by larger firms, for instance, when their AOR didn’t have the right experience in working with small businesses or entrepreneurial audiences. Executing like a startup tends to get attention, too.

“Brands are looking to curate a mix of service providers in a mix of service areas,” she said, likening it to similar combinations of third-parties such as law firms who collaborate on a bigger case. “Sometimes it just comes down to the things that small agencies can do that big ones can’t. For example, we can move quickly — you can get a meeting with us in an hour, instead of a week.”

Flexibility is Key

Being smaller also means thinking outside the typical long-term contract and hefty fees, Echakowitz said. When Boulevard is dealing with startups, for instance, they may have only raised a round of seed funding, which means they want to test the waters before committing to a more substantial investment in PR.

“Sometimes they might only have one announcement, like their funding or the release of their first product,” she said, adding that while Boulevard doesn’t do project work it will, in some cases, offer three-month contracts. “It’s a way to get a feel for how we work and the results they’ll see. Once they have that experience, what they typically do is say, ‘Let’s continue the relationship.’”

While larger PR firms might be spending more time responding to competitive requests for proposals (RFPs) or making a big pitch, smaller to mid-sized firms tend to see a lot more business come through referrals, Herscu added. Such prospective clients also tend to have done their research about their PR firm, which gets the relationship off to a strong start.

“Hustle begets hustle, success begets success,” he said, adding that most of what they pay for is the same as you would expect from a much bigger firm. “Ninety percent of it constantly talking to journalists and painting a picture of our clients.”

That said, boutique PR firms also need to be aggressive in becoming more data-driven and expert in leveraging tactics that will blend well with earned media, said Echakowitz.

“A lot of clients start off with foundation of PR, but a lot of them also want to move into paid programs,” she said, adding that Boulevard has expanded its portfolio to do complete integrated marketing as a result. “We might end up working on lead generation with them with a publication they’re targeting for earned media, for example. People want the foundation to get known, then use all the other tools in the toolbox to generate leads, create greater awareness and then put more of their dollars towards branding.”

Of course, some client relationships may still go south, but that’s why it makes sense to “start dating” with more limited engagements, Herscu suggested. “That way, if it turns out to be a complete crap show you can still walk away with your head held high and know you did your best.”

Taking that high road also means recognizing there’s enough room for PR firms of all kinds, Bury added.

“Some might take an adversarial view of other agencies and think, ‘How can I get more of their business, or stop them from taking away my business?’” she said. “It should be about how do we make this more successful for clients, instead of being competitive in the sandbox.”

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About Shane Schick

Shane Schick is a journalist and content marketer who writes for Marketing Dive, Mobile Marketer and several other publications. When he’s not editing The Citizen, Shane is also running B2B News Network, which is read by CMOs, CIOs and sales execs. Connect with Shane in Cision City with questions, feedback and story ideas!