This article appeared previously in Forbes. Click here to see the article.
They say size doesn’t matter, but that maxim doesn’t really apply in the PR agency world. While every organization has its particular upside, much of a public relations firm’s character is determined by the size of its staff. There are marked differences in culture, expertise, approach and a host of other criteria between big and small agencies, which can materially impact employee and client experiences alike.
I’ve spent the bulk of my career at a small, specialized PR firm, but I got started at one that was considerably larger and part of a massive conglomerate. I’ve also had the opportunity to collaborate with firms of all different sizes for clients that employ a multi-agency model. I’ve observed the advantages and disadvantages of each setup as an employee and have also heard feedback from clients about what works best for their needs.
If you’re a company in the midst of an RFP process or a job seeker contemplating your next move, here are some things to consider when deciding between a large or small public relations firm.
Large Firms: Breadth But Not Always Depth
Big agencies can make the most sense for companies that are in the market for integrated global programs. These firms tend to have boots on the ground in major cities around the world, with staff who know the media and customer segments in each place intimately.
In addition to vast human resources, large PR firms benefit from more varied in-house resources. Most large firms have design capabilities, full-scale digital departments and potentially also advertising and marketing arms all under one roof. This can help the companies that retain them to maintain a consistent brand across all their external outreach campaigns.
These resources can also benefit employees who want to try their hand at various disciplines and industry verticals. They may be able to take advantage of more intensive training programs and more general corporate perks. They will have opportunities to work with and learn from many diverse managers, peers and reports, not to mention clients.
While I certainly wouldn’t paint every large firm with the same brush, I have observed traits common to many of them. For one, large firms — potentially beholden to parent companies, boards and shareholders — may not have the same flexibility and agility as boutique firms. As these agencies evolve with the times and think critically about profitability, they may develop strengths in disciplines like digital and paid media at the expense of earned media and thought leadership, which remain at the heart of PR.
Junior employees at larger firms may also get fewer opportunities to interact with clients directly, take on sophisticated assignments or forge meaningful reporter relationships. Culture may be an issue, too, as hours can be long and promotions can be competitive (even among teammates). For these reasons and more, turnover tends to be quite high at large agencies, which can pose continuity issues for both internal teams and clients.
Small Firms: Depth But Not Always Breadth
While the big guys may have offices around the world, smaller agencies can give them a real run for their money in single geographic markets because they tend to be more focused, agile and results-oriented. And increasingly, smaller shops are banding together to create networks of global affiliates that can provide on-the-ground expertise and execution.
Small firms tend to cultivate true subject matter expertise among their staffs, from assistant account executives up to senior managers, as they often focus on just one or two specific industries. This leads to increased success in media pitching, as every account team member can craft pointed, useful press materials and communicate to journalists why their pitches are relevant to their readers.
Culture tends to be another core strength of smaller firms. Because account teams are tight and employees work closely with nearly everyone on staff, camaraderie develops naturally. Junior employees have ample opportunity to take on high-level work early on, and they enjoy plenty of exposure to both senior management and clients.
Especially at independently-owned firms, where the most senior leaders are involved in day-to-day operations, ambitious and talented young staffers can move up the ranks fairly quickly, as those responsible for their upward trajectory are witnessing their good work in action. Employees tend to stay at smaller firms longer, which allows teams to build strong institutional knowledge to the benefit of their clients.
While a small agency’s narrow focus can be a plus for companies seeking deep expertise, it can also be limiting for those that need broad coverage and desire an extensive menu of services. Boutique firms tend to work with third-party vendors on things like design and video production, which might make program coordination and maintaining brand consistency more difficult.
On the employee front, there are, by default, fewer people to work with and learn from and often fewer opportunities to learn multiple disciplines. Staff may also work on more accounts than they would at a larger firm. This requires doing the legwork to understand each client's business and build relationships with their target media, as well as developing superb time management skills. Smaller agencies may also offer fewer perks that are possible in larger companies, like on-site gyms, formalized social and community service programs, and travel opportunities.
Of course, size isn’t everything. Beyond the features I mentioned, there are many other facets of a firm to take into account: Is it a startup or a stalwart? Did its leaders start out on the client side, the agency side or perhaps in journalism? Does the firm’s overarching personality jibe with yours?
As a first step, though, whether you’re a PR practitioner yourself or an executive in the market for PR representation, it’s worth carefully considering what kind of agency suits your needs and narrowing your search along large or small lines accordingly.
Jade Faugno is vice president at Intermarket Communications, where she leads a number of financial services and higher education accounts.