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How boutique firms can earn a seat at the table

What’s the right approach when you’re a small agency at a client meeting and you’re seated at a table with two other PR shops, one of which is the AOR?

According to Erin Bury, MD 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’re a smaller boutique agency, you’re just not big enough to be AOR for a big brand,” Bury shared while on a panel at Communications Week in Toronto last October. “Instead, you become more of a complement to the AOR.”

Opportunities for professional development at small shops

During the panel discussion, which focused on the changing dynamics for those who work in small-to-midsize shops, Bury noted she got her start in PR with a larger, well-known agency. However, the move to Eighty-Eight gave her more responsibility and a greater opportunity to build her personal brand. Other PR pros are joining boutique PR firms – or establishing their own – to capitalize on opportunities among startups and emerging companies that want to work with like-sized agencies. There also is the rise of virtual PR firms that may not exist within a physical headquarters but 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 an example of the latter trend. Jodi Echakowitz, the firm’s founder, told the Communications Week crowd that her clients appreciate 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 also can 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 PR work will continue to flourish even if it occasionally seems displaced by other marketing priorities, Herscu said.

“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 advised. For instance, Eighty-Eight has been called in by larger firms 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 the situation to when multiple law firms 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 pointed out. For instance, when Boulevard deals with startups, it may have raised only a round of seed funding, which means it wants 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, noting 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 say is, ‘Let’s continue the relationship.’”

While larger PR firms might be spending more time responding to competitive RFPs or making a big pitch, smaller-to-midsize 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.

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

Jodi Echakowitz, Boulevard PR

According to Echakowitz, 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.

“A lot of clients start off with a foundation of PR, but a lot of them also want to move into paid programs,” she said, explaining that Boulevard has expanded its portfolio to do complete integrated marketing. “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 toward 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 noted.

“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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