PR Insight

Never mind the size, what about the quality…

Date: 28 October 2010 09:48

When considering which PR agency to appoint there are a few obvious factors to consider, from whether you have any chemistry with the people there, to the type of work the agency has expertise in. But does it matter what size the agency is? After experiencing life as an online editor at a leading tabloid for six months, Jeremy Walters, independent PR consultant, is adamant that small is best.

Walters explains his time as a journalist allowed him to experience PROs selling to him for the first time, and he was shocked at the ineptitude of those working for larger consultancies: “What became abundantly clear to me was that the mature PROs (particularly those in their 40s and 50s) were excellent. These individuals typically had their own small boutique PR operations. They usually didn’t have the larger brands, but middle-tier to smaller brands. What was shocking was that the big agencies with the big accounts put inexperienced juniors on them. The level of expertise, knowledge and professionalism was shocking. In fact the big agencies, to a man, were crap.”

It is time for the bigger brands to be brave enough to appoint small PR agencies, reckons Walters: “They’d get a much better service and better results. However, just like no one got fired for appointing IBM I’m sure no one got fired for appointing Freud. I think it’s a question of cohones, or in the English language, balls.”

Of course, those working for larger firms beg to disagree. David Gallagher, CEO of Ketchum Pleon London and president of Ketchum Pleon Europe, thinks that agency size is irrelevant, it is ability that counts, something that is certainly not lacking in larger firms. Gallagher says: “The world has moved on since anyone was seriously debating large versus small, and there are far more pertinent questions facing consultancies of all sizes than the size of their navels.”

Gallagher believes that larger consultancies have learnt some hard lessons from their smaller competitors, and as a result they’ve become more nimble, more service-orientated and more focused on motivating and retaining their people. To be fair to the smaller agencies, he adds that these have adopted better business management models from the bigger agencies, formed partnerships and alliances to offer greater scope and reach, and have become less dependent on the personalities of founders.

The most important question in Gallagher’s view, is how well a consultancy can collaborate with others to serve the client. Other key questions that should be addressed are: How does the agency attract and keep bright, versatile and committed people? How does it supply a high-quality and consistent level of service, wherever the client needs to be? And how does it manage its business to compete for people, business and investment? Gallagher concludes: “I know plenty of examples of agencies succeeding in all of these areas – some large, some small. But those that fail in any of them, regardless of size, aren’t likely to be around long.”

Soundbites

We asked: Does size matter when it comes to agencies?

Katie Bailey, head of agency operations at consultancy Launch Group:

“Who says bigger is better and smaller is smarter? If, like Goldilocks, you are searching for something not ‘too big’ and not ‘too small’, perhaps a mid-sized agency might be ‘just right’. Agencies of 25 to 50 people can often offer the best of both worlds, with a bespoke and personal service coupled with big agency internal practices and experienced PR practitioners keen to do things differently.”

Andy Turner, founder of agency Six Sigma:

“Think of it like a toolbox: sometimes a great big sledge hammer is what you need and sometimes a precision punch! Many organisations use a mix of large and small consultancies to match their different needs and have done so for years.”

Carole Scott, director at agency Bottle PR:

“There’s no point in choosing a two-person agency if you’re Asda and need a full range of expertise in property, consumer, corporate and financial, as you’re unlikely to find all of these in a small agency. Similarly, there won’t be much to be gained for an entrepreneur working with a global agency, as it is likely to be a tiny account and therefore will sink to the bottom of the to-do list because global clients are screaming for attention while waving expensive contracts.”

Chris Nelson, director at PR agency Trafalgar Public Relations:

“In PR terms, creativity often comes from the individual or core team dealing with an account, although on larger projects it is useful to be able to bounce ideas around a larger group and get some off-the-wall input. Working as a PR consultant I find I can get more work done on a day-to-day basis because there are fewer distractions, and my overheads (and of course fees) are lower – so in terms of hours worked for the clients, they get better value.”

And if this article has made you think about changing jobs to either a larger, or smaller PR agency, there are plenty of PR jobs here!

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    Comments

    "I enjoyed reading this content and it makes some good points, but more importantly, having put myself in the clients shoes recently I became very aware that there really is very little independent advice on 'when to engage a PR agency' or 'what size PR agency is right for me'. It's good to see that PR Moment brings a fresh perspective. The debate over 'big or small' may be old for some people, but not for those companies that have not engaged a PR agency before.

    Name: Paula Fifield
    www.eml.com
    Date: 28 Oct 2010 02:06 PM

    Having worked in varying sized agencies from large international through to small boutique, I've always found this a particularly interesting topic and actually wrote a research paper discussing this very topic a number of years back: http://www.prismjournal.org/fileadmin/Praxis/Files/Journal_Files/Issue3/Mart_Jackson.pdf Size isn't about one agency being able to service a client better than the other. It's down to the needs of that client and the requirements they perceive are necessary inorder to fulfil those needs. It's personal opinion.

    Name: Lucy Mart
    www.uk.linkedin.com/in/lucymart
    Date: 29 Oct 2010 08:47 AM

    We just lost a new business opportunity because we are "not big enough" to handle the client's business. Despite our excellent track record, the client opted to stay with an under-performing agency they dislike, while we could have handled the business with he addition of one person. Doesn't make much sense to me. Thanks for writing this!

    Name: Mara Conklin
    www.teamclarus.com
    Date: 29 Oct 2010 02:39 PM

    Smaller agencies are owner managed so the founder has a personal stake in every client. Having worked for a large international agency I summarised the advantages of small PR agencies in a recent blog: http://www.simpsonftpr.ie/blog/?p=34

    Name: Ronnie Simpson
    www.simpsonftpr.ie
    Date: 29 Oct 2010 02:41 PM

    You could argue that big agencies are effectively just lots of small agencies (teams) stitched together anyway. Even the biggest client will never work with every member of staff of a 100 person agency. They will work with a smaller team ie the same as if they worked with a small agency. Of course, big agencies will point to the range and depth of expertise that they can make available to a client. However, I suspect in practice, this doesn't happen as often as it might. So effectively the client is working with a small team (agency) wrapped in big agency clothes. Large or small, it comes down to who the client will be working with. And what the client needs ie expertise, experience or execution. Brains, grey hair or arms/legs. It is the mismatch between how an agency can match its available resources to meet the client's perceived need that causes the problem rather than agency size per se. Brains are costly and thin on the ground. Grey hair isn't cheap either, even if there is more of it to share around. Arms and legs are almost certainly more junior, more plentiful and cheaper. Trouble is, if you sell the client a big, expensive strategic solution, then you need to have the right amount of brains and grey hair go round - more often than not, you don't. So you end up using what you do have - arms and legs. Big agencies have big overheads - hence you'll never find them selling a cheap, executional, non-strategic solution - however, they have a mismatch of resource to meet the solution sold to the client.

    Name: Andrew Bruce Smith
    blog.escherman.com
    Date: 29 Oct 2010 03:42 PM

    I run a small agency and can 100% assure you small agencies are the best thing since sliced bread. In the whole world. Ever. No word of a lie. What, you don't believe me?... (It's Friday...)

    Name: Ben Caspersz
    www.claremont.org.uk
    Date: 29 Oct 2010 03:47 PM

    Bespoke service, experienced people on tap when the client wants them, wide knowledge of comms including issues management - what's not to like from the smaller agency.

    Name: Nigel Charlesworth
    www.thesmartagency.co.uk
    Date: 31 Oct 2010 08:37 PM

    I have worked in large, mid-sized and currently small. I found large agencies would get more response from a journalist point of view because they are more likely to have heard of them....not always good though, as you would prob have 5 or 6 people a day ringing the same journo on the same day and they would get a little annoyed (no communication). I found that SOME larger agencies seem to depend on freelancers and work experience people - not that that is a problem, but I can understand what this piece might mean about the expertise of some of the people that might work on the account (or people that work on the account that they have NO idea of) Working for a small agency I find the one problem is that clients don't seem to realise that we also have other clients. We get busy too but our clients seem to think that we only look after their account and their account only! Although working in a small agencies is great, you get the recognition you deserve, but there is something about the hassle and bussle of working for a large agency that I quiet liked.

    Name: Zoe

    Date: 03 Nov 2010 12:23 PM

    So the big agencies think they are best, and so do the small ones!? As a brand marketing manager I hired a large agency (who were rubbish) but then I founded two small agencies (who obviously are great...) It’s horses for courses - but all agencies, big and small, can be guilty of sending in the big guns to pitch and then farming the work out to juniors...

    Name: jill Hawkins
    www.aniseedpr.com
    Date: 03 Nov 2010 12:24 PM

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