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Specialist vs full-service PR agencies - which is best?

29th June 2011

In the last few years dramatic changes in communications make it difficult for clients looking for the right PR agency.

Fiona Noble, vice chairman at PR firm Weber Shandwick, says it was easier in the old days: “Years ago, boutique agencies were labelled creative, nimble, willing to push the boundaries and try new things. The larger agencies, on the other hand, were strategic and thoughtful; a safe pair of hands for global assignments when you needed brand alignment around the world. But the reality today is, CMOs and CCOs need all of those things in one agency.”

Noble says that it’s the ideas that matter, not who comes up with them: “Clients simply don’t care where the idea comes from any more. It used to be the territory of the creative ad agencies, but now it is frequently coming from the digital, media or even the PR agency.” Noble emphasises that large agencies can’t be complacent because they have manpower and facilities, they must ensure they have the best thinkers, creatives, social experts and executors.

But can a firm as established as Weber Shandwick offer the personal service of a small niche firm? In the naturally biased opinion of Patrick Barrett, founder of smaller agency Simpatico PR, the answer is “no”. He believes small firms are more daring as they are not wedded to a traditional agency structure: “I think most clients want to work with people who know their stuff and can add value through ideas and experience. They want PR to help their messages cut through and win attention. They may need audience reach, but the best way to achieve that is not by broadcasting unimaginative content, but by creating it, owning it and delivering it in a way that will grab people’s attention.”

The focus for clients is always to get the best results. As David Wilson, chairman of PR firm Bell Pottinger Public Relations, puts it: “Clients first have to know ‘what success will look like’ and determine: ‘can I trust this company to deliver it?’“

Discussing international campaigns, Wilson points out that as larger firms must use their own offices abroad, they are not free to pick the best local agencies. Wilson highlights the benefits of using agencies that can pick and choose affiliates to work with, as any under-performing agencies will not be used. Wilson calls the approach at Bell Pottinger as being “super-niche, super-collective”, implying that it is an agency model that offers the best of both niche agencies and large conglomerates.

As the vice chair of national marcomms group at the CIPR, Claire Wheatcroft offers a more independent opinion about which size agencies are best. She says: “I would advocate there is no absolute right or wrong choice. The decision is inevitably a strategic one based on a good fit and the ability of the agency to deliver against objectives, with measurement and evaluation factored into a well-rounded process. Personal choice may also impact, with reference to local and specialist knowledge, reputational strength, budget, timescale and the potential working relationship between client and agency. Depending on the nature of the brief, the client could just as easily be swayed by the prospect of a highly focused, one-to-one relationship with a niche agency as by the attraction of drawing on a much broader bank of expertise and resources in situ with a larger company.”

Case studies

Gay Collins, executive chairman of agency MHP, and Julia Ruane director at agency ChiCho Marketing, have worked for both specialist agency and full-service ones. Here they sum up the virtues of both:

Gay Collins: “Having founded a specialist PR consultancy 13 years ago, then merged it with two other agencies after selling it to Engine Group to become one of the largest and broadest, I've seen both aspects first hand. I believe that clients want and need specialist advice, and that can emanate both from niche agencies and large ones, provided the focused teams exist. Knowing a client’s sector, its competitors and relevant audiences, as well as understanding its business to a level where the PR team can have sensible dialogue with the client and the media, is what is key. Where they sit is less important than having a mindset and supportive environment to achieve this specialist focus. Of course from a business perspective, when that niche area goes through a tough time, the diversification benefits of having a broader focus can come to the fore”.

Julia Ruane: “The best scenario for an agency is to market yourself as a niche agency, but be able to offer multiple services. Being niche means you have an angle to sell yourself on, something to differentiate yourself from every other PR agency. But mostly it ends up being just that, a point of differentiation in order to make sales. I used to work for a ‘technology’ PR company that also had financial and consultancy clients who liked the approach they knew they’d get from someone more technically focused. Once doing a good job on the PR, it’s also easier to start cross-selling in other services – crossing over into the marketing space such as social media campaigns, design and email campaigns.

“I’ve seen it from all sides. I’ve worked for a niche technology firm, a wider agency and I’ve headed up the PR department within a multi-disciplinary digital agency. I talk to a company about what they’re looking to do from a business perspective and suggest the best communication and marketing strategy to accomplish that. If that can be covered by my company’s current services then great, otherwise I link them to the right people.”

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