|David Ball and Julia Labaton co-authored this article.|
The practice of public relations has evolved dramatically in the last few years, and boutique PR firms—small agencies that range from a solo practitioner to as many as 20 employees—are well-positioned for considerable growth as the advantages they offer become even more clearly defined in a post-pandemic world.
Boutiques are poised not only to take on clients from local and regional brands but also to capture a growing share of business from Fortune 500 companies. Here are five reasons why:
Clients increasingly want high-level sector knowledge
Boutiques rarely try to cover the universe. Most focus on a few key sectors and some focus on only one. This ensures that when a client engages the team, they’re getting highly experienced practitioners in their sector, often leading to better results.
For example, there are boutique firms that limit themselves to fairly narrow areas like travel and hospitality, beauty and fashion, healthcare, literary representation or crisis communications. In most cases, the agency principal is working directly on each client’s business. If you need surgery, do you want the surgeon who’s completed 50 similar cases or 500?
“Specialization is a critical factor in selection of firms, as well as quality of work and efficiency, which are both a by-product of specialization,” said Rick Gould of Gould & Partners, a mergers and acquisitions firm for PR agencies.
Boutique principals are well networked
It takes a network and a networker to launch and sustain an agency. Boutique founders generally draw upon a wealth of contacts, and these relationships benefit clients’ needs and keep the business development pipeline well fed.
As boutique agency principals, we hear about potential client needs long before an RFP reaches the corporate office of a national agency. These same relationships can also lead to media placements. Journalists often have PR professionals in their network and the dialogue between the two often results in stories.
We would argue that a PR agency owner who has built up scores of media contacts—not only through repeated outreach to media but by being a resource to journalists—will have greater success pitching a story than an account coordinator or account executive at a larger agency who may be new to both the media market and the client’s space.
Boutiques adapted to hybrid work settings more nimbly
Many boutiques have years of experience working either virtually or with some configuration of virtual and office models. Larger companies have been forced to figure out how to make this work in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. What incentives should they offer to entice employees to return to the office? How should they build out their space for hoteling workers?
Boutiques already have that flexibility built right in. Many boutiques are completely virtual, while some are hybrid or use co-working space and others have offices. All PR firms can migrate to virtual or hybrid, but the question is, really, how fast can they pivot?
Boutiques have learned how to collaborate creatively regardless of the office setup. It will be harder for larger firms to figure out how to sustain creative collaboration without an office.
Having experts in many fields and varied mediums is convenient for the client. It’s also expensive. Boutiques are far nimbler and, generally, offer their clients more affordable budgets because overhead costs are often lower (particularly with no or low real estate costs, as mentioned above). They can deliver comparable or better services at a lower price point.
Even the nation’s largest corporations watch expenses carefully, and value is important to executives and boards. They want the right people to do the job and deliver superior results at the lowest possible cost—always. The cost advantage may matter even more in this period of pandemic recovery.
Boutiques may not have the bench to be the largest corporations’ agency of record, but they can handle specialized work efficiently and, generally, at a lower cost.
Partnerships can be leveraged
Boutiques are naturally built for many different types of partnerships. Often, larger PR firms will contract with boutiques to execute on highly-specialized and/or localized work. Similarly, when boutiques need to provide a service outside of their bandwidth, such as design or digital marketing, they call upon partner agencies. These partnerships are a rich source of referral business.
For example, if a client engages a boutique to oversee a multi-faceted communications project, that boutique may bring a web development or branding partner on board. These partners will reach out to those same agencies when they have a client needing media relations or thought leadership work. Referrals are routinely passed back and forth.
PR firms of all sizes have their place in the communications ecosystem, and we feel fortunate to work in markets populated by some of the world’s best large PR firms. It’s great company to be in. Boutique firms, however, have particular advantages in the current climate that position us well for sustained growth.
David A. Ball is the president and founder of Ball Consulting Group, LLC in the Boston area and president of PR Boutiques International (PRBI), a global association of independently owned boutique PR firms. Julia Labaton is the president and owner of RED PR in New York City and vice president of PRBI.