What makes a firm a "boutique" firm? "I think the best definition is probably a firm that is 20 people or less," says Ball Consulting Group president and CEO David Ball. "Generally one office, and generally not covering the universe but focusing on a few particular sectors."

As president of PR Boutiques International, "an organization of roughly 40 PR firms across the globe," Ball has a lot of exposure to what boutique firms can do well.

When it come to boutiques, "there’s strengths and weaknesses and challenges and opportunities," Balls tells Simon.

"I think that the challenge for most boutiques is the day-to-day challenge of running any business without the enormous scale that you might have at a large firm. I think the opportunities are really around the ability to be nimble, to quickly adapt to a client's needs, and probably to deliver value in the sense that generally boutiques have less overhead, not no overhead, certainly, but less overhead."

Ball also talks about what kind of clients can benefit most from partnering with a boutique firm.

"You may have a national concern, a Fortune 500 company that has a very particular need or is looking for a very particular kind of expertise, and they may use a boutique," he says. "You also may have a small firm that doesn't have the resources to have a global firm supporting them and likes the boutique feel and structure."

What clients really want when they hire a boutique firm, he says, is "an agency that's specialized and is going to give you senior-level attention. I think in most cases, people hire our firm because they know they're getting a small team and all of us are senior."

Can larger firms bring into play some of the things that make boutiques unique and create that kind of environment? "I think it's important for large firms to treat clients as though they're boutiques, which means, having principal-level involvement really in the account, not just in acquisition and at contract time," Ball says.

He tells Simon that staying open to new developments and approaches is essential whatever size your firm is. "I just try to always push myself to think differently, take on risks that might make me a little bit uncomfortable. I think that's important."

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