Small and Mighty

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Published on June 29, 2017, at 8:25 a.m.
by Dalton Kerby.

It used to be that all respected public relations firms were giant, national (or even international) businesses full of hundreds of suits and heels, representing some of the world’s largest corporations. But not so anymore.

Recently, the industry has seen a drastic rise in smaller, independent firms that are staffed by far fewer professionals. These “boutique agencies” reflect a national rise of the startup, smaller businesses that are founded on interpersonal relationships and provide broad, highly creative products. These agencies, with their exposed AC ventilation ceilings and trendy wardrobes, are commonly staffed by less than 20 PR practitioners, yet they are nonetheless providing exceptional service, delivering some of the most creative and successful campaigns for the clients on a daily basis.

Though only a few millimeters long, leaf cutter ants can carry 20 times their body weight

The goal for the PR “giants” such as Edelman and Weber-Shandiwick is the same as that of boutique agencies like Peritus PR: to promote and advocate on behalf of clients who entrust them to do so. The Peritus team doesn’t believe that their less than 10-person staff is a weakness, either.

Erin Vogt, an account supervisor at the Birmingham, Alabama-based agency, has experience at both large and small firms and sees the similarities as well as the unique characteristics of both.

“Before coming to Peritus PR, I spent nearly seven years at the Zimmerman Agency in Tallahassee Florida,” Vogt said. “Peritus offers challenges I hadn’t yet experienced in my career.”

Vogt says that the small, all-female staff is extremely collaborative, which makes sense. Theirs is more of a sisterhood of public relations than a collection of office sharers. Rather than having each of them specialize in one area, they each must be prepared to step into any role.

“We wear many hats — client lead, copywriter, social media strategist, brand director,” Vogt said, “and (sometimes) even janitor.”

Staff photo of Peritus PR; Vogt fifth from left

These firms don’t have the luxury of having whole teams devoted to one area of public relations. There is no one editorial executive, no one graphic designer. Rather, each member of the single-digit staff must be able to provide input for every facet of a campaign. Even interns at these agencies are asked to perform real work. Madi Mayfield, a recent intern at Ackermann PR in Knoxville, Tennessee, a small agency ranked in the Council of PR Firm’s Top 100, was given tasks that she said “were more than just busy work.”

“I was able to work on a lot of client teams and complete projects like writing press releases that actually got coverage and pitching stories directly to the media,” Mayfield said.

Constantly developing a wide range of skills, these practitioners are delivering some really impressive campaigns. National companies are beginning to take notice.

IrisPR penned an article on why boutique agencies are being recognized more and more for their ability to deliver championship campaigns despite their size. No longer is it understood that big corporations can only be represented by the biggest firms.

Boutique agencies are “often staffed by digital natives who are comfortable with using PR and media relations software,” according to the article “Why Brands Are Choosing Boutique PR Firms over Top Agencies.” IrisPR believes that larger, older agencies are commonly entrenched in their thinking, and boutique firms tend to be younger and full of fresh ideas.

In a world fueled by ever-changing technology, adaptability trumps tradition.

Another of the main tenants of boutique culture is the establishment of true relationships. Public relations is defined as the establishment of mutually beneficial relationships, and PR practitioners at these smaller agencies truly believe themselves to be an arm of their client, not just the hired help. Vogt takes this aspect seriously, knowing that being successful relies on these relationships and cooperation.

“We pride ourselves on truly being an extension of our clients’ teams,” Vogt said. “I think that’s the beauty of a boutique agency.”

“We seamlessly complement ongoing efforts and, through our team’s diversity of experiences, can help with almost any task,” she continued.

When you feel like you are part of the organization for which you’re advocating, it’s far easier to create campaigns that bring real success.

Businesses aren’t alone in recognizing the merits of a boutique agency. Young professionals, “sick of manual processes and vanity metrics that don’t reveal insights,” are starting out at these firms or even leaving national agencies for their smaller counterparts, according to IrisPR.

The article asserts that younger professionals are looking for outlets to sharpen their PR craft and spaces that will allow them to break molds and create initiatives that evolve as culture and technology do.

Millennials and those of successive generations are questioning why certain PR traditions are in place, and they desire to create fresh, innovative ideas to propel the industry forward. They’re also flocking together, fueled by common interests and the desire to bring out the best in each other.

By no means am I saying boutique agencies are “better” than national firms, and vice versa. Each has merits, and different individuals need to find which style fits them better.

Mayfield says a broad skill set is a prerequisite for those interested in boutique life, as she learned during her time at Ackermann PR.

“You have to be able to work with clients in a lot of industries on a lot of different projects,” Mayfield said. “It’s better to be a jack of all trades than a specialist, I think.”

Vogt agrees, and says that in small firms, recruitment is done deliberately and with much thought.

“We each have a voice in the culture we’re creating and the type of clients we’re interested in working with,” she said. “However, the most common thread that ties us together is our work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit.”

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