Published on December 6, 2018, at 8:15 a.m.
by McClelland Schilling.
Hundreds of new students walk through the doors of Reese Phifer Hall at The University of Alabama every year. These students come from all over the United States to attend the university’s College of Communication and Information Sciences and study in its nationally recognized public relations program. The program turns out some of the most notable PR practitioners, and its alumni can be found in agencies and corporate institutions all around the world.
With graduation quickly approaching for many students, seniors find themselves asking the question that all those who graduated before them once asked themselves: “Where will I go next?”
For many, the idea of working at an agency seems very attractive because it allows its employees to get their hands on a variety of projects and work with a diverse client base. But agencies come in many shapes and sizes, which can impact the experience a PR practitioner can expect to have.
Determining what size agency is best for a practitioner can be a daunting task and may require trial and error, but finding the right fit will allow a practitioner to maximize their talents and enjoy their experience to the fullest.
The big leagues
It’s not uncommon for many students to make it their mission to work at a large, globally known agency. These agencies are appealing for a number of reasons, including state-of-the-art offices around the world, working with brands that are household names, and having a large network pool.
Collin Burwinkel, a 2018 UA graduate, joined Ketchum in Dallas as an account coordinator after spending the summer with the company as a Fellow. Burwinkel didn’t know that he would end up working for such a large agency; in fact, he wasn’t sure what kind of PR environment he wanted to work in at all.
“I knew I wanted to pursue a career in communication, and I knew working at a large agency would give me different types of experiences and opportunities. However, working at a large agency is fast, and you need to be quick on your feet and versatile,” said Burwinkel.
Burwinkel has thoroughly enjoyed his time at Ketchum thus far, but explained that there are particular challenges that come with working for a large agency that smaller agencies may not face.
“I think each style and size of agency presents its own set of challenges. However, learning to cope with these challenges is a part of growth and progress in your career,” said Burwinkel. “Ketchum recently unveiled a global agency restructuring that shifts its resources towards 14 industry sectors, as opposed to office locations. In a model that is inspired by management consulting firms, we can now work with colleagues in any office in any country. Connecting the right people to work on the right accounts is a challenge that a smaller boutique with four or five employees might not face.”
Students hoping to receive employment from a large agency like Ketchum can anticipate a very unique and diverse culture, and lots of opportunities to get their hands on multiple projects. Exposure to global brands and access to more design capabilities such as full-scale digital and marketing departments are common. In addition, there are a lot of employee perks that come with working with a large-scale agency, like onsite gyms and intensive training programs.
But working at a larger agency can also have its downsides. More difficult access to upper management, less total ownership of projects and fewer opportunities for face-to-face contact with clients can also be expected.
Small but mighty
To many, a large agency appears intimidating, and they seek a smaller, more intimate experience. Boutique agencies, with their smaller workforce and client base, allow for their employees to form close relationships with one another and to be very hands-on with their clients.
Kelley Breeding graduated from UA in 2016 and joined The Hall Agency in Dallas, Texas, in January 2017. Breeding says that because her agency is so small, her co-workers are like family. They each have their own specific roles, but everyone works very closely on accounts. She also points out that working at an agency this size requires its employees to adapt quickly and to be able to multi-task.
Working at a small agency sounded appealing to Breeding as she started her job search prior to graduation. “With a small agency you are able to experience all sides of the industry, which helps you learn what you like, don’t like and what you didn’t realize you were great at,” she noted.
But she also warns that working at a small agency comes with some uncertainty. “The downside of working with a small company is that you often work with small clients and you never know when they might decide to ‘pull the rug’ out from underneath you and then you are left scrambling to find new clients,” Breeding said. “It’s really important to be constantly networking for new opportunities for your company.”
Lindsey Young is another UA graduate who is also working for a small agency. Young graduated in 2016 and is now an account executive for Hager Sharp in Washington, D.C., where she works on the education team that provides support to a diverse breadth of clients, including government contracts, education foundations and schools.
Being at a small agency such as Hager Sharp was an expected turn in Young’s career plan. “When I graduated I actually took an internship at one of the biggest PR agencies in the world. The idea of having offices and co-workers around the world was really attractive to me. I realized very quickly that while at a large firm like that you don’t have as much of a say in … well, anything,” said Young. “At Hager Sharp, we are an employee-owned company, which means there isn’t some scary parent company making all the decisions; it’s my co-workers. It also means that each of us has the opportunity to own a portion of the company stock. So when the company does well, we do well, too.”
At boutique agencies such as The Hall Agency and Hager Sharp, young professionals can expect to wear many hats, be client-facing and have a seat at the table, even as a junior-level employee.
But it also should be anticipated that working on more accounts requires PR practitioners to do more legwork to fully understand to client’s business and to build firm relationships with their target media.
Students who wish to be successful at a small agency must be self-starters and go-getters, and time management needs to be a strong skill.
“To each his own”
There is no wrong choice when choosing an agency size. It all comes down to an individual’s preferences and where one best see themselves thriving and making the most of their strengths. Finding the perfect fit may require a PR practitioner to work at multiple agencies until discovering something that clicks.
For students just starting their career search, it may be helpful to create a pros and cons list to help narrow the search. For students who want to pursue internationally recognized brands and like the idea of a big community feel, a big agency is a good place to start. But for those who are seeking a family-like culture and wish to be actively engaged with clients, a small agency might be a better fit.
Regardless of where one’s career path leads, students should be actively preparing to enter the industry to ensure the highest opportunity for success.
“Agency experience, no matter what size, is a great way to start out in the PR industry. Do the kind of work that you are passionate about. Worry less about the job you think you’re supposed to have and look for a job that motivates you,” Young advised. “As far as preparing for a job in the industry, the best thing you can do is to soak up as much knowledge as you can. Whether through internships, clubs or networking events, the more you can learn the better you can prepare to enter the industry.”