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The Dos and Don'ts of Starting a PR Agency

Posted At: November 29, 2010 1:08 PM
by Katie Breaseale

There is no cookie-cutter guide to starting a public relations agency. While starting a business requires proper planning, training and funding, not to mention a little luck, it is possible to find success and a better work/life balance from the experience. Three successful PR professionals not only found a little luck but also the careers of their dreams.

Holly Lollar — The Lollar Group
Holly Lollar, APR, is the president and founder of The Lollar Group in Birmingham, Ala. Before deciding to start her business, Lollar gained 10 years of experience in the public relations field. Lollar began her career as the vice president of public relations and marketing for Kid One Transport, a statewide nonprofit organization. After three and a half years, she relocated her talents, becoming the public relations account director at o2ideas, where she worked on various accounts, including Verizon Wireless, Samford University and Brookwood Medical Center.

Lollar founded The Lollar Group in August 2009 with her longtime friend and business partner, Tracy Smith. While she had the idea in the back of her mind for quite some time, Lollar only acted on it when it became the best option for her lifestyle and family.

“I loved working at o2ideas but it was important to me to have a better work/life balance,” Lollar said. “I was having baby; my mother-in-law was sick. The most fulfilling part of owning my own firm is being able to have more flexibility. I have never been so busy in my life, but I get to decide when I work. It is stressful but you are managing the stress; you manage it yourself. If you don’t work you don’t eat — that’s the stressful part.”

Lollar had plenty of experience in the field, but there are no classes offered on how to start a PR firm. It was up to her to figure out the process as she went along. One thing that helped her, however, was growing up watching her parents run their own businesses.

“I paid close attention to my parents who own their own small businesses,” Lollar said. “I had considered starting my own business for a long time, but I wanted to get my APR and plenty of experience. After 10 years and my APR, I felt ready.”

Lollar has some words of advice for those considering starting a new agency:

  • Make sure you have the experience necessary to do it.
  • Remember you can’t control everything but you can control being as prepared as possible.
  • Get a good lawyer and accountant.
  • Have the most up-to-date technology. You will have to multitask a lot — always take the time to back up everything.
  • Screen your clients. Make sure you are a good fit; don’t feel like you have to take everyone. Some small clients demand more time than larger clients while providing less business.
  • Every six months go through what you have learned and adjust.
  • Be good friends with other agencies that are bigger than you and keep those business relationships strong.
  • If people come and ask you to do something that you are not capable of doing, say you are sorry and refer them to those bigger agencies that can. You will get part of the business while also getting a reputation for being honest and reliable.
  • Set a payment plan early with your client. You have three options: 1. Retainer — every month the client pays a set amount; 2. Pay by the hour — set an hourly rate based on how many hours you have to work on that project that month; 3. Project basis — Used in instances like political campaigns. Say, “I will give you all the time I can for four weeks and this is what it will cost.”
  • Distinguish who fits into which category. Meet with them several times before signing on the dotted line.
  • Don’t take on any of the bills. If they have to get an advertisement, bill that company not yours. It can become an accounting nightmare.

Using this learned advice, Lollar and Smith grew The Lollar Group from three clients to 17 in less than a year and a half. Some of her current clients include Verizon Wireless, King’s Ranch and Hannah Homes and the University of Montevallo.

Cheryl Gale — March Communications
Cheryl Gale, co-founder of March Communications in Boston, Mass., has similar words of advice.

Gale has 20 years’ experience working with technology companies of all sizes on an international and domestic basis, ranging from the U.S. to the UK and Europe. In 2004, Gale came back to the U.S. after nine years in the UK to establish March Communications — a boutique high-tech PR agency.

Gale was inspired by her previous endeavors in public relations, but wanted to add her own unique twist.

“Having grown up in two amazing PR agencies — Weber Shandwick and Band & Brown — I felt it was time for me to take the best of both and add a little of my own flair,” Gale said. “I saw a gap in the PR scene in the U.S., especially among the bigger agencies. I wanted to make sure our clients saw that there is more to PR than media relations. Being creative and super proactive are the two main ingredients. It’s always worked for me.”

Gale’s positive strategy could be beneficial for those considering taking the plunge:

  • Have a vision.
  • Put your people and clients first.
  • Don’t sweat it too much.
  • It’s all about attitude. If you have the right approach, setbacks are just a misstep.
  • With any business, hiring the right people is difficult. “We’ve learned a lot about what makes an exceptional March employee over time,” Gale said.

Gale, like Lollar, wanted a better work/life balance to result from starting her business.

“At March, I encourage all of my employees to have a healthy work/life balance, myself included,” Gale said. “With two daughters under the age of 10, my life is very busy outside of the office, between piano lessons, soccer practice and volunteering on their school’s Parent-Teacher Organization.”

Starting March Communications gave Gale that better balance she hoped for.

“Starting March has actually helped me to fine-tune this balance — managing my days so I can dedicate reasonable amounts of time to both my work and family,” Gale said. “While in London, there would be days that I’d spend nearly 20 hours in the office, which just isn’t healthy for the body and mind.”

According to Gale, March is a perfect example of an environment where employees can lean on each other for help and support during busy times.

Brandon Wilson — Wilbron Institute
Brandon Wilson, founder and principal of Birmingham-based Wilbron Institute, was inspired by the examples of others.

“I was encouraged to start my own business by mentors who established very successful businesses themselves,” Wilson said. “Working for each of them allowed me to learn what is required to not only own a business, but also lay a solid foundation for growth and success.”

According to Wilson, the best advice he can give is a simple reminder — get a client.

“A longtime mentor reminded me years ago that one cannot start a business or agency until they have a client,” Wilson said. “Sounds simple, but you’d be surprised at how many people attempt to build a business without first securing a client. Please avoid this, opting for the inverse instead.”

Wilson started Wilbron Institute with that one necessary client and now proudly serves 15, many of which have been on the active client list for multiple years.

While starting an agency might not be the best choice for everyone, it is possible with a little luck and a lot of love for the field.

“I proudly tell people all the time that I am fortunate to wake up each day and get compensated for doing what I absolutely love: public relations,” Wilson said. “My work is certainly my passion, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”


Do you have any advice for those hoping to start their own agency?

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