I hadn’t heard from the vice president in three or four weeks. Then on our monthly PR conference call, that vice president dialed in, dominated the conversation, and demonstrated she had no idea what was going on with my business.
It was quite possible this was the first time in a month that vice president, who supposedly led my external PR team, was thinking about my business. Perhaps sensing my frustration, I received a follow-up email after the call recommending we post some tweets.
Post some tweets?!
A $17k monthly retainer and the best advice a senior leader from a sophisticated PR firm can offer in this modern age was to post some tweets?
Our Twitter account was very active, so only reinforced my perception she wasn’t paying attention. Perhaps it was even worse: a lack of interest.
Questionable Advice; Big Invoices
The issue was compounded by the fact that every time that vice president joined a call, it cost $300 an hour. As the then director of communications for a B2B software business, my little budget was under constant pressure – and I had a hard time reconciling that cost with the value.
To be fair, it wasn’t just the cost, but also the overall performance of the account. We weren’t seeing a whole lot of results. However, having been in this business a long time, I know results can ebb and flow, but when results ebb, the PR folks need to step up to bring new and creative PR ideas to the table.
This team wasn’t doing that, so we handed the firm notice.
Hiring a Solo PR Firm for B2B
The next agency we hired was a solo PR firm specializing in B2B – a one-person shop. Over the course of my career, I’ve managed nearly a dozen different firms as a corporate communicator, and this was one of the best PR firm decisions I’ve been part of on behalf of a business.
The solo PR firm provided an experienced professional, providing more than double the hours every month into my account and for substantially less investment. In essence, this solo PR firm was really an extension of my team, and as a team, we tallied 20% improvements in results each year, for the next three.
Though less tangible, it helped tremendously that I just happened to like our solo PR perosn. We shared a mutual respect and mutual benefits, which for the solopreneur included a steady income stream with a big name brand.
The High Value of a Boutique PR Firm in B2B
These experiences have directly shaped the B2B agency I have opened here in the greater Atlanta area. As corporate communicator turned agency owner, the value proposition is straight-forward:
- Senior staff at reasonable rates that actually works on your account
- A long passionate history and proven track record in B2B
- Experience on both sides of the table: corporate and agency
- An ability to work across PR, marketing and social media
- Business strategists that speak the language of finance
There are many other solid reasons to consider a solo, small or boutique PR agency. Here are a handful curated from around the web for your perusal.
1) You’re a Bigger Fish in a Smaller Pond
“Smaller PR agencies often have fewer clients, which means they can place a greater focus on your business. They may also have more time to spend on achieving your PR objectives and creating a relationship with you.”
2) Agility of a Small PR Agency
“Bigger oftentimes means more processes, more approvals, more levels of authority, and more potential roadblocks. Clients who want to move fast – and already have to deal with their own frustrating bureaucratic organizations – are looking for more nimble partners. They don’t want a partner that only doubles the amount of red tape they have to fight through on a daily basis.
‘Big brands with big vision are looking for agencies that can match their perspective, not their size,’ said Ruth Bernstein, co-founder and chief strategic officer at YARD. ‘If you’re a smart CMO trying to re-steer the titanic from hitting an iceberg, you would want a speedboat, not a bloated cruise liner to help guide you. They want an agency that can quickly respond to their needs while maintaining creativity and flexibility.’”
3) Streamlined PR Efficiency
“Smaller companies work quicker because there are fewer layers. Mid- to large-size firms are notorious for slow output and lack of accountability. If you’ve worked with a PR firm before, you know that it doesn’t take two weeks to draft a press release. It should take 2-3 days to submit a press release draft to a client, assuming that all the information necessary to do so is available. Larger PR firms sit on things for a lot longer because it’s easy for it to get lost in the chain of command.”
4) Avoid the Account Team Bait-and-Switch
“One of the things that used to irk me when I worked with larger PR agencies was the “bait and switch”; the firm would bring in the senior practitioners with years of experience to sell the business and build a program, but once the contract was signed, the actual work would be turned over to the junior team for execution…With PR soloists, it’s exactly the opposite. When you hire a PR consultant, you know they are the ones actually doing the work they promise.”
5) Extension of your Team
“For Priti Khare, director of public relations at Ebates, hiring the right agency means expanding your marketing team – as long as you find the right fit. ‘Most smaller companies and start-ups who are in the market for PR agencies have very limited, if any, in-house PR resources,’ Khare said. ‘In these situations, it is imperative to hire and onboard an agency who will act as an extension of your marketing team and not just another vendor. The right agency team should be able to provide strategic counsel and at the same time roll up their sleeves to do the heavy lifting required to pitch and place stories.’”
6) Small PR agencies; Personal Results
“…this one’s more like “nimble” – it’s subjective and a little vague. When I worked at large agencies, I sure cared about my clients. But the accountability was distributed among several players, and the institutional attitude was very different from that of a boutique. It stands to reason that the agency with 20 clients will feel a loss (or any kind of client dissatisfaction) more keenly that the one with 200 clients. And in a smaller firm, the owner is likely to be involved. That means that, when it comes to matters of quality and client service, the buck doesn’t travel very far.”
7) Work with People You Like
“The plethora of small PR companies means you have more choice than ever to find someone who matches not only your company’s objectives but also your personal ones. Trust and good relationships are crucial, so here is your opportunity to find someone you enjoy working with. The more positive the relationship, the more motivated the team and the more fruitful the collaboration—ergo, the better for your business. This is obvious, but it’s often overlooked.”
8) The Obvious: Cost, Billing and Value
“Oftentimes the only difference between a big agency charging $20,000 a month and a small one charging $3,000 is $17,000… Here’s how one big agency described its budget and fee structure in a proposal to a small startup dot-com company:
‘Two months’ fee calculated at $40,000/monthly will be required before work will begin. Based on our initial recommendations and early discussions, we project our professional fees will be in the range of $40,000 monthly. This estimate is based on our combined professional hours. If the client selects programs and activities that exceed this budget, our professional fees will be higher. Expenses are generally approximately 20% of the annualized fee budget. The level of activity and projections for professional fees and expenses will be provided on a monthly basis for approval.’
The prospective client had a choice: write a check to the big agency for $80,000 and pray, or go to a smaller, experienced agency at $3,000 a month and pray. The decision was a no-brainer.”
Read more from Leonard Saffir: Big Agency Versus Small: Bigger Is Not Always Better
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None of this is to say that there aren’t any good reasons to engage a big agency. There certainly are – scale and a global footprint – are two examples that come to mind from my own stint working for a big firm.
However, based on my experiences in corporate communications at progressively larger B2B software companies – a startup, a midmarket and a truly global brand – dollar for dollar, I’ve found a lot of value in the small and boutique PR agency.
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