Small is Big14 years, 10 months ago
Lucy Siegel, president and CEO of Bridge Global Strategies, New York, has been elected president of Public Relations Boutiques International, the network which launched in January. Here she outlines the thinking behind this move.
The vast majority of PR firms are small – and most of those small firms are trying to get big. Among those that aren’t you’ll find boutique firms, many of them specializing in industry sectors, some in practice skills, but most offering a broad range of services.
They represent many different business models, from traditional agencies to consultancies and virtual firms, but they all have their most senior people – the heads of the firms – engaged directly with clients.
Along with most of the people who founded Public Relations Boutiques International, I’ve held senior positions in large PR companies with multiple offices. These companies do a great job for some clients, but their approach satisfies neither all clients nor all practitioners.
Multinational agency management can seem remote and often formulaic. Senior practitioners can be promoted away from their key competence areas, are too rarely seen by clients after the pitch, and can be eye-wateringly expensive.
Teams are often built around the agency’s billing machine and need to meet quarterly earnings projections as much as the client’s needs. Generally, large agencies have minimum fee levels and won’t take business that will bring less than $200,000-250,000 per year.
The formal environment in a large agency may work well for some clients (and practitioners), but others don’t react well to it. And that’s why there has been a continual flow of senior people from large agencies setting up boutiques – because some practitioners have set themselves up to deal with the demand for focused senior teams that deliver a personal service.
Boutiques know how to network
Without sheer size for a goal, boutiques don’t have to devise complex power hierarchies and internal management systems. The people who create communications strategy are responsible for carrying them out. Our generally lower billing rates reflect this lean business model, in contrast to the much top-heavier big agencies with distant shareholders.
Of course clients don’t expect any less of us because we are boutiques and thus relatively small. When they look to us for additional, specialized services, we partner with firms that can deliver them. When they ask for help outside our geographical market we find a firm we know we can rely on to match, and we manage the process.
So boutique firms have to be good networkers. All the owners I’ve talked to manage such informal networks, some of them quite extensive, all driven by client demand, and all part of our strategy to meet clients’ varying and evolving needs.
Action at a distance
One of these needs is for action at a distance. I’ve worked in international PR for many years, including a few years in Tokyo, and I’m acutely aware that clients increasingly need our services in faraway places and, as they become more global in worldview and strategy, they strive to coordinate this work more effectively.
So PR firms have reorganized themselves to coordinate expertise on the ground wherever their clients needs it. The multinational PR firms provide one type of response to this demand. Networks of independent firms are another. Both systems provide the program management and communication systems clients need to assure smooth coordination of communication work in multiple locations.
As boutiques we have no intention of becoming global corporations, so if we want to continue meeting our clients’ needs as they develop, we must network. Fortunately, as I said, we’re good at this.
Building international contacts from scratch every time you need them for a client or a prospect is very time-consuming, so I researched the potential for an international network. When I found that Bill Cowen, president of Metrospective Communications in Philadelphia and a professor of public relations at Villanova University, was thinking along the same lines, we combined our efforts and so began Public Relations Boutiques International.
The founding members encompass a wide range of sector experience, delivery skills, connections and, of course, locations – in Asia, Europe and North America. Their own networks expand the expertise and experience available to the clients of the group as a whole.
Since one of our founding members was previously president of one of the world’s largest PR networks, we’re well prepared for the challenges and the opportunities. We’re funded by dues paid by members, not commissions on business referral. We’ve kept bureaucracy to a minimum and concentrated on developing our working relationships with each other and with our clients – something we’ll build on at our first meeting in New York in May.
Since we launched the network in January we’ve had a lot of interest from boutiques firms around the world. But we are placing the bar high for approving new member applications. We are all acutely aware that the members we vote to accept now are the people we will rely on later to help us serve our clients.
Boutique PR firms have so far made relatively little impression on the international scene, and our members will play a part in changing that.
Lucy Siegel founded Bridge Global Strategies in New York in 2004, her second boutique firm. She sold the first to LobsenzStevens in 1997, which was acquired by the Publicis Groupe’s integrated marketing subsidiary in 1999. She served five years as Executive Vice President in Publicis Dialog’s New York headquarters, co-heading PR for the office, prior to founding Bridge.mail the author
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