A few years ago I commented about the mass exodus from traditional PR agencies as experienced pro’s left to start private practices. Most I talked with were tired of juggling too many clients and wanted to be able to conduct “PR” as they saw it – a role of communications strategy and not just “media relations”.
I’ve watched several friends go through this transition. I’ve heard about their new business pursuits, dealings with smaller naive clients, frustrations with being a one-man band, and much more. As they’ve found their footing and developed their practices some interesting trends have started to emerge.
1. High demand for independents: The past several weeks I’ve connected with at least 20 contractors and most had some type of boutique-agency pitch. Typically they started as the principle, handling everything themselves. Start-ups are increasingly turning to these types of shops. They’re run by seasoned professionals who are getting clients off their reputations because they have a proven track record, solid contacts, writing skills and provide the strategic value that’s needed.
2. Scale Issues: One-person shops can only do so much and those that have been in business a few years are inundated with new business leads. They want to take the business but simply can’t due to lack of resources. Many are struggling with how to grow their business without turning into a “PR agency,” which a few people I know swore they would never be. Because of the new business, though, they’re being forced to decide to scale back or commit to expanding to be able to handle the business.
3. Merging Boutiques: In the past week I talked to three independents who had partnered up with other independents to balance the load. All are professionals who had gone through the exercises of the two points above. These partnerships are creating a wave of “boutique agencies,” typically with a specific market focus. For example, instead of handling “technology” clients, they might focus on internet advertising, or gaming, digital media, etc. These boutiques are going head-to-head with larger agencies to win business.
4. Shunning of “PR”: Every person I talked to expressed frustration with using the term PR to describe their services. All felt it was too limiting. One boutique agency, consisting of two very smart women focused on entertainment and social good, regrets classifying themselves as PR. When hearing more about what they provide they are definitely more of a marketing and communications agency. They feel like they’re being pigeon-holed and are debating what term to use. Communications or marketing seem to be the direction most are leaning, with PR as a subset of service offerings. The days are rapidly disappearing where pro’s hang their shingle using PR.
5. Hub and spoke model: There is heavy emphasis on the network with this segment of boutiques. They are beefing up their networks and building alliances with other independents who can support one-off client program needs creating a massive hub and spoke model. This can be for writing (case studies, white papers, etc.), video content creation, web design, event production, speaking placement, etc. This development is a natural extension as PR people expand their services to offer broader communications strategy, and it allows them to more readily compete against larger agencies.
6. Media Relations Specialists: Due to this breed of agencies selling broader communications strategies it means there is less time to do the traditional stuff, like media relations. Frankly, most the people I know are tired of the dog-and-pony show that comes with the media aspect. Many of us have been doing this for 10-20 years and would rather focus on the communications strategy activities and leave the bulk of media relations to someone else to do. This has created a huge need for independents who focus just on media relations. It’s a perfect compliment to the hub and spoke model but can be hard to find. The independents I know like to help each other out but can be reluctant to refer these types of freelancers for fear of losing them to other boutiques who fill up their time. We need more good independents focused on media.
7. Massive need for writers: The need for content as part of a communications program has never been stronger. Every single boutique I talked with was looking for writers to support thought leadership and marketing communications needs. There is a very lucrative opportunity for out-of-work journalists and strong PR writers. The most common requests I’m hearing about are people who can ghost-write bylined articles, industry reports and keep the blog content pipeline full. There’s a rise in companies that have a network of writers who provide writing support. One I heard about recently is Contently which says it’s focused on “content strategy,” which I find an interesting term and sub-set within communications strategy.
8. Need for junior independents: Anyone who’s logged some time on the PR battleground is familiar with the necessary evils of program maintenance. In a traditional agency, these activities are typically executed by the junior staff. These lovely people keep lists updated, put together coverage reports, write reporter backgrounders, conduct research, and a myriad of other things. With this new boutique model, the majority do not have anyone in this role because they don’t need a full-time junior person. However, they still need this kind of stuff to get done. When you’re a principle focused on strategy and high-level impact things, your time is not well spent in an excel grid. We need more junior independents or people who don’t mind doing this kind of work to support the boutiques out there. I think someone in this role could make a killing because it’s so specialized and no one is offering it.
What trends have you noticed?