Is the public relations agency dead? Clearly not as hundreds of successful firms around the world make decent returns for their partners and owners. Yet there are clear flaws in the structure that are allowing niche operators to disrupt the communications market.
Having worked for five years for a large agency owned by an American conglomerate, then having founded another agency which is now wholly owned by an AIM-listed company, I’ve seen the pluses and minuses of the model. Clients are reassured by having strength in depth, there are economies of scale for services like media monitoring and there should be access to expertise that clients occasionally need but don’t always use. However, this also brings frustration for clients who might want high level advice and worry it comes with junior staff being trained up on the clients’ dollar.
In a sense, PR agencies are like luxury hotels. All the services are there but you also pay for things you may not always want, such as fluffy towelling robes, the steam room or the breakfast buffet. In this way, niche consultancies are like Airbnb. You pay less for less, but it might just be all you want. I love Airbnb - I’ve stayed in some amazing homes in brilliant locations from Los Angeles to Venice - but a good friend of mine hates them, and will always book a hotel wherever he goes.
After 10 years offering hotel services, I’ve gone into the Airbnb business. All you need to set yourself up to offer advice is a laptop and a mobile. My pitch is that is you need other services, I know other agencies and freelancers I can work with who provide this. These other niche agencies work on similar models. We charge less, and are more entrepreneurial and flexible than the larger agencies.
Some clients love this, some find it a little scary.
In the past large agencies always had an advantage with large clients. If the reputation of a Brunswick or a Burson Marsteller didn’t get them over the line, the procurement process definitely did. However, a lot of corporations are now refining their processes to favour smaller suppliers. This is a great opportunity for the little guys.
It may be that the PR model will follow the corporate finance market, where niche firms such as Robey Warshaw regularly advise on the biggest deals, working alongside big banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. It may take a change of mindset from larger agencies, which will have to decide whether they are willing to share opportunities rather than risk losing out to nimbler, less expensive rivals.
There are many PR agencies who’ve placed stories or articles about the modern gig economy for clients. It’s now time to eat their own lunch.
A version of this article appeared on Gorkana