Does Size Matter? 5 Differences Between Big and Boutique PR Firms

PR highway

Public relations is full of many things, stereotypes being one of them.

However, when a nubile flack is fresh out of college (or even the newsroom making the switch these days), there is one thing to consider. This one quandary has PR hopefuls in the agency world so perplexed that they choose in-house because they aren’t sure which way to go.

Do I apply at a major PR firm or one of those boutique agencies? 

I never understood why this is such a conflicting decision because PR “happened” to me. (Long story. Tell ya’ later sometime.) Now that I have been there, done that, bought the T-shirt, and put my name on it just in case, I get it. There are differences, many of which are subjective. Others are objective. Both types have their definite advantages and drawbacks, but both are rewarding.

Here is this week’s listicle of 5 Things: 5 differences between big and boutique PR firms.

agency size1. Size. Yes, this goes without saying, but it is a chief factor to consider because of the breadth of the agency. Do you want to work in different time zones concurrently? Do you want to work on a huge account but answer to someone in a different state, someone you may never meet? More importantly for those considering career options: do you…well, look at the picture. That is a perception thing between a big and a boutique agency. To crush the stigma, you can matter in a larger agency but it does require much more work, persistence, and determination. My first agency was Burson-Marsteller (Burson Persons, represent!) and I wanted to matter to my managing director, but it took some doing. For those who aren’t interested in the long haul, less time and more immediate visibility may be for you at a smaller shop.

agency reputation2. Access. Back to the size conundrum a little, are you the type that isn’t fond of titles and wants to dip your toe in the deep end (even before you know how to really swim)? You will have more of that opportunity at a boutique agency. The CEO or managing partner is right down the hall, door open, and ready to chat. Unfortunately, the stigma (not reality, all the time) of the same person at a larger agency is that you need to pass through security, drop a vile of blood for inspection, and kiss the ring before you get in the door. That perception may keep people out of the boss’ office, but I can assure you that no blood is needed. You know, every time.

agency ideas3. Skills. Some boutique agencies consist of the big cheese and a few slices because that’s what they can afford. Sure, one of clumps of cheese grows from hapless Swiss to some artisan Roquefort, but others remain Velvetta with a whole lot of mold. There’s little mentorship because everyone is working hard at keeping their job, that they don’t have time to help you improve at yours. Larger agencies have larger teams, which means there are more people available to mentor you, guide you, and help you come up with that big idea. At a small shop, you may be the only one working an account. At a larger shop, you have larger accounts with teams on each one of them. Also, some accounts are given to you because you are there at a smaller agency; however, at a larger agency, your skills usually make the place.

agency relationship4. Viewpoint. Many in the boutique world well tell you, “Boutique means unique.” That is true to a point. You have the opportunity to do more than experience the culture, but be a real part of it. Larger agencies are more uniform, not because they are boring and full of old farts (although some do). They exist in a regimented environment because they have to do so. It’s called “infrastructure” and you’ll learn about that someday. However one thing is true — if you don’t stick out at a large agency, you can remain nameless and faceless. What’s your thing? Do you want to earn you place or maybe fall into it and show why you are there? Both good and bad, depending on your vantage point. More immediate opportunities to be seen remain at smaller shops, which also means when you fart, there is no dog to blame it on.

manyhats5. Hats. There is no doubt that agency life is for the multitasker at heart. How many hats do you want wear, and how soon you want to wear them, may determine whether you go big or small? At a larger agency, you may only get to touch a couple of accounts. Don’t worry, you can grow your skillset and become an expert in a certain discipline quickly. At a smaller agency, it can be baptism by fire, not because of bad leadership. Quite the contrary. Leadership is pitching his or her tail off to bring you accounts to manage. Here’s the thing: you have to manage now. Sometimes, there’s no learning curve, just a doing curve.

Regardless the size of shop, it’s time to get busy! You need to decide which way you want to go. If you spend enough time listening to the rumor mill, you will hear so many pros and cons of agencies of either size that will give up PR and go into a field much less stressful, like rocket engineering or being a car test dummy. You need to decide. Your career and future team is waiting on you.