Culture: How Smaller Agencies Keep Up With the Joneses


Can your agency say this?  Few even try, so it seems.

It is no secret that the industry of public relations is run by the “biggies” (e.g., Burson-Marsteller, Edelman, Ketchum, Weber Shandwick, FleishmanHillard, GolinHarris). Because of their global reach and U.S. presence, many prospective clients see them as the benchmark of service, ability, and results. As a former “Burson person” and a “Big PR” alum, I can attest to the fact that they all earn it.

It was at a biggie where I cut my teeth, spread my wings, and cracked my shell into smithereens. That said, to compete with said biggies in their trek for global PR domination, the “boutiques” have looked into other areas to draw the attention of top prospects: availability, flexibility, tangibility. It was at the “not-so-biggies” where I learned everything else.

So, what’s the rub? The silver bullet these smaller, scalable agencies are using to compete is culture. 

Is that all it takes?

They win the awards. They get the big hires. They earn the huge accounts. The big PR firms in this country are growing for a reason. And while those uber agencies are growing offices faster than some smaller firms are earning accounts, many of those principals wonder what they can do to keep up.

And then they figured it out: Culture.

It’s all about the team. The idea began to catch on: People invest in other people first, followed by their skills. If I go to a sweet restaurant with great food and terrible service, I’ll still leave a small tip and tell my Twitter/Yelp fans what a bad time I had.

To help the “little guy,” here are some inventive ways five smaller agencies are competing with culture. Disclaimer: This is not payola. I’m just a fan.

bateman_group1. Bateman Group — The culture of this San Francisco agency creates a whopping 95 percent retention rate. And that’s the employees! The clients? Them too. The staff are provided bonus opportunities and generous benefits package of 100% company-paid for health, vision and dental insurance with a no co-pay. Also year-end bonuses exceeding 10-15% of base compensation aren’t too shabby. Yes, it’s unfair that smaller agencies can do that but when you have good people, you do great things to keep them there. With that kind of retention, I’m guessing they offer a fresh glass of Kool-Aid with every staff meeting, but I could be wrong.

lippe taylor2. Lippe Taylor. Amazing how a small agency can get a big reputation. This #GirlPower agency is a great example–ask any NYC reporter. The flacks there have great reps for “getting it.” And why? They get their culture too. Many people familiar with Lippe Taylor will say that they understand big PR perks and smaller PR principle. These girls get paid but don’t come across as inauthentic to clients. One other thing: Want to keep your people in PR? Feed them with “Morning Perk Mondays,” “Sweet Treat Wednesdays,” and “Pizza Fridays.” I love them already.

revive health3. ReviveHealth. They’re not only smaller; they’re niche. Should be a double whammy, right? Not so much. Based in Nashville, this “Health Services, Health Technology, and Healthy Living” agency doesn’t break the mold, they just try to bust out a brand-new one. Most good agencies have retreats or day trips. But imagine taking all the kids to Zion National Park in Utah (yeah, a few states away), and posting a closed sign on the office door for four whole days. Cooking and cleaning, playing and praying — and that’s just from the C-suites. There’s something inspirational about seeing your bosses roll up their sleeves and act the fool.

elasticity4. Elasticity. Dig the name. Dig the city (St. Louis). Dig this culture. First off, it has a nice foundation — four FH folks decided this digital thing was here to stay, so they took their ball and began to kick it around somewhere else. They quote Issac Asimov and Dr. Seuss on the same website. It’s a PR firm with a mustachioed mascot named “robot overlord,” if you note its general email inbox. Then there’s Mr. “Peter Panda,” its noted “director of social media strategy and wildlife relations.” They are a “talented team of creative hooligans” (fitting considering a small sporting event in Brazil). I’m a fan of any team that has this much fun online without suck-ups and curmudgeons squawking “What would our clients say?!” If I lived in the Lou, I’d apply for a job.

JSlogo5. Jackson Spalding. A blossoming whippersnapper of an intern named Andy Hitt inspired this post. Last week, you may remember that we brought you a post about open office plans working against productivity. And while hipsters everywhere had question marks looming over their heads, Ms. Hitt decided to send me a pitch about her fun little agency with offices in Hotlanta, Athens, and even my fare burg, y’all. The clip she sent me to discuss culture was all I needed to see. Bigs, take note. Any agency willing to put that much time, talent, and treasure into a video — one that is nine minutes long — in order to stress the importance of culture is worth a view.

Certain clients still think that size matters most. To reuse an aforementioned thought: “Not so much.”