At a recent national PR conference, I had the opportunity to chat with an old-school PR practitioner who does a lot of coaching with agency leaders on innovation, team management, and growth. While discussing some of the more progressive policies we pursue at Geben—everything from paid leave to #WorkAways—this colleague pointed out that many of the large, established, traditional agencies he works with could never do these things that are becoming more standard at many boutique PR agencies.
This got me thinking about industry leadership. Specifically, is it the responsibility of these more traditional agencies to set the bar for the rest of the industry in terms of culture and policy? The big agencies are more recognizable, so they’re often the default “leaders” —even though that’s not always best for progress.
A recent New York Times article points out that the ad industry, teeming with huge mega-agencies, hasn’t advanced much since the era of “Mad Men” in terms of gender parity. Most large ad and PR agencies are led by predominantly older and predominantly white men. Historically, these large, established companies have been seen as leaders in setting industry standards, I believe small- and mid-size agencies can—and should—lead the way in redefining agency best practices and innovating workplace policies.
Time Is of the Essence
There are several factors that give smaller agencies the upper hand in setting industry standards, but one of the most significant is time. It takes a lot of time to change policy at a large company. But in a boutique environment, new policy can be researched, discussed, tested, and implemented relatively quickly. Instead of waiting eons for painstaking internal changes at large companies, why shouldn’t the industry as a whole look to the example set by boutique agencies, who often have more progressive ideals and, therefore, policies?
Culture is Everything
When I started Geben, most of my clients were in the startup space—and even now one-third (ish) of our clients are technology startups and emerging brands. We talk a lot about how we incorporated the best of startup culture in our company: we think this is the future of work, and that when employees are motivated to do their absolute best, productivity and client satisfaction skyrocket.
We have several policies in place at Geben that embrace a more progressive company culture. For instance, 10 weeks of paid family leave is not an industry standard, but offering this time to new parents is hands-down the right thing to do, so we offer it.
Another favorite example comes from Aaron Blank at the Fearey Group. His office has a kids’ room and offers back-up childcare for employees with children in the event that their regularly scheduled childcare falls through. From his perspective, it’s worth it to invest in a day or two of childcare (from a list of vetted sitters!) so an employee in a bind has the peace of mind their child is well taken care of as they attend the meetings or do that day’s work.
Embracing the Risk of Innovation
Whether it’s a new internal policy or a media strategy, the challenge of innovation is that not everything we try is going to work. I think this reality holds larger agencies back from trying new things because they can’t justify the overwhelming time and cost of trying something and failing. From their perspective, it just isn’t worth the risk.
By contrast, boutique agencies can more easily adapt to quick changes in policy. We try something new, evaluate the result, and constantly adapt according to what we find. As smaller agencies set progressive policies, learn from the results, and publicize their successes, I think the big agencies will be more likely to follow suit.
Progressive Thinking is Attractive
At Geben, we’ve been able to win clients away from some of the larger, well-known agencies because clients are seeking more innovative ideas and more flexible, nimble teams. From a client perspective, communication strategies that are forward-thinking and out-of-the-box can be a big draw, especially compared to old-school PR policies which might not be a fit for new companies trying to make their mark in a crowded and rapidly evolving space.
It stands to reason that if a PR agency is willing to take risks and think outside the box in terms of their internal policies, chances are that kind of ideology will stretch into more creative deliverables as well.
Bottom line: we know classic PR strategies can work for the right clients. But in a landscape that is constantly evolving, forward-thinking PR strategies can be a make-or-break factor for an emerging company or a big brand trying to differentiate from the competition. Boutique agencies should embrace our roles as leaders, both in internal policies and in client strategies. Take risks, be bold, and reap the benefits—for your employees, for your clients, and for the industry!