The transition of working for very large corporations (like HP and Digital…remember Digital?) and global public relations agencies like Porter Novelli and Copithorne & Bellows and serving their global clients, to running Pilot Communications Group — a small shop with a focus on emerging and small to mid-size organizations — has been the eye-opening experience of a professional lifetime.
To be honest, as a PR practitioner of some 30 years before launching Pilot about a year-and-a-half ago, I went into the new venture with the mindset that the experience would pretty much be “same old, same old.”
Sure, I’d be my own boss (oh yeah, forgot that clients run the show), could set my own hours (oh yeah, clients don’t sleep), wouldn’t have to worry about full-time employees (true, but who to delegate to?), and I could pick and choose which clients Pilot works with (true, but there’s this thing called ‘putting food on the table.’). But pretty much everything else I encountered would be familiar ground. Right?
Truth be told, my original expectations and today’s reality are pretty different.
Look, PR can be a tough, unforgiving business. BAWAWAWA. And working with smaller, hard-driving, budget-constrained clients can make it tougher still. During the glory years with Copithorne & Bellows (the premier tech PR agency at the time) and Porter Novelli – another great firm — clients with $20,000 – $100,000 monthly budgets were more the norm than the exception. For larger PR firms, a $20,000 monthly budget was the minimum monthly retainer, give or take, from about 1998 until the Great Recession, which was when the whole world changed (again).
During the same period, many mid-size firms wouldn’t look at a prospect for less than $10,000 per month. Just before the tech economy blew up in 2000-2001, the Boston office of Porter Novelli (which was formerly a Copithorne & Bellows office before Omnicom combined the two firms) achieved $10M in annual revenue. $10M in annual revenue for a single office is more annual revenue than the majority of Boston-based PR companies firms generate today.
While budgets are improving, even the largest firms now have specialty teams that take on smaller clients for $5,000 monthly retainers with the hope that these clients will grow over time. In many instances, these are the same clients, in terms of budget, that represent the sweet spot for agencies like Pilot. It’s not that unusual for a very small PR shop to compete for the same piece of business the office of a global firm may be going after.
Working for big PR firms that represent big, well-known brands certainly has its advantages. Pitch a story idea to TechCrunch or the New York Times or CNBC on behalf of IBM or Gillette or Toyota and you’re pretty much guaranteed an ear. I’m definitely not saying that getting key messages across to big media outlets on behalf of well-known big brands is a cake walk. But doing the same on behalf of relatively unknown, emerging or small brands who have something important to say nonetheless — well that’s a horse of a different color.
Working on behalf of small but outstanding brands like KettlePizza, Blue Frog Robotics, Wenham Museum, Mechanica, LuckyVitamin.com, and Cortex MCP, among others, has been, as I said earlier, the eye-opening experience of a professional lifetime. With smaller companies, the tendency is to work directly with CEOs and/or founders as there are no corporate PR teams playing intereference or protecting their turf. Smaller companies will rely on their agencies not only for communications counsel, but also expect general business and business development advice. And you’re treated like an employee and not a vendor, which means you’ll be exposed to the good, the bad and the ugly. During a new business pitch, a lot of big prospects will say they want their PR agency to be an “extension of their internal team.” But smaller prospects value that dynamic more.
Working closely with and successfully promoting smaller brands to big media and their other key stakeholders, and doing it over a four-day work week (oh yeah, the clients!), ‘er a six-day work week…well, wouldn’t trade it for the world. If you’ve transitioned from a big company environment to a smaller one where you see the impact you’re having on a daily basis, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
P.S. Last night a client texted me at 8:02 p.m. I was home, on the couch, watching “Narcos.” “Important. Can I call you?” the client texted. At the big firm, my instinct would have been to leap into crisis communications mode. In this case, it was to share good news! Phew.