COMMENT: Thought Leader - Access to top talent is a critical factorin choosing a boutique or global firm

In new business presentations, global PR agencies all use the "dots on the map slide to showcase their broad geographic reach. But what do these "dots really mean to a client? If a New York-headquartered agency has an office in Toronto, will the client receive seamlessly delivered, quality work irrespective of geographic boundaries? Having held several senior management positions at international PR agencies, I think it is important for the "client buyer to beware."

In new business presentations, global PR agencies all use the "dots on the map slide to showcase their broad geographic reach. But what do these "dots really mean to a client? If a New York-headquartered agency has an office in Toronto, will the client receive seamlessly delivered, quality work irrespective of geographic boundaries? Having held several senior management positions at international PR agencies, I think it is important for the "client buyer to beware."

When a client signs on with a global PR agency, they may be impressed by the "dots on the map PowerPoint slide, but should keep in mind that in a large number of cases, each individual office of a global shop has their own P&L that is fiercely guarded.

What does this mean to a client? Here's something I witnessed a while ago. A San Francisco company signed on with a PR firm with offices around the globe. The lure of working with their New York office, while having account pros at home, was irresistible. The agency sold the client on a perfectly blended team that could deliver West and East Coast media coverage. What the client didn't see was a behind-the-scenes scramble for revenue. "They're only paying $20,000 a month," cried the San Francisco GM. "How can we effectively split this? In the end, the client picked up the tab for their San Francisco executives to manage a New York media event - resulting in clueless on-site executives that couldn't provide appropriate introductions to their clients. As they had never personally seen what many of these writers looked like, they furtively attempted to act like they knew the reporters. However, their cover was blown when they introduced their client to a New York Times reporter who actually wrote for the New York Daily News.

Signing with a big agency is certainly a wise choice if you're a big-budget client with a global multinational corporation that demands "one-stop communications shopping. If your billings are fat, one large agency will be able to offer your company a presence in a number of markets through a handful of contacts, with your large billings translating to an enormous amount of power with the top brass. While there are a number of international affiliate networks that blend dozens of independent PR agencies under one banner, it is difficult to predict whether you'll receive quality account servicing from these networks. However, if your smaller shop has fully owned offices in the regions that are important to you, you can count on your account being serviced properly.

Global PR agencies generally like to stress their "entrepreneurial" spirit.

The word "entrepreneur, as defined by Webster's Dictionary, is "one who assumes the risks of a business or enterprise. Does the general manager at a global agency risk financial ruin if they are unable to reach certain client milestones? Most certainly not.

Entrepreneurs at boutique PR agencies are more likely to inhabit the true spirit of entrepreneurialism. They may have put up their own personal assets to start their company. They generally offer equity in their agency to valued senior staff members.

If you're a client with a PR budget under $200,000, what level of commitment to servicing your account can you expect from a conglomerate PR agency? In my experience, they are likely to say. "As we represent Giant Company A and Giant Company B in your space, we know 'WYSIWYG manufacturing' ensuring that you're top of mind with the important press in your sector. Reality bites. When the reporter from The New York Times is working on a WYSIWYG overview, and only has time to hear about one company, who do you think the agency will offer up - the account paying under $200,000 or the one paying more?

Major PR agencies often prefer not to announce new client wins under $150,000 in annualized billings - unless the client is a blue-chip name. Rather than issue a release, management may grumble about low-budget clients undeserving of champagne-and-caviar treatment at beer-and-peanuts billing levels.

What should be paramount in a client's decision on whether to work with a boutique or mid-to-large agency is the executive talent they will have at their daily disposal.

Senior executives at large agencies generally do not have long tenures at their agency, unless they are expert salespeople bringing in lots of revenue. As a client, I would advise having your agency spell out contractually who will be working on your business to avoid having the account work move down the food chain to junior account executives. At the end of the day, account team experience will always pay dividends in achieving the enhanced branding and positive media visibility results your company demands.

Nancy Tamosaitis has written four books on cyberculture issues and has held senior management positions at several global PR firms prior to joining Mansfield Communications as managing partner of its New York office. She can be reached at nancyt@mcipr.com. For more information on Mansfield Communications, go to http://www. mcipr.com.

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