Danger in playing it safe

When I watch HBO's Entourage, I expect skewering of industry inanities. Scathing send-ups are a huge part of its appeal. But it's not so funny when it's the superficialities of your own business that are being outed.

When I watch HBO's Entourage, I expect skewering of industry inanities. Scathing send-ups are a huge part of its appeal. But it's not so funny when it's the superficialities of your own business that are being outed.

There's no denying the parallels to big-firm PR pitching that emerged during the season finale. When Vince started looking for a new agent, he got the same pitch presentation from all the big talent agencies. Their cookie-cutter PowerPoints and vacant promises were enough to send Vince and the crew running back to my idol Ari, far more appreciative of his riskier, more personalized approach. Unfortunately, in the end, Ari, too, fell prey to the lure of the safe and offered the same one-size-fits-all big-agency pitch.

It reminded me a lot of the current state of the PR agency business. It is not to say that big agencies lack passion or fail to provide great service, personalized attention, and a customized approach. But it does highlight that, at times, big agencies, owing in part to their size and sometimes their cultures, take a more institutionalized, predictable approach to pitching business, instead of highlighting creativity and coming up with a fresh, new approach.

My favorite big-agency slide is the one with all the little dots around the world. But it fails to address how each dot typically operates little fiefdoms that care more about individual P&L than the client they share with other locales - thereby diluting client service and performance.

During Entourage, we watched as Ari sold out. Ari always cared deeply about his clients. Sure, he would often use questionable tactics, but you can't ignore that it was his personal commitment, dedication, and passion for his clients that facilitated his success. By retreating to the "old way of doing things" - throwing a bunch of suits against a laser-light show in a conference room - Ari chose an easy, and unfortunately often successful, way out of dealing with a client issue. All he had to do to save the relationship was admit he was wrong, say he was sorry, and move on. But instead he opted for a "best practice" that played it safe, but failed to acknowledge - or respect - Vince's individuality.

Ari's challenge, as it is for all small to midsize PR firm principals, is scaling a business built on the promise of personal involvement while simultaneously not letting legacy clients flounder and no longer feel the love. Vince's quip about being a small client really meant, "Am I no longer important?"

Sadly, many clients are comfortable buying the suits, dots, and laser-light show. Why? Because that's the industry standard, and it's comfortable. The good news is, I'm seeing more companies, large and small, demand something more.

We all should be so lucky to have Vince and his entourage as clients. Let's not make the same mistakes Ari made and get ourselves fired.

Aaron Kwittken
CEO
Kwittken & Co.
New York

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