Agencies must think big and small to keep up in tech now

Bob Angus, president of A&R Partners, proclaims, "The pulse is back. Highway 101 is crowded again." Technology is once more a vibrant and growing part of the PR agency business, and the economy as a whole.

Bob Angus, president of A&R Partners, proclaims, "The pulse is back. Highway 101 is crowded again." Technology is once more a vibrant and growing part of the PR agency business, and the economy as a whole.

Tech PR experts note that certain fundamentals in the business have shifted, making this market potentially more sustainable in the long run. Previously, enterprise business dominated the landscape. "Now you're seeing a tech economy driven more equally from the consumer side and enterprise," says Tim Dyson, CEO of NextFifteen. Some key consumer deals by tech firms reflect this, including Waggener Edstrom's purchase of Maloney & Fox, and NextFifteen's acquisition of Lexis PR in the UK.

It is somewhat surprising that more small tech firms did not go under during the downturn. (Remember Niehaus Ryan Wong, anyone?) Many of the agency brands went underground, to be sure. Others, who were leaders during the good times, have survived and are now thriving, at least according to our agency rankings in this issue. Firms like The Horn Group and Atomic PR, in particular, report strong increases and exciting new business opportunities.

So tech is back, and so is the competition between large, multinational agencies and their specialized competitors. Large firms will frequently win the big, marquee clients, but it's easy to miss the significance of what smaller pieces of business mean to the sector.

Big agencies need big brands, but if a firm is working for an enterprise software company, it is just as likely to be doing many of the same things it would do for a soft drink corporation, focusing on corporate work rather than deep technology.

That is no bad thing, but a reputation as a player is cultivated differently in tech than it is in any other sector. The big clients put you on everyone's radar, but firms still need to work with upstart, edgy clients who are also on the front lines of innovation. Google seems positively established now, with all the accompanying headaches and needs of a publicly traded entity. But just a few years ago, it was an upstart, a classic rags-to-riches story in tech-world mythology.

Larger firms, with multiple practice areas, have to strike the balance between winning large pieces of business while still cultivating a reputation for deep technology knowledge in very specific sectors. Specialists, as is abundantly apparent from the success of NextFifteen's roster of noted tech brands, including Bite and Text 100, are attracting clients through reputations built on years of relevant experience.

Many of the big firms, even those who work with some of the biggest corporate tech names in the world, have struggled to build reputations that combine the edge with the breadth. Hill & Knowlton has Blanc & Otus, but Ogilvy struggled to regain its footing when it lost the Sun Microsystems beachhead. Edelman has endured repeated senior-level turnover in the Bay Area, and MS&L has been disappointed in the sector overall. As a result of this dynamic, we should expect to see some strategic acquisitions taking place in technology this year.

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