Good things come in small packages

With multinationals increasingly trusting their consulting work to boutique firms larger PR agencies need to adopt new practices to ensure business continuity

Emma Dale, managing director (Asia), Prospect
Emma Dale, managing director (Asia), Prospect

Five years ago if you had asked any senior manager or director in a PR agency where they saw themselves moving next in their career, they probably would have said they’d be going in-house in search of new challenges or the promise of a better work life balance. Today, some of those senior executives are choosing to move to smaller boutique agencies or even starting up their own consulting firms instead, due to a lack of senior in-house vacancies.

This trend can also be attributed in part to stronger demand for boutique consulting services, with large multinationals increasingly trusting their consulting work to smaller, more specialised firms. Boutique agency principals are structuring their firms to enable senior practitioners to have more active client servicing roles, which resonates with clients who want more experienced support. This is challenging large agencies to rethink their business models.

The need for specialised consulting roles

While it’s long been known that consultancies benefit from having combined knowledge in different areas and offering a breadth of experience, clients are increasingly looking for experts in specific sectors such as oil and gas, technology, finance and FMCG. As such, independent consulting firms led by senior talent with specialist industry experience are becoming more attractive to clients.

In addition, independent or specialised consultants are seen to offer a more concentrated level of expertise, bringing more years of experience and more senior advisory skills. Senior practitioners in boutique firms take a hands-on approach, meaning clients don’t have junior consultants handling their work. This is of high importance to clients who require consultants to conduct face-to-face sessions with their CEO or senior management.

Tod Gimbel, Managing Director of Landmark Asia, shared, "There is now a critical mass of very experienced practitioners in Asia Pacific who combine substantive, geographical expertise with the very understanding of how multinational and regional companies work."

This challenges agencies to invest in educating their PR teams to develop their skills in specific areas or recruit new consultants with niche knowledge. But this may be a win-win situation for agencies, as a way to motivate employees to stay longer by evolving their role in a new direction, while also attracting new clients.

Ee Rong Chong, Managing Director at Ogilvy PR Singapore, said, "Agencies need to constantly adapt and change their business model to stay relevant. It is our responsibility to invest in our people and specialise in various sectors and accumulate new skills. This allows us to deep dive into client industries, build knowledge and provide real insights and value to communications."  

Breaking the 24/7 work habit

In most cases, work life balance has also been another great challenge for agency professionals. According to the preliminary findings of Prospect’s Annual Public Affairs and Corporate Communications Salary Survey, professionals in Hong Kong and Singapore are least satisfied with their work-life balance. As such, many mid level agency executives who are seeking a better work-life balance are making the switch to in-house roles or to boutique consulting firms that promise a more balanced approach to work, creating a vacuum in many large agencies.

To break the habit, consultants must find ways to work more closely with corporations, in order to blur the line between agency and client and develop a stronger relationship. This will help to encourage more transparent ways of working, with client and consultant more aligned on expectations and deadlines and thus creating a happier team on all sides.

As the old saying goes, the grass is not always greener on the other side and it’s time we learnt that the grass is green wherever we water it. The growing demand for specialised skills will mean that larger PR agencies need to adopt new practices to ensure business continuity.

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