Inside the virtual PR consultancy

Virtual doesn't mean "do-nothing" - and it saves time, too - say communicators who have worked in the corporate, agency, and consultancy worlds.

An inside look at WeWork's West Broadway Lounge. Image via WeWork
An inside look at WeWork's West Broadway Lounge. Image via WeWork

In today’s technology-dependent world, some communications executives are rebuking some of the traditional confinements of the workplace, but they’re not letting a lack of cubicles, conference rooms, or landlines get in the way of a team effort.

Virtual consultancies, agencies of one, and firms whose offices only exist on the smartphones of their employees may face an initial learning curve or settling-in period, but for some, the fit is just right.

Alice Chan, VP of global communications at Xero, previously ran virtual firm Bird PR. She notes that a "lifestyle choice" is a theme in virtual consultancies, and it was one factor that led her to mold her shop in such a way.

"I wanted to be able to have the flexibility of working from wherever I go – where I wanted and needed to work, and service client demand – but from a location that suited me," she explains, adding that there’s a different agency-client dynamic on the West Coast than on the East Coast or the UK. "Out West, people tend to want you to come to them, because companies can be squared up and down the Valley, they want you to absorb their culture – it’s a different take on the relationship."

There are financial benefits, as well. Lower operating costs are a mark in the pro column.

"I’m able to deliver a fee range to a client that is merely based on the value of the time that you bring and give to their business," says Chan.

Of course, she is well aware of the stereotypes associated with the virtual agency world, such as that it’s a do-nothing, rock-your-PJs world – but that’s not what she’s encountered.

"I have never met people who work harder," she says, particularly when they are "110% committed to making the model work."

Chan adds that she realized how much time she was saving and spending on clients by not commuting.

After 20 years at Johnson & Johnson, Craig Rothenberg started Rothenberg Communications earlier this year. (He more recently stepped down after a short stint as CCO at embattled drug-maker Turing Pharmaceuticals). He notes that he’s always thrived around other people, but the consultancy setup still allows that, though brainstorming with colleagues may require a phone call versus an office drop-in.

"I was just looking at my next two and a half weeks, and there isn’t a single day where I don’t have a minimum of two meetings, and in some cases four or five meetings, out of the house, with others," he says.

The matter of staff
One area where virtual business leaders have to put in extra work is recruiting, notes Jean Salha, CEO at Teneno, a cloud-based company.

"A lot of people want to see an office," he says, noting that it gives recruits a feeling of job security and that the company "is not going to shut down tomorrow."

Salha notes the recruitment process itself can be tricky in that the boss of a virtual organization may have to identify where exactly to meet a potential hire. And there are options for staffers who want to feel a little more grounded, such as WeWork, which bills itself as a "co-working office space" with locations around the US and in Israel, London, and Amsterdam.

Yet it’s important for the ties among staffers to be strong at a virtual business, Chan notes. While leading Bird PR, she maintained a self-imposed rue: "For the most part, I didn’t have people on my team serving client business that I hadn’t worked with before," she says.

But what happens when the leader of a virtual consultancy leaves for another job, like Chan did for the top communications role at Xero.

"I am very confident that they absolutely know what that brand stands for and how we do business," she says, noting that she advises the team when time allows, but isn’t "hands on with any business right now."

While he’s not at the point where he’d "go back inside," Rothenberg says he realizes the realities of dually being a one-stop shop for his clients and hearing out other opportunities. Were something to take him away from the firm, Rothenberg says he will finish the work or be the one to identify the right person to take it over.

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