Why not pick a team of solo pros?: Ever considered hand-picking your PR dream team? Aimee Grove looks into a growing trend where solo pros join forces to form virtual agencies

What if major, national companies started turning away from full-service PR firms and began farming out pieces of the PR pie to independent consultants? What if client-side PR pros, rather than simply selecting from the pool of agencies out there, instead decided to create their own marcom ’dream teams’ made up of individuals hand-picked to meet the company’s specific needs? If you think this scenario sounds unlikely amid today’s robust agency economy, think again. More than a few major-budget clients are taking the ’virtual agency’ approach to PR - and there are at least some signs that the trend could even be on an upswing.

What if major, national companies started turning away from full-service PR firms and began farming out pieces of the PR pie to independent consultants? What if client-side PR pros, rather than simply selecting from the pool of agencies out there, instead decided to create their own marcom ’dream teams’ made up of individuals hand-picked to meet the company’s specific needs? If you think this scenario sounds unlikely amid today’s robust agency economy, think again. More than a few major-budget clients are taking the ’virtual agency’ approach to PR - and there are at least some signs that the trend could even be on an upswing.

What if major, national companies started turning away from

full-service PR firms and began farming out pieces of the PR pie to

independent consultants? What if client-side PR pros, rather than simply

selecting from the pool of agencies out there, instead decided to create

their own marcom ’dream teams’ made up of individuals hand-picked to

meet the company’s specific needs? If you think this scenario sounds

unlikely amid today’s robust agency economy, think again. More than a

few major-budget clients are taking the ’virtual agency’ approach to PR

- and there are at least some signs that the trend could even be on an

upswing.



Championing virtual approach



Former Ketchum Public Relations VP Steve Swasey, who also put in time at

Burson-Marsteller and Carl Byoir & Associates, didn’t exactly start out

as an anti-agency renegade. In fact, when he first took his job as

public affairs director at Tri-Valley Growers a few years back, Swasey

(who’s now director of corporate communications) says his first instinct

led him to hire the biggest firm in San Francisco. However, after a year

of scanning detailed invoices, dealing with junior account staffers and

seeing few results - not to mention learning about a direct conflict of

interest on the agency’s client roster - the relationship with his alma

mater came to a halt. Swasey says he then turned to the previous year’s

runner-up - another major multinational - only to learn that his dollars

750,000 annual budget was too small to qualify as a client.



At that point, as he recalls, ’I decided to do something different.’

Rather than pulling his PR account in-house or finding a smaller shop to

take on the business, Swasey decided to build his own ’virtual agency’

staffed by a band of independently contracted freelancers. Today he

reports, ’I have greater flexibility, productivity and results, for

about one-third the cost of a national agency.’



Swasey’s ’virtual agency’ account team is filled with mostly

senior-level specialists billing, in many cases, less than dollars

100/hour. At various times, the entire skeleton crew has included the

following: a VP-level woman who spends about 30 hours a week handling

strategy and other account director-type duties; a full-time science

writer; a husband-wife pair (both former broadcast journalists)

specializing in video production; a set of locally based food media

relations specialists; an AE-level woman who coordinates events,

publicity and research; and a trio of senior consultants available for

strategic counsel and crisis communications. According to Swasey, one of

these top advisors is actually the former director of Ketchum’s Los

Angeles office who decided to strike out on his own a few years

back.



’I would be paying dollars 250 an hour for his advice (if he were still

at Ketchum), but now we just go to Uncle Yu’s for lunch instead,’ Swasey

laughs.



Tri-Valley is a dollars 800 million-plus national marketer, processor

and grower of fruit and vegetables that competes head-to-head with

canning giant Del Monte; their 24 brands include S&W Fine Foods and

Libby’s.



Mary Dale Walters of CCH Publishing, a Chicago-based publisher of tax

preparation software, human resources and business law information and

software for professionals, is another former major agency alum

embracing the virtual agency approach. In addition to her internal staff

of five, Walters (a former Edelman exec) employs a network of three

outside ’stringers’ - handling different parts of her business - and

paid at different hourly rates. Like Swasey, Walters originally hired a

big agency (Ruder Finn) to handle PR for CCH’s Internet products.

However, about six years ago, when the rep for her account left the

agency to fly solo, ’we went with her,’ says Walters. ’We reduced our

costs and got more dedication and better results with this one person

than with the whole agency.’



Soon after, Walters added two other members to her external PR team,

which has remained with her for more than five years. In Chicago, one

woman heads up the company’s Internet business and another handles what

Walters calls ’the power-pitching side’ of media relations; a third

stringer in California helps with additional writing and media projects.

The three do most of their interaction via e-mail and telephone, she

says, though the local stringers have free rein inside the company to

develop relationships with authors and top spokespersons.



No hierarchy



Greater agility and quicker action are the main reasons Walters cites

for sticking with her stable of freelancers rather than going to a

traditional agency. ’If something comes up, they can get moving

immediately,’ says Walters. ’You don’t have any of the hierarchy that

agencies have, where things need to be reviewed and signed off by five

people before anything goes out or even gets started.’



Like Swasey, Walters is also a fan of the reduced costs. ’We’re a

multi-million dollar company. CCH is a wholly owned subsidiary of

Wolters Kluwer US with more than 2,500 employees and about 700 products

on the market.



But for me to rationalize hiring a PR firm for dollars 100,000 to

dollars 150,000 a year would be tough,’ she admits. ’Especially when we

get blue ribbon talent and no sacrifice in results.’



Even if there are plenty of companies willing and able to invest in full

agency services, the ranks of agency talent seem to be shrinking,

especially at the mid to high-levels. Where are these account

supervisors and VPs going? Into retirement? No, to work for themselves.

Some of the best senior level strategists, media specialists and other

niche service providers can now be found outside agency walls, driven by

the desire to work more flexible hours and lead balanced lives. It’s the

age of the home-based entrepreneur - and because of the recent rise in

outsourcing agencies specializing in marketing and communications, it’s

also getting easier for companies to find these indy pros.



’Why would you want to drive to Silicon Valley every day and work nine

to five, when you can work half as long and make twice as much?’ asks

Rhonda Silva, VP of San Francisco-based Blue Skies Marketing Staffing

Solutions, which specializes in placing PR professionals in temporary or

contracted positions. Silva attributes her company’s fast growth rate -

35% over predictions in the past two years - to the high level of

attrition at the top rank, so that women and men flock to

self-employment.



Financially lucrative



For example, Blue Skies network member and new mom Judith McGill says

working as a sole proprietor allows her to stay home with her baby. She

also enjoys the more direct relationship with her clients. ’I have the

ability to service a company directly; there are fewer steps along the

way, like pleasing your agency supervisors and politics,’ says

McGill.



McGill and others also maintain that working on a virtual agency team

can be more financially lucrative for both parties involved, since

independent hourly rates tend to be lower than agency rates, but these

fees go straight into the pockets of the freelancer. ’I am making more

as an independent than I did as an agency employee, yet my clients get

agency-level service at a reduced cost,’ asserts Tammy Whitehouse, an

Akron, Ohio-based PR freelancer.



With all the agencies struggling to keep good account staff from bolting

to pre-IPO dot-coms or to strike out on their own, some on the client

side have started to take notice - and to worry about the effect on

their business. ’I worry about the turnover in agencies,’ says Jennifer

Bofinger, PR manager of Global Sports Interactive, a Philadelphia-based

Internet company that designs and maintains e-commerce web sites for

sporting goods retail chains like Athlete’s Foot and Sports Chalet. In

fact, Bofinger cites the need for stability on her business as a major

factor in her decision to create a virtual team rather than hiring any

of the full-service agencies that had originally pitched for her

account.



Bofinger’s out-sourced PR group now includes about five freelancers, all

of whom are ex-agency VPs from firms such as Fleishman-Hillard. ’I

needed some high-level people for strategic thinking and who could

really sell, and these people really know what they are doing. They

spend less time doing administrative stuff like writing status reports,’

she says.



Some limitations



But is there a downside? Even the biggest fans of the virtual agency

approach acknowledge that it has its limitations and would not fit just

any company’s needs, especially those with wide-scale assignments. ’This

is definitely not going to work for those who need to do a national

roll-out and have a big national budget to spend, a time when you need

to have those horses in the stable to call out when and where needed.

You can’t just call in the people from Chicago or New York, the way you

can with a major agency,’ says Swasey.



Even more importantly, the increasing emphasis on international

marketing efforts could put companies relying on an aggregate of

independents at a distinct disadvantage. As Fred Hoar, chairman of

Miller/Shandwick Technologies (and a former VP of communications at

Apple) points out, ’While there are definitely many different solutions

to a company’s PR needs, the global reach and bandwidth around the world

that major agencies offer ensures that they will continue to

prosper.’



Also, working with a virtual agency requires a hefty investment in

management time to find talent, give assignments and supervise the work

of several individuals rather than a single set of agency reports each

month, Swasey admits.



Finally, using an aggregate of individuals can mean sacrificing

security.



As Council of PR Firms president Jack Bergen points out, ’With an

agency, you’re buying their brand - a brand they need to protect as a

commercial entity. You’re buying that reliability and continuity of

service you can depend on.’



But not everyone buys into Bergen’s theory. For example, Jose Hurtado,

president of m-USA, a Dallas-area start-up that recently hired a loose

contingent of agency and independent pros, believes there’s no

substitute for individual talent: ’You are always working with people,

regardless or whether they have a common office name and space.

Experience, professionalism and commitment are key words that are more

relevant than office space, head count and other renowned clients.’



Effective choice



Like most decisions within the marketing realm, figuring out how to best

handle a company’s PR needs depends on many particular considerations

specific to the situation, industry and individuals involved. Even

virtual agency fans agree that there’s no black and white, right and

wrong way to go.



’I am not anti-agency. Many of them are doing great work, and that’s the

training ground for most of the people I use,’ says Swasey. ’Our style

of working is definitely not for everybody or even most companies. But

for medium-sized companies with mid-sized budgets and specific needs, it

can be a very effective way to go.’



WHAT’S A ’VIRTUAL AGENCY’ ANYWAY?



It seems these days that just about every agency with fewer than ten

employees and principals who telecommute is calling itself a ’virtual

agency,’ and touting the cost benefits of low overheads and the

efficiency of communicating electronically. However, despite the small

size and lack of office space, they are still traditional firms in that

they charge retainers and operate much the same as larger firms.



Other so-called ’virtual agencies’ are actually companies selling

pre-packaged PR services or kits that can be downloaded from the

Internet or sent by mail for a company that prefers to handle its own PR

in-house but needs some assistance.



While both of these trends may be interesting, neither is what we are

talking about in this article. From the perspective of clients, a

’virtual agency’ is a hand-picked team of individuals who function and

are paid as independent contractors working with the in-house PR

team.



PROS AND CONS OF VIRTUAL AGENCIES



Pros



- More flexibility



- Senior-level talent at lower rate



- More accountability



Cons



- More management time and effort required



- Fewer ’horses in the stable’ for big jobs



- Less security.



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