While the rest of the PR world sweats out the slowing economic
growth and the fall of the dot-com sector, Chicago-based agency
principal Carolyn Grisko says her six-year-old firm will likely continue
to thrive. That's because Grisko specializes in what she believes to be
a recession-proof niche: airports.
Grisko & Associates handles PR and community relations for Chicago's
O'Hare and Midway airports, Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Rickenbacker
International Airport in Columbus, OH, and a handful of aviation-related
clients, including airlines and the Air Transport Association.
'As air travel continues to increase, cities are continually building
new terminals and runways, all of which bring the same issues of noise,
pollution and traffic impacting the neighboring communities,' she
Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, PA, Debra Jacobs says she has identified an
equally lucrative PR niche: marketing communications for clients
involved in the classical arts - opera singers, dance companies,
'There's a common misunderstanding that I work with starving artists,
but, actually, there is a lot of money in (promoting) the classical
performing arts,' says Jacobs, whose partner in the year-old Jacobs &
Associates is a tenor and a vocal professor at Carnegie Mellon
Although the two agencies serve very different types of clients, both
are part of a growing trend. While today's big agencies get bigger,
gobbling up the specialist of yesteryear in hi-tech, healthcare and
public affairs, a crop of hyper-specialized PR agencies has emerged,
cashing in on increasingly narrow niches. It's possible to find firms
focused on everything from law firms to maternity wear.
'Specialization is on the rise, mainly because there is enough business
out there to support niche firms,' says agency consultant Lee
'(Specialization) is the main thing clients are looking for these
Agency search consultant Jerry Swerling says more and more of his
clients have asked him to find PR firms with the kinds of unique
qualifications and expertise that traditional, generalist agencies don't
have. And more major corporations with large agencies of record are
starting to consider smaller, specialty boutiques for certain specific
aspects of their business.
'I recently represented a hi-tech company that needed international
trade experience,' says Swerling. 'Another wanted IR, corporate PR and
turnaround expertise - and experience working in their particular
industry sector.' He says major-name generalist agencies are at a
distinct disadvantage in pitching these types of accounts.
Perhaps the biggest factor driving the rise in niche agencies is
actually the agency world's current consolidation craze.
'The specialist agencies get the highest valuation and command the
highest prices,' explains Rick Gould, whose accounting firm, Gould &
Co., specializes in PR firms and M&A work. 'Generally, they can charge
higher rates for their expertise, they attract a higher level of
clientele, and they tend to generate much higher profit margins than
Benefits for agency and client
In a universe of PR firms that seems to grow larger by the day, the
ability to brand an agency as expert in one particular area is important
for recruiting and positioning for new business. It also pares down the
need for proactive marketing.
'When you become well-known and established as experts, you are often
called upon to speak at trade organizations and tend to get most of your
clients through referrals,' says Jani Aronow, co-founder and principal
of Aronow & Pollock in New York, which focuses on promoting food and its
health benefits to consumers.
On the other hand, 'If you are a generalist agency, it's tough to build
a name for yourself,' points out Scott Allison, a former SVP with San
Diego's Gable Group who currently heads up the San Francisco office of
Internet specialist firm, Connors Communications. 'You become jack of
all trades, master of none.'
Some specialist shops carve out a slice of the PR pie from large
companies that already have a big name agency of record by targeting an
area neither the corporate team nor the other PR agency have the time or
contacts to handle. For example, Newton, MA-based Wanger Associates
works with companies that are looking to promote their corporate
work/life benefits to employees and the public via media features like
Fortune magazine's 'Best Companies to Work for' issue.
'Every major company now offers such work/life balance programs, but
usually the core PR team doesn't have time to proactively communicate
these stories,' says Barry Wanger, principal.
On the client side, niche boutiques often can work more quickly and
These shops build up a database of media contacts that can be referenced
across clients, and reporters familiar with an agency's niche are more
likely to contact its representatives when stories involving a
particular industry arise.
'Niche agencies can come in and hit the ground running, unlike a
generalist firm that has to spend time getting all the background and
learning the market,' adds Grisko.
That was the experience of former Qualkids marketing director Joe
Carlucci when he worked with Child's Play Communications, a New York PR
agency devoted to products and services for the maternity, kids and new
'You don't have to educate the agency about key players, important
tradeshows and top publications,' says Carlucci. 'With a bigger firm,
everything we did had to be researched and studied before taking
There is also the advantage that smaller specialty agencies are more
likely to have senior-level staff working the phones on their
'Successful vest-pocket PR firms are often run by people with a high
degree of media savvy, who know the value of building rapport with a
variety of publications and reporters, whereas the big agencies are more
expert at the agency business itself,' says Burke Stinson, senior PR
director for AT&T. 'That's because most of them farm out the pitching
duties to 24-year-old account execs with no knowledge of the news
Synergy between clients in related industries is often cited as another
benefit of specialization. For example, Richmond Public Relations in
Seattle, which represents hotels, food chains and restaurants throughout
the Pacific Northwest, often brings together two or three of its clients
for co-promotional events.
The downside of specialization
But there are drawbacks to specialization. Focusing on a narrow niche
limits an agency's field of potential clients, especially because of the
risk of conflicts.
'When you start out, you need to have some immediate successes, so start
with what you know best,' says Louis Richmond, who started his food- and
hospitality-focused firm after eight years with the Sheraton hotel
'But staying so specialized in one area can limit your growth after a
while, especially if you're not in New York.'
Specialty boutiques might have to work harder to find and hire qualified
staff. 'Recruiting will be more difficult,' says Justin Meyer of
Marshall Consultants, an executive search firm specializing in PR and
marketing professionals. 'You'll need to look at a larger field of
candidates to find someone who is interested in your particular niche
and looking to develop an expertise in that field. It's a little bit
like panning for gold.'
Finally, narrowly focused firms often find it tough to break into areas
other than the field or specialty for which they are known, making them
vulnerable if that sector stumbles. Many of the agencies that sprung up
and earned a name for themselves as branding specialists for consumer
Internet start-ups are suddenly looking for ways to reposition
themselves as general hi-tech agencies.
Still, most industry experts agree that the advantages of specialization
far outweigh the disadvantages, especially since consistent, quality
work, not necessarily huge growth, drives most specialty firms.
As Aronow, whose 15-person agency counts Campbell's Soup and the US Egg
Board among its clients, puts it, 'We specialize in food because it's an
integral part of our psyche and everyone's lives, so we knew it would be
an everlasting area of opportunity. Plus, it's just lots of fun.'
SUCCESS STRATEGIES FOR SPECIALTY PR FIRMS
1. Before deciding to specialize, consider the following:
- Who are your competitors, i.e., which agencies are handling the top
companies in this field?
- How will you compete with these agencies?
- How much are people in this field willing to pay for PR?
- Is the niche big enough to offer opportunity to grow?
2. Once you decide to move forward and have figured out how to position
yourself in a given niche, take steps to establish credibility as an
expert. For example, line up speaking engagements at tradeshows and
pitch bylined articles to key industry trades.
3. For new business purposes, cultivate relationships with agency search
consultants, as well as the heads of bigger, generalized firms who might
be able to pass along projects and clients better suited to a boutique
4. Establish a network of freelancers and other small agencies so that
you can meet client needs when they arise outside your areas of
expertise, for example in crisis communications or IR.
5. When recruiting employees, emphasize career path in the field itself,
i.e., the ability to develop valuable expertise, as the benefit of
working there, rather than simply paying more in salaries. Be prepared
to invest more time in the search for employees.
6. Don't be afraid to take on other types of business at times. Not only
is it energizing for employees, it also ensures that all your financial
eggs aren't in one basket.