Being located in a smaller market has its rewards, too, and many agencies are capitalizing on these benefits to obtain business usually only enjoyed by their big-city counterparts.
In real estate, it's all about location. But is the same true for PR? New York, Chicago, LA, and Boston are home to some of the biggest and most successful agencies in the industry. And there certainly are advantages to being in a big city: for example, quicker access to clients, the media, and the industries that promise future clients. But being in a secondary market has its rewards, too, and some PR firms are capitalizing on them to capture business usually enjoyed by their big-city counterparts.
Dan Sondhelm, a partner at SunStar, a financial PR firm in Alexandria, VA, says one of the advantages of being in the suburbs is the low overhead.
"Many smaller and larger firms have stayed away from larger cities just because the overhead is so expensive," adds David Thomson of Thomson Communications in Danvers, MA.
Saving money on overhead can often work to a firm's advantage when pitching new business, says Rob Bailey, president of Rob Bailey Communications in Upper Saddle River, NJ. "I think when you work with an agency in New York, you've got to anticipate paying for the overhead of them being in New York," he says of what he tells prospective clients. "You don't need to be in a city to be effective."
For some firms, an office location outside of a major city provides motivation to work harder at relationships with clients. "You have to be smarter and more aggressive when you're out of town," Sondhelm says. For example, he says members of his firm are extra diligent about traveling to New York for finance-related conferences and one-on-one meetings with reporters.
Tim Sipols, MD of Lambert, Edwards & Associates, a 14-person firm in Grand Rapids, MI, says that 100% of the agency's new business last year was referral-based.
"That means your new-business effort is day-to-day and focused primarily on how you're adding value to your clients," says Sipols, who previously worked as an SVP in Edelman's health practice in Chicago. "As opposed to thinking of new business as something you put on an agenda ... you're thinking about new business as organic growth from inside your existing mix of clients and making sure that your reputation is always intact."
Another way to increase a small-city firm's visibility among national brands is to develop a specialization, says John Metzger, CEO of Metzger Associates in Boulder, CO. His firm specializes in technology and counts Sprint PCS and Ciber as some of its national clients. "It doesn't really matter where we are or how big we are," he says. "We have a specialty in pitching technology trends and innovation stories." Still, he acknowledges that even with technological advances, a firm's location is still sometimes an issue with clients.
"Obviously the internet and e-mail have reduced the geographic concerns, but they're still there," he says.
Perhaps the biggest factor for firms trying to keep an even playing field with big-city counterparts is talent. Hence, Sipols' firm has to be particularly strategic about its recruiting techniques. "We're actively recruiting [employees] from the same talent pools as the big agencies," he says. "It's that level of sophistication that makes a difference in a head-to-head competition."
Metzger says that the fact that his firm is not in a big city is something that makes it attractive to seasoned PR professionals. "We feel it's more important to live in a place like this to attract the talent that we need on our staff," he says. "The very best talent in the country are usually seasoned veterans. The PR business tends to burn people out so they make a decision somewhere along their career that they need to strike a balance, and they can't do that as easily in New York City or Boston or San Francisco or Chicago."
Thomson, whose firm represents Verizon Wireless of New England, says that many of the prospective employees who express interest in his company do so because it isn't located in the city. "I definitely find more and more that people, especially the seasoned professionals that we're talking to, want to be out of the city," he says. "They've done the rat race, and they don't want to do that [anymore]."
Small-city firms, large-city accounts
Some tips on how small-city firms can win big-city business: