Spurning the high-profile merger or corporate buyout, small firms looking to expand their services are joining agency networks, a trend that appears to be gaining momentum.How does a boutique or midsized PR firm extend its reach, either geographically or through its practice, without doing anything as drastic as committing to a merger? Seeking an easier solution, PR firms across the country sometimes form "agency networks" - organized groups of firms that collaborate on specific clients. The latest entrant into the field of agency networks is the PR Collective. Founded by West Coast PR veteran Jonathan Zaleski, who has done tours at Spelling Entertainment, Rogers & Cowan, and Interpublic's Bragman, Nyman, Cafarelli, the network opened its doors just two months ago. When Zaleski decided to leave agency life and strike out on his own, he made the unusual decision to found his own agency network, instead of just starting his own agency. "When I was working in television PR, several firms often worked together on one client," Zaleski explains. "That worked so well so often that we decided to roll out that model out nationally." Zaleski says what distinguishes the PR Collective from other networks is that all accounts are centrally coordinated. He points out that some of the other networks can't even claim a physical headquarters. "We have a lot more emphasis on central coordination, where some of the other networks lack central communications with the client," says Zaleski. "We have a full-time central office, whose job it is to facilitate communications and accounts and attract clients from one central area. This way, when a client calls the PR Collective and says, 'This is our challenge,' we can coordinate the account from our headquarters. The client will deal with one central account person who acts like an account leader. This way, the experience does not differ much from dealing with a larger and well-known PR agency." This central coordination is run out of the network's Los Angeles office, which has two roles. It serves as both the LA office of the PR Collective (and essentially Zaleski's firm) and as the network's main headquarters. Zaleski says he spent a year researching and finding affiliates and has now recruited 46 firms, all of which were located via direct outreach. That includes five affiliates since the network opened for business. Zaleski says that the network could handle around 100 affiliates, but may choose to operate smaller in the short term. Yet perhaps the most important part of any network is how it chooses its affiliates. "We actually started very simply with just going through PRWeek's Contact directory," explains Zaleski. "Our philosophy was to work with mostly smaller agencies. We felt that was the best approach to serving clients. We then sent out materials and began asking for information from those agencies that said they were interested." Zaleski said that his due diligence involved gathering references and talking with clients. He says that once he brought on an affiliate in a region, he would often use that affiliate to help find other affiliates in that same region. "We wanted to make sure these firms were matches for each other as much as they were matches for the PR Collective as a whole," says Zaleski. "We turned down several agencies that wanted to join the network. We don't take on affiliates unless we feel they will be with us for a while." Still, the PR Collective appears to be as much a concept as a reality. Anyone with experience in building a client list from scratch knows the difficulties involved in such an endeavor. So far, the PR Collective has only serviced a handful of clients. Yet Zaleski feels that his affiliates' client lists will eventually lead to a spate of business for the network. Indeed, some of the affiliates have some name-brand clients, including Adidas Golf, the American Cancer Society, and Accenture. Nevertheless, the network is still scratching for early business. "We've obviously gobbled up the client lists of all of our small affiliates, which brings a lot of experience to the table," explains Zaleski. "We've had a lot of RFPs that have been delivered to us that we're yet to hear back on. We've had a lot interest, but PR budgets are still being worked out this time of year, so we're waiting on that." ----- The PR Collective
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