Virtual firms lack office space, not experience

It may be a truism that a company's image, reputation, and self-esteem depend almost as much on having a centralized, formal location as on the business in which it is engaged.

It may be a truism that a company's image, reputation, and self-esteem depend almost as much on having a centralized, formal location as on the business in which it is engaged.

That may be especially true for PR firms, where a bona fide office provides a place for clients and prospective clients to visit, team members to congregate, and employees to benefit from peer proximity.

But some agencies are discovering that a physical headquarters isn't necessary for productivity and success, especially when e-mail, instant messaging, and phone conferencing provide such an easy way for employees to keep in touch with clients and one another. Such "virtual" agencies have unique attributes that contribute to their success.

Chris Perkett founded Perkett PR almost eight years ago during the dot-com boom. Now comprising 12 employees, the agency is typical in that employees have health benefits, vacation time, and retirement plans. But those employees work out of their home offices, spread across the country, although most are located in San Francisco and Boston.

Because Perkett only hires people with five years of experience or more - the majority have more than 15 years of experience - the agency's model is a good recruitment tool.

"I decided I could attract those folks from their big agency jobs by offering them an opportunity to work from home," Perkett says. "It's a bit more flexible environment in that you have a better opportunity to balance your work and life."

Tier One Partners, a virtual agency founded in 2003, also subscribes to this idea; most of its seven partners come from such agencies as Weber Shandwick, Hill & Knowlton, and Fitzgerald Communications, and have served at VP and SVP levels. "That's really our value proposition," says Kathy Wilson, partner.

But unlike Perkett PR, Tier One uses an outside network of experienced PR freelancers to supplement its small staff. "Tapping into those outside, best-of-breed resources is a way that we can make ourselves look larger than life and offer all the same things a traditional brick-and-mortar agency would offer," Wilson says.

Because virtual agencies lack a physical office space, overhead costs are largely eliminated, which benefits clients. Drew Gerber, CEO of Wasabi Publicity, says this aspect makes the agency an attractive option for the nonprofit and cause-related clients it serves, including the Ms. Foundation and Grameen Foundation. Following a model similar to Tier One, Wasabi has only one employee aside from its two owners and relies on a network of experienced freelancers - publicists, copywriters, copy editors, and graphic designers - to work on campaigns.

Gerber adds that the diminutive size of the agency fits the work it does. And the agency's clients aren't concerned with the setup. "What all clients really want is results," he says. "One of the reasons that we're efficient is because we think people are more productive if they're working in an environment they love."

Technology undoubtedly helps agency employees keep in touch, but in-person meetings are essential to reinforce a sense of cohesiveness. Perkett PR, Tier One, and Wasabi Publicity, all hold annual or semi-annual conferences where employees meet to discuss agency issues and participate in team-building exercises.

Key points:

Virtual agencies typically hire senior-level PR pros, which clients find attractive

Virtual PR agencies eliminate overhead costs and allow clients to pay only for the agency's work product

A combination of technology and occasional in-person meetings help to build team atmosphere

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