Do small communications agencies need a specialty to be successful?

Ricochet PR's Todd Aydelotte and KCSA's Lewis Goldberg offer opposing views on whether small comms agencies need a niche

Yes

Todd Aydelotte, CEO and founder, Ricochet Public Relations
His 10-year-old agency specializes in the healthcare, tech, and industrial sectors

Small agencies lacking a niche will find it challenging to compete against big-box PR firms that can apply resources in all directions. For most small agencies, the key differentiator is typically: "We do it better than they can" or "We offer more personalized service," which, frankly, is what all PR firms say, large or small.

Developing domain expertise and experience in select industries allows a small firm to create a more robust client portfolio - and to break into larger accounts earlier. By establishing a strong base of case studies with small and midsize companies, you are better able to secure larger accounts and further solidify experience in your verticals.

Through specialization, you can develop best practices and methodologies that are applicable to a range of clients operating in similar environments. Trying to be a jack-of-all-trades limits an agency's ability to develop the in-depth industry knowledge that attracts clients.

We built Ricochet by being specialized. Nearly all of our clients fall into two categories. They are either Fortune 500 companies that have "had it" with big agencies offering lots of services, but little domain expertise, or they are midsize or smaller science-driven enterprises and industry associations reluctant to forge relationships with a PR agency that does not understand the nuances of their sector.

More than 75% of our staff hold scientific or technical degrees. Some of them hold PhDs or degrees from leading medical schools, while others specialize in biotechnology, genetics, engineering and related fields driven by science and innovation. In this way, my agency optimizes each of our account teams, thus allowing us to unite culturally with our clients.

Obviously, there's always a downside to being unique. In RFP reviews, we're always the "different agency" that comes to the table. Companies and associations that have never worked with other PR firms can perceive us as a risk. But these companies return to us if they've spent a year with an expensive generalist firm that has achieved little in positive results.

No

Lewis Goldberg, managing partner, KCSA Strategic Communications
His agency provides IR, PR, and brand marketing to a diverse client roster

I've spent the majority of my career working with smaller, successful PR firms, each with fewer than 50 pros. The binding factor for each of these agencies, including KCSA, has been a deep and abiding focus on hiring, investing in, and retaining really smart, committed team members who are generalists.

A generalist is someone who is intelligent, inquisitive, thinks like a businessperson first and as a communications pro second. Most important, a generalist is someone whose inquisitive nature allows them to identify links and threads from disparate industries to help weave compelling stories that speak to different constituencies across multiple channels. We actively cultivate these traits in staff.

New business opportunities come from a million different sources; to be able to not only win the business, but to effectively serve it requires having a breadth of experience to draw upon, either individually or agency-wide. Some of the most successful campaigns come from a breadth of clients. Tactics work across clients, and agencies learn best when they work broadly. Social media was initially focused on supporting tech companies, but today it is a vital communications component in industries ranging from retail to financial services.

I've been in communications for nearly 15 years and attribute much of my success to lessons I learned from my years in political communications working for a US senator and President Bill Clinton. Had I not worked in politics, I could have pigeonholed myself as a "tech" specialist and my career might have crumbled when the tech bubble burst. Similarly, had I specialized solely in financial services, were it not for my having represented healthcare and energy clients, I might have lost my job during the recent recession.

Because my career and that of KCSA's staff are built around being accomplished generalists who can speak the many languages of tech, social media, financial services, biotech, poli- tics, crisis communications, pub- lic affairs, IR, etc., we are well positioned to consult with and help any company attain virtually any business goal - no matter the economic environment.

PRWeek's View
A specialty is not necessary to succeed. Expertise in one sector will help secure early success and accounts, but diversifying your capabilities and client portfolio protects against downturns in one market and fuels future growth.

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