What does growth mean for a specialty firm?

Hotwire CEO Barbara Bates asks the question: Can PR agencies grow while maintaining a bespoke approach to client service?

When I spoke at the ICCO Global Summit in Dublin earlier this month, the theme of my presentation was Size Doesn’t Matter. I argued that midsize agencies like mine, which are big enough to handle major international assignments but agile and specialist enough to provide bespoke work, are a better choice for CMOs than large, multinational agency networks.

The theme was was bit risky, given that those networks were well-represented in the audience. Still, the speech went down well, even among senior folks from the big networks who are actually candid enough to concede that their business model poses major problems.

But those well-known problems are for them to try and solve. The question for agencies like Hotwire is, how can comms firms offering individualized, specialty services scale up? Moreover, should we even try? Isn’t there an inherent conflict between aspiring to be bigger and retaining a specialty positioning?

I don’t think so. Let me explain why.

To begin, I’ll take a step back in time to draw on some lessons from Eastwick Communications, the technology comms agency I founded in Silicon Valley in 1991. We published our first blog in 2005, when people didn’t really know what a blog was.

Growing that innovative part of our business meant we had to educate the market about social media. We brought in some early evangelists to shake things up. We transformed our culture and training and hired different types of people.

We followed the same template in the digital arena. We recruited people senior enough to change and drive strategy around the new skill sets but entrepreneurial enough to roll up their sleeves and do the work.

And again, we followed the same approach when developing our content offering. We attracted people who were able to both strategize and execute and we never over-hired. You could say striking that fine balance is at the heart of our growth strategy, and it definitely contrasts with the way many firms try to expand.

I’ve talked to agency leaders who went all-in on integrated communications. They unveiled new services, hired a bunch of people with specialized skills and then struggled to keep those folks busy and make a margin on that business.

Eventually, many had to downsize. Bringing in new skill sets is a bigger challenge than some agency leaders realize.

Hotwire has avoided those pitfalls with a blend of consistency and flexibility. We make sure there is consistency across regions to the specialized skill sets we offer such as content, digital, analytics and insights. And we treat each specialist area, irrespective of where people are located, as a single global pool, giving us greater flexibility to managing resources on a consistent basis.

This approach fosters fluidity. We avoid repeating the mistakes clients make when they silo different disciplines, and we provide fertile ground for team members to learn through cross-collaboration.

This flexibility also gives us the leeway we need to deal with the ebbs and flows of demand. This is particularly true when it comes specialist skill sets, which clients tend to want on a per project basis.

Our single P&L mentality facilitates this model and it’s an advantage we have over the rigid, multiple P&L structures of the multinational networks. Their paradigm discourages inter-office cooperation and the squabbling over budgets impedes growth.

We augment the capacity of our specialist employees with a well-vetted network of freelancers and other partnerships. Hotwire is a part of the boutique Enero network, home to specialists such as strategy consultancy The Leading Edge and creative tech firm Orchard.

Our growth is also driven by the willingness to learn fresh skills. Investment in new technology such as AI will liberate entry-level people from mundane tasks like compiling clip reports so that from the outset they can acquire the strategic and critical skills clients want.

It all comes down to owning the client relationship. Once we understand what’s needed, we can bring in the right resources. In many ways, it’s a simple approach. But it’s been a highly effective roadmap for us while we've been scaling up.

Barbara Bates is the global CEO of Hotwire and the founder/CEO of Eastwick Communications, which was acquired by Hotwire in 2016.

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