In the PR industry, big most assuredly doesn’t mean better

The PR Week rankings issue is an extremely well done analysis of who’s hot, who’s not and why. It analyzes the strengths, weaknesses and points of differentiation of 35 different firms.

But, like its fellow trade publications, PR Week suffers from one fatal flaw: it obsesses over the relatively few large agencies. It devotes full-page coverage to Edelman, which it describes as "the provocateur." (Now, I’ve heard many different descriptions of that firm over the years, but never provocateur), Fleishman-Hillard (which PR Week calls "the machine." As in Glengarry Glen Ross’s ill-fated Shelley "the machine" Levene?), Ketchum ("the fighter." And, ya gotta love Ray Kotcher’s Fashion Week pose in the photo accompanying the text), Hill and Knowlton ("the rebounder." OK, if you say so), and Weber Shandwick (which the pub describes as "the juggernaut." Is W-S trying to position itself as the modern-day equivalent of the Mongol hordes?").

After the full-page odes to the aforementioned big guys, PR Week next devotes half-page spreads to the Ogilvys and Porters of the world. It’s only after they’ve finished profiling the big guys that any coverage is afforded to the independent small and medium-sized firms. And, there’s the rub.

In my opinion, the best thinking and the most innovation is coming from the smaller guys. But, you don’t see a full-page profile devoted to Margi Booth or Ken Makovsky. You don’t see Bob Angus or Patrice Tanaka profiled or described as provocateurs or juggernauts. And, yet, these are the people and the firms that are leading the industry’s evolution.

As far as I can tell, the big guys seem to be revolving doors, with one EVP leaving his post as head of the health care practice of one giant to do the same thing at another one. Every week, the trades are full of personnel pieces covering Jane Doe’s departure from Burson to do the same exact thing at GCI, or vice versa. At the same time, we never really know how the big guys are performing because their holding company parents forbid them to disclose their numbers.

One thing’s for sure. When we hire, we usually stay away from large agency people because, without a bureaucratic infrastructure to support them, they fail miserably. I’ll never forget one H&K alum storming into my office to complain she had to personally undertake some research work. "In my old agency, I’d just pick up the phone and call the research department," she huffed. Needless to say, she didn’t last.

So, here’s a plea to the Hoods and Holmes and O’Dwyers to open their minds (and their pages) to the little guys. I think you’ll find we have just as many, if not more, fighters, rebounders and provocateurs. Oh, and if you’re looking for thought leadership on what it all means and where we’re all headed, just call one of us. Contrary to what Paul and Jack write, there’s plenty of industry leadership (and leaders). They just need to look below the Top 10 to find it/them.

9 thoughts on “In the PR industry, big most assuredly doesn’t mean better

  1. Kudos to the fine folks at Peppercom for telling it like it is. In an “rankings” issue when the big firms wont even release their numbers, they still get all the ink ? Ridiculous. PR Week is only for the big boys.

  2. Frank,
    I was simply responding to Virginia’s comment about influence. I’m with you on the big agency/small agency view of where the talent is. As for your question, it seems to me PR Week only focuses on the big guys for two reasons. 1) that’s where the money is. The big firms work with the big budgets, and that tends to generate big news. Who wants to read about an unknown firm that saved the face a similarly unknown city admin in Anywhere, USA? 2) The big firms aren’t going anywhere. Mom and Pop, Inc. might be out of business tomorrow. There are just too many to cover. I wish PR Week would focus more on the firms like mine, or Peppercom, that aren’t as big as FH, but get the same results. Ad Week does it. Seems PR Week should follow.

  3. I agree with your point about disclosure. So many of the big agencies are hiding behind their parent companies, and so many are inevitably stifled because of them. Not just from a dollars standpoint, but more importantly, from a creative one. That’s the primary reason why I left.

  4. Rob,
    I don’t know where you’re going with that comment. In PR, it’s not about the size of the agency. It’s about the people. There are good and bad people/pr folks at both big and small agencies.
    Let’s stick to the topic at hand. Why does PR Week tend to focus more on the big guys?

  5. I’ve seen “little guys” kick the big guys out of more clients than you know. Why? Performance. It’s great to say you hired FH or WS until six months down the road you realize nothing’s been accomplished.

  6. A pub focused on the “little guys” with their Fortune 500 “little clients”? Curious that you think the big agencies are the only ones that have any infulence.

  7. why do you think i’m joking? you don’t think these rags know where their bread is buttered? they’re in the business of making money too…

  8. PR Week and other industry trades recognize that in order to remain in business they need to make nice with the big guys.
    Perhaps PR Week should consider a second publication focused on the little guys?