Who’s your James Cherry?

Picture1James Cherry scared the living daylights out of me when I was eight years old. He was two years older, 40 pounds heavier and routinely picked on me in front of my friends. It wasn't until my father, a former welterweight boxer, taught me how to duck an incoming punch and then deliver a counter blow that I forever ended James Cherry's reign of terror.

I used James Cherry as a metaphor in a speech Tuesday before the PRSA's Counselors Academy's annual Spring Conference.

If you're not familiar with the Academy, it's populated by the best and brightest owners and senior executives of America's best small and medium-sized public relations firms.

Like the young Steve Cody, though, many of these small and medium-sized firms are scared to death by the bully on the block: the top 10 largest PR firms. They're worried by the size and scope of the big guys. They're awed by the clout they wield. And, they're dying to know how one could possibly slay such a Goliath in a new business presentation.

As a recovering Big AgencyAholic, I told my peers I knew exactly how the Top 10 firms went to market. I knew their strengths. And, critically, I knew their many weaknesses.  My presentation focused on the latter, because it's my belief that, if one knows an opponent's weaknesses, one can exploit them to one's advantage.

And, so I shared what many clients already know:

– Large agencies have multiple P&L centers, all of whom fight like cats and dogs for a percentage of the client's budget. For large agency leaders, it's not about doing what's in the client's best interests but, rather, generating the growth and profit numbers imposed on the large agency by its holding company.

– The holding company is, in fact, THE client to every large agency. Satisfying the financial demands of the holding company determines the pay and bonus structure of every large agency's executive team. The client always finishes a distant second to the holding company when it comes to mind share.

– If you were the very best public relations counselor, would you work for someone else? That's my bottom-line. And, it's a question I always ask prospects when they're trying to decide between Peppercom and a Top 10 agency. Up-and-coming PR talent is attracted to smaller and midsized firms because they might one day have an opportunity to run the agency and share in the profits. That opportunity simply doesn't exist at Top 10 firms. And, that's why the latter attract outstanding administrators, bureaucrats and politically-astute players adept at building their own fiefdoms while undermining a peer's.

I'd much rather compete against an Ogilvy, Burson or Golin than a Padilla Spear Beardsley, CRT/Tanaka or Coyne. The former have many vulnerabilities; the latter few.

The sooner small and medium-sized agencies wise up to the fact that the big guys are just puffed up, latter day versions of James Cherry, the sooner they'll begin exploiting the neighborhood bully's weaknesses and start winning major accounts.

Trust me. Clients are just as tired of the James Cherrys as we, independent firms are. They're just looking for more of us to uncover the big bully's weaknesses and offer smart, strategic and more cost-effective alternatives.

Here's the best news of all: My dad's still alive and well, and available to begin teaching smaller agencies how to effectively counter punch. And, there's the bell for round one!

10 thoughts on “Who’s your James Cherry?

  1. Thanks Ronn. It’s nice to know so many independent firms feel the same way about the global holding companies. Now, if only clients would wake up and realize the inherent flaws in the big agency model…

  2. Ed once strapped a squirrel to the roof of his 7 Series BMW. Didn’t seem to affect his ability to manage Peppercom.

  3. Barry O’s people will unveil a lot more about Willard Mitt Romney’s past that could portray him as a cross between Sadaam Hussein’s sons and Douglas “Drop and Give Me 20” Niedermeyer from “Animal House.”
    That’s why I wish people wouldn’t call him Mittens. The name suggests kittens, babies, cocoa, winter sleigh rides and other things warm & cuddly. I find those images hard to reconcile with a man who heartily straps his dog to the family wagon’s roof and professes to enjoy firing people.

  4. So, it would seem, Gaetano. Interesting that Mittens has no recollection of having cut off the poor kid’s hair. That had to be amazingly traumatic for the victim.

  5. THAT is certainly true. And your descriptions of what the higher-ups actually do brings back the same old sense of dread and a pit to my stomach.
    It took a long time to realize that I never really wanted the top boss’ job; that’s one of many reasons I stopped pursuing agency life.
    On the other hand, as an adult I really do enjoy having the freedom to put bullies in their place! You can’t really do that at B-M, Ketchum or Edelman.

  6. I didn’t mean to suggest the big agencies lack talent, Peter. But, the higher up the food chain a talented PR pro rises at a global agency, the less actual PR work she does. At the very top, they do little more than admin, finance and operations. Ugh.

  7. There IS talent at the Big Agencies that stay. Most just won’t risk giving up the security they might have — until they don’t have it.
    That was especially true 2-4 years ago, when times were “uncertain” and you couldn’t get anyone with a job to make a move. Now maybe a few more will see the writing on the wall.
    Love the Scut Farkas picture!