James 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!