What are the advantages of working with a boutique PR agency? David Ball, President & CEO of Ball Consulting Group, LLC and President of PR Boutiques International, emphasizes how the ability to be nimble and quickly adapt to client needs has enabled his firm’s continued growth. He also discusses how larger agencies can bring a boutique feel into their practice.
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About the Host:
HOST: DOUG SIMON
GUEST: DAVID BALL
DOUG: David, what is a boutique PR agency? What defines it?
DAVID: Doug, I think the best definition is probably a firm that is 20 people or less. It’s not scientific, but roughly, so you can have a firm as small as 1 as long as it’s a firm, an entity as opposed to, say, a freelancer. But as many as 20 people, generally 1 office, and generally not covering the universe but focusing on a few particular sectors.
DOUG: That’s great, and you obviously have a unique perspective as a leader of PR Boutiques International. What’s that organization about?
DAVID: PRBI, as it’s known is an organization of roughly 40 PR firms across the globe that are all similar in nature and that they’re boutiques, and they have different areas of focus. They work together collaboratively, occasionally with new busines but basically, it’s a group of like-minded professionals that face the same challenges day in and day out.
DOUG: Yeah, and are there unique challenges you feel to being a boutique firm compared to, say, being a larger entity?
DAVID: With everything, there’s strengths and weaknesses and challenges and opportunities. I think that the challenge for most boutiques is the day-to-day challenge of running any business without the enormous scale that you might have at a large firm. I think the opportunities are really around the ability to be nimble, to quickly adapt to a client’s needs, and probably to deliver value in the sense that generally boutiques have less overhead, not no overhead, certainly, but less overhead.
DOUG: Yeah, and that nimbleness, if there is a word like that, was obviously crucial during the onset of the pandemic, when so much is changing, so much was in transition. Maybe to give the viewers some context, can you share a little bit of the work that you’re doing at your boutique firm, the type of clients and what you try and focus on?
DAVID: Sure, Doug. So, we focus in 4 particular areas health care, nonprofits, and education, which includes everything from K through 12 to college, higher Ed, and then we also have a crisis practice that is overarching. So, pretty much any sector that has a crisis as a business challenge we’ll serve. So, to give you kind of the full perspective, there are other clients that we serve there in other sectors because health sometimes leaches over into health tech. And some of our clients are really B2B in nature. So, it’s not like we’ve done development projects as well. So, it’s not like, we have three distinct boxes that we only stay within. But generally, those are our areas of focus.
DOUG: From your experience, are there certain types of companies that benefit more from partnering with the boutique? And then after this, we’ll get to are there somewhere maybe more challenging to have a boutique? So first, what sort of the types of organizations that seem to benefit, work better with the boutique sized firm?
DAVID: Yes, I think that certainly organizations of any size can work with a boutique. So, you may have a national concern, a Fortune 500 company that has a very particular need or is looking for a very particular kind of expertise, and they may use a boutique. You also may have a small firm that doesn’t have the resources to have a global firm supporting them and likes the boutique feel and structure. I think that when you hire a boutique, what you really want is an agency that’s that specialized and it’s going to give you a senior level attention. I think in most cases, people hire our firm because they know they’re getting a small team and all of us are senior. We have support, but we don’t have really a huge junior team. You’re talking about people who have combined decades and decades of experience. I think that’s what clients generally want.
DOUG: That makes a lot of sense. Are there ways that larger agencies can maybe sort of bring into play some of the things that make boutiques unique and create that environment even within a larger firm? How would you advise them, especially with your leadership role with PRBI to do that?
DAVID: Well, I think first of all, I think communication is really the key to the communications business. I think staying really close to clients and really kind of, as we like to say, kind of getting in their DNA, understanding their daily challenges, and you can do that no matter what size firm you are. I think it’s important for large firms to treat clients as though their boutiques, which means, having principal level involvement really in the in the account, not just in acquisition and contract time. I think, too, that, there’s a way that large firms can actually and well, I think that large groups can partner with boutiques and that happens, as you know, we have a particular need. We had a situation here in Massachusetts that was a natural disaster, and a national firm came in and sent people from their corporate office here. And so, they had feet on the ground, but they didn’t have local feet on the ground. And that makes difference anywhere, particularly in places like Massachusetts, which is has particular.
DOUG: Accents, I guess you can say.
DAVID: For a lack of a better work, accents, right?
DAVID: So, that works well. It’s interesting that you mention that because just our company, even when we when we started 35 years ago, my pitch was to PR agencies that they could have an internal video department with no overhead. So that was where we were helping them. Hey, what do all the proposals, what did work do to spend and work with our staff? One of the things we’re suggesting lands, your clients want to do it for. That’s been a model that we’ve built up, so definitely is a space for this specialization. I guess by your definition, I’m sort of excited because we’re a boutique also. Any final thoughts lessons learned, maybe to the CEOs, the leaders of boutique firms, if they’re considering trying to grow, being more successful? Anything that either the organization or you, yourself personally from your experience want to recommend that they be thinking about?
DAVID: Well, I think when I think of my own challenges because we’re very growth focused, we’ve grown a lot since our founding. Roughly 17 or 18 years ago, we turn 18 next summer.
DOUG: Happy birthday.
DAVID: Thank you.
DOUG: I guess you can vote in some states, not necessarily drink.
DAVID: That’s right, yeah. So, we’ve consistently grown and would like to grow some more within that boutique envelope, so to speak. I think that the thing that I always try to push myself to do is to not be afraid, to take new risks and try new things because, we have enough in our case, you know, enough experience underneath us that, you know, it’s not like a new business where you going to make a catastrophic mistake by, you know, focusing on, say, the real estate sector before a real estate crash, right? I think that that at this point, we have enough experience where we, our depth in health care is really where we started as a firm and that was our base, and then we’ve added on to that over time. But I just try to always push myself to think differently, take on risks that might make me a little bit uncomfortable, I think that’s important.
DOUG: Awesome, I think some really important tips and advice and lessons in this conversation continued success to you both in your own company as well as within the PRB.
DAVID: Thanks so much, Doug, and thanks so much for having me on today. I really appreciate it.
DOUG: You got it.