The challenges comms agencies face when going national

Third Wave Ideas founder David Sawicki explains why agencies that knock down employees in exchange for growth will always fail.

These days, ‘boutique communications agency’ is a colloquialism emblazoned everywhere from cocktail party napkins to email signatures and Instagram handles, adopting the same head banging muster as ‘disruptor’ and ‘innovator’.

While many agencies will try, most will fail to evolve from the homely, local communications firms they are and into national PR powerhouses they want to be.

As one small agency shuts its doors, another one swings open with the same modular logo, white wash walls and flashy website – blanketing the same long hours, high operating costs and revolving door of clients endured by the tireless work of its owners and employees. Akin to smacking a different label on the same tired yet true product, agencies uniformly lack the resources and commercial experience to manage the talent and investment needed to expand into large corporate agency.

While agency figureheads are partially to blame, the voracious pace of media consumption is keeping communications people glued to their desks and out of the cross-country boardroom.

Communications firms are struggling to create unique value propositions that can keep clients happy and coming back for more. Today’s agency is expected to offer similar skills and services for the same nominal cost. At Cannes Adweek in June, Burger King’s CMO, Axl Schwan famously stated, “don’t treat agencies like creative vending machines” – quickly accessible and expected to churn out caboodles of media headlines at the drop of a coin. Aside from traditional media relations, earned media is now code for influencer engagement, viral content creation, PR activation stunts and social media.

With clients expecting so much from the little guys, it’s understandable that our ‘boutique’ firms are pining for something bigger and better. Technology is affecting the pace and skillsets creative professionals are expected to work at, and it’s making our businesses less scalable.

In 2006, BuzzFeed was an indie blog and Huffington Post was an online publication penned by a group of disenfranchised journalists in their spare time.

Fast forward to today, and these publications have collectively drawn 343 million readers to their new sites in the last 30 days alone. Over this decade, we have typed and tweeted the new testament of the media bible. With Ogilvy in its 167th year, 11 years of monumental change is a blip in our media history.

We have experienced a paradigm shift in the creative industry – the internet never shuts down or takes a break, and neither should we. Daylight hours are spent keeping up with the complexities of clients demands and nights dwindle away deciphering the difference between a meme and a hyperlapse and why Mashable wont publish a client’s piece without one. 

Communications agencies are expected to be pioneering yet inclusive and it’s messing with the recipe for long-term agency success.

With little time left for the ‘business side of things’ many agencies fall prey to office inefficiencies that suck profit and often lead to long term deterioration of the founder and therefore the business. The administration required to open a second or a third office in another major city a plane ride away feels unfathomable to most. After all, we are only human, in need of sleep, a little leisure and sustenance.

People are our power

The agency world is small, meaning the same talent and skill sets are recycled through each budding agency, making the later not entirely different than the former. Human power is what makes and breaks a communications firm – under the right leadership an agency will thrive and under distracted mismanagement it will shrivel.

If there is an investment each small and midsize agency should put towards growth, it is the understanding that talent needs nurturing. An overworked employee is as good as an overripe banana – bruised by day-to-day client combat and lacking in the creative flavour and energy needed to make a strong campaign.

We shouldn’t knock down our employees in exchange for growth, nor should we completely knock down the boutique agency business model.



David Sawicki is a business advisor and the founder and director of Third Wave Ideas.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.