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To Compete With Big Agencies, Scale Your Business

June 1, 2018

[ico maker]
[ico maker]

Imagine that you work in a big agency and a million-dollar client walks in the door. They need ideas and a team right away. No problem. You just put some cookies in the conference room, make fresh coffee and call a meeting.

OK, daydreaming time is over. If you want to take on big projects with short notice as an independent, then you need the scalability to handle an expanding workload. The good news is that if you scale your independent business right, you can be more flexible, resourceful, nimble, seasoned, affordable and attractive than those larger agencies. But first you need a plan.

Since scalability is a mindset as much as a logistical framework, start by getting your head around the types of projects and teams that clients are most likely to request from you. Publicity? Writing? Social media? Research? Event planning? Crisis work? Whatever the client might require, start thinking of the specific kinds of work you would take on — and where you’d need to delegate.

Build your virtual bench.

Next, comb through your existing network to find people you’ve worked well with before. There is no substitute for proven working relationships. If you identify a particular PR specialty where you do not have prior working relationships, turn to your network and get referrals. But be cautious: Forming a team with too many people you don’t know well can be a recipe for disaster, since you have no idea how effectively you will work together.

As you network with your contacts, tell them how you plan to scale your business. Communicating your plan will not only help you create your virtual team, but the process itself can be good for business development.

Once you have assembled your virtual bench, stay in touch with those people. Use one another as sounding boards about work functions that you’re performing separately. You never know when one of them might want to bring you aboard their team.

If you’ve never managed an account team before, your primary function in that role is decision-maker. You’re the point of contact for the client, and the one who will be held responsible for the success or failure of everyone on your team. You’re also responsible for communicating with your team and for ensuring the quality of everything the client sees. Make sure you see it first.

Decide in advance how the work will be packaged for the client. Will it go under your logo, or under those of your respective subcontractors?

Whichever approach you decide to take will not be one-size-fits-all. I’ve done it both ways, depending on the situation. Sometimes, if a key member of your team is from a respected design or research firm, it bolsters your credibility to leverage the brand names of your partners. Other times, it may make sense to present a more unified look under your own company banner.

Be organized and communicate.

A practice I’ve carried over from my big agency days is to routinely create conference reports. Even when it’s just me working one-on-one with a client, I organize my notes after a meeting. Then I create a report detailing everything that we discussed, any additional information that may be needed, as well as issues, deadlines and next steps.

I’ve found that this discipline translates well when my firm’s efforts are scaled to accommodate team members beyond myself. Compiling conference reports is a small thing that goes a long way toward better organization and team communication.

In the end, you can scale up your independent business to tackle bigger projects just like the large agencies. The only difference is that when you call that all-hands-on-deck meeting, you might have to hold it at your favorite local coffee shop.

Tim O'Brien, APR

Tim O’Brien, APR, owns O’Brien Communications, an independent corporate communications practice in Pittsburgh, and hosts the “Shaping Opinion” podcast. Email: timobrien@timobrienpr.com. Twitter: @OBrienPR.

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