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Challenges and solutions of growing a boutique firm

2nd April 2014


The very idea of growing a boutique firm seems to be a bit of an oxymoron. The challenge is to grow big yet remain niche, small and specialised.

My definition of a boutique PR firm is one which is synonymous to a designer label vis a vis a mass apparel brand. Hence one needs to be selective, high quality and have a unique impression in an otherwise crowded industry of big players with few differentiators.

Out of all aspects – quality stands out the most. Good brands opt for boutique PR agencies due to the quality of work, specialised knowledge and attention that they would give to the client. The challenge then would be to further grow the number of clients while retaining the promise of specialised attention and quality.

The three key aspects to tackle are – managing integration of solutions, managing talent and of course client budgets.

Integration

Most clients expect an integrated approach whether from a boutique or a large PR firm. The large firms – especially global players – have in the past few years invested in creating in house sub units or in leveraging international expertise for other related offerings. Typically these include digital PR, creative and media buying. In the case of a boutique firm it makes immense sense to create a platform similar to a collective.

Handpicking like-minded boutique firms in each of these key integrated service areas makes for a mutually beneficial engagement where clients are shared and the firm can offer a good integrated solution while remaining lean and agile individually. Clients appreciate this as they get the specialised attention from each of the players as long as there is seamless communication and a good one point contact. Such integrations with other firms also makes for new revenue stream opportunities where they further extend PR into their services which often get picked up as a bundle.

Talent

In my mind, this is the most critical component that can help any boutique agency succeed. One should never shy away from picking the best talent the market has to offer in your specialised area and nurture them to almost a mini-entrepreneurial level in themselves. Boutique firms have the focus and flexibility which work in their advantage to attract the right kind of talent. As long as we don’t shy away from remunerating at par with larger firms one can always justify the same as a quality v/s quantity approach.

Good talent can exist in the form of a lateral shift from a professional looking to do focused quality work or even fresh eyes starting out with a common goal of self-actualisation. Just as in the case of designer labels – there is a certain intellectual quality one needs to find in the people one chooses to invest in and grow with the firm. 

Client budgets

Many clients assume low cost to be a key differentiator for start-up boutique firms. In the initial years there also might be a valid temptation to take on low billings to grow the basket of work. However, the aim should be to reverse this into only working on select high yielding clients. If each client or vertical gives enough value to be able to sustain a dedicated team – one can still deliver the quality promise and yet remain fairly profitable. The focus needs to be maintained in the long term with a vision to grow and compete with larger players within your area of specialisation – bill at the same rate and be able to offer a better service. A deep dive approach always gains a boutique firm versus the generic standard where one would then spread too thin and not achieve growth.

On a larger note, I would go back to the one golden rule which applies to all these aspects – focus on growing qualitatively. If success is defined by profitability – this can be achieved in a high margin low volume format which has a promise of long term sustainability.

On a lighter note I would visualise a boutique PR firms race to grow metaphorically to a tortoise wearing designer clothes……he will eventually win the race and manage to do so while looking good!

Neha Mathur Rastogi, founder of boutique communications consultancy, WordsWork


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