The rise of independent PR: Part three - where we’re headed

Founder and CEO of Radix Collective Nicole Jordan thinks that public relations is undergoing disruptive shifts largely driven by the booming freelance, or independent, movement. In a three-part series, she examines how this movement is impacting PR as we know it and why she believes the independent PR market segment will emerge to become an industry lynchpin in the next ten years. Check out part three of her series below.

Have I got your wheels turning yet? We covered a lot of ground in part two but what does it all mean? There are a handful of broad trends that will emerge but all add up to big dollars and a change in how the PR industry is structured and staffed.

Opening Playing Field

There’s a big money pot that independent PR is starting to siphon from. It’s not far-fetched that we’ll see a billion dollar shift to the global independent layer. It’s not uncommon for an independent to bring home $150-300k a year. As they learn to scale (even slightly), that number can increase exponentially.

As the available pool of independents continues to grow it widens the option pool for businesses and puts independents in direct competition with agencies they’d normally not compete with.

Agencies will start to lose more business to independents and more flexible Indie ad-hoc networks. Independents will partner up with one or two other people and create a boom in the “micro-boutique” category – which also doubles as a tool for PR agencies to tap.

Specialized Ad-Hoc Networks

Being an independent can be a lonely business, not matter what industry you serve. There’s something to be said about the collaborative energy of a workspace. No matter how much experience one has you want to keep learning and growing. That means peer-to-peer exposure remains a vital, and often overlooked, element of going independent.

We’ll see a flood of specialized and self-organized ad-hoc networks of independents. This works especially well within a particular vertical where pros know each other and pass leads back and forth.

These networks will work as a loose support system to help professionals walk that fine line of being an independent, without becoming an “agency,” which most have zero desire to do. And they’ll team up on RFPs for bigger budget business, competing against “big” agencies.

Agencies Need Independents – Shift to Hybrid Staff

PR agencies have their own host of challenges resulting from market conditions. Running an office and having full-time staff is expensive. There’s a reason agencies can’t afford to take on a volume of $5-8k per month accounts and limiting the clients. I remember my own agency days with nine accounts and 10 staff reports. From what I’m hearing in the field, this hasn’t changed much. Plenty try but economics lends these teams to be stretched thin and staffed by non-senior doers - which are still important but client execs are wanting deep insight and counsel.

Compounding this problem is a lack of senior experienced talent that wants to work at a PR agency full-time. Again, most senior folks with 20 years experience have very little interest in revisiting that rodeo, which leads to a deficit in senior talent to not only advise clients, but help train the farm system.

According to the World PR Report from Holmes Report and ICCO, who surveyed agency leaders, senior staff recruitment is the number one challenge.

“At the same time, there was growing concern over the supply of "intelligent, well-educated talent" for PR agencies to recruit, with agency heads less confident (5.76, compared to 6.01 last year and 6.13 in 2013) that such a supply existed.

“…A paucity of senior staff was the greatest concern in terms of talent, cited by 46.4% of respondents globally, ahead of mid-level staff (42.9%). There was considerably less concern about the pipeline of junior staff, cited by just 6.3% of respondents.”

In the past two years, I’ve seen a heavier uptick in PR agencies supplementing account teams with independents. Freelancers are hired guns who bring a depth of knowledge about a vertical, help manage day-to-day, and jump in on new business opportunities. They help fill a crucial employment gap.

It’s not just PR agencies hiring independents. Marketing firms are starting to get wise to partnering up with PR pros to capture the whole pie on a piece of business. Typically PR/Comms is the only piece missing from a true-360 degree offering. I predict digital marketing agencies as the next big acquirers of micro and boutique agencies to begin offering this solution on a broader scale - and competing with PR agencies with 360 degree-type marketing upsells.

Market Safety for Independents

Not to be a doomsayer but it’s in the cards that we’re going to see some kind of economic shakeout. As we witnessed in the late 90’s and then again 10 years later, when the market restricts, PR spend is reduced.

The PR agency budget is usually at the top of the chopping block. I’ve seen it decimate agency staffs by halving head-count. Instead of businesses halting completely, budgets will be slashed and the hunt for an independent will begin - and there will be a healthy qualified pool to choose from, if businesses know where to find them.

If an independent is subcontracting with said agencies, most have other business outside that gig. It may be a little painful but it’s not like losing a full-time job with benefits. On the flip side, for agencies staffing with independents, cutting them loose in times of shrinking budgets is a more economical way to do business.

For independents who are well-connected and focused on building a quality reputation with executives and other independents, they’ll be safeguarded better than the rest.

All in all, it’s a good time to be an independent. The future is bright and the opportunities extensive. Expect to hear more from this quickly expanding powerhouse of a market.

Welcome to the Rise of Independent PR.

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Nicole Jordan

Nicole Jordan is a PR and communications professional with nearly 20 years in the line of fire. She founded Radix Collective in 2012, an alternative to the traditional agency that taps an extensive network of independent PR talent to match client needs.

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