In his book, "The World Is Flat," Thomas Friedman makes the case that advances in Internet technologies have liberated the individual to offer his skills and services to companies around the world.
Fueled by technologies that enable collaboration and remove geographic barriers, Houston has witnessed the emergence of a sophisticated network of independent public relations firms. Together, these professionals represent the largest collection of PR talent in Houston -- larger than even the biggest agency in Texas -- and they are challenging the region''s midsize to large agencies for the lucrative client work doled out by major companies.
Many of these "virtual agencies" are an outgrowth of entrepreneurial ventures by seasoned PR professionals. Many grew disenchanted with the waste inherent in the corporate and traditional brick-and-mortar agency worlds. They offer clients a fresh alternative to high rates for green talent, one-size-fits-all staffing approaches and high team turnover that is typical of traditional PR firms.
Today, independent communications professionals and owners of small communications boutiques are forming partnerships to offer corporations all of the benefits of a full-service firm without the down sides.
Tailored discipline or industry teams
Traditional agencies have a number of advantages, including a predictable supply of talent representing a range of experience levels and billing rates. In concept, they also offer standards for quality. However, this model also limits traditional agencies to staffing client accounts according to their full-time employee base. There isn''t much flexibility.
If the desired talent is not available in-house, those agencies must either spend time and resources trying to find the right full-time personnel, or just contract out with an independent professional.
The virtual agency model is completely flexible and enables client account teams to be molded and shaped to satisfy the unique needs of each client. Depending on the challenge, a virtual team might bring together the talents of media strategists, writers, crisis management specialists, graphic designers, Web marketers, event planners and other experts. As the client''s needs change, the team makeup can also change.
Without the need to keep ill-suited employees busy to justify their payroll, virtual agencies can engage the best communications representative for each role.
Senior talent at attractive rates
Many clients who use traditional agencies want more direct connections with senior-level communicators. Instead, many pay handsomely for their account to be driven by junior staff. In these relationships, clients'' bills reflect not only the services provided, but also a share of the agency employees'' office space, benefits and other operational expenses.
Free of overhead, virtual agencies can combine the forces of seasoned professionals at rates comparable to those charged for entry-level personnel at traditional agencies. Companies looking to maximize their public relations budgets can secure senior counsel for just the cost of the expertise.
Turnover among lower and midlevel staff at traditional agencies is fairly high. In the agency world, the mantra is "must move out to move up." For clients, this means that their account teams can change several times a year, with new individuals joining the mix and having to spend precious time and resources getting up to speed.
In the virtual agency model, clients work directly with the owner who occasionally engages others to help with specific tasks. For the most part, these individuals have chosen the entrepreneurial route because of the flexibility, the wide-ranging work and the potential rewards. They understand the importance of stability in the account.
Although these virtual agency teams can be geographically dispersed throughout the country and even around the world, they nonetheless are driven by close-knit relationships. As such, they quickly learn to operate as if they worked in the same office -- learning each other''s strengths, using each other as sounding boards, sharing responsibility for strategic planning and tactical execution -- only without the office politics and bureaucratic hierarchies.
Transparency for the client
Face-to-face interaction continues to be an important element in developing strong relationships with clients and ensuring quality customer service. However, there is a diminishing need for public relations practitioners to have bricks-and-mortar offices.
Many clients prefer their public relations counsel to come to them. And with speed playing an increasingly important role in communications, virtual agencies have all of the same channels at their disposal in home-based offices to facilitate dialogue and collaborate among teams and clients: E-mail, the Internet, instant messaging, text messaging, cell phones and fax machines. Because virtual firms are driven by entrepreneurs, many tend to experiment with and adopt new technologies, keeping them at the leading edge of client connectivity.
For clients, virtual agencies offer the same seamless service offerings as traditional agencies.
Expect virtual agencies to continue to mature and gain favor -- particularly among executives accustomed to drawing upon the global supply chain to secure the best talent at the best value for a given task.
Is it a threat to traditional agencies? Not for those willing to change, incorporating greater flexibility in all aspects of their business. Others who insist on business as usual and ignore the growing power and value of the individual risk becoming obsolete.