Whether an agency’s location really matters has been an interesting question for me for years. While I’d been doing public affairs-related work for years, my first “official” PR job was at FleishmanHillard, which is headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri.
Within the world of PR, this was generally pretty well known, but outside of PR, I usually had to do some explaining. “Oh, is that in New York?” was a fairly common question. When I answered, “no, St. Louis,” I’d either receive a quizzical look—or, I’d get asked the follow up question “is it a smaller firm?” For some reason people’s perception of a large, global communications firm (which FH is) meant that it had to be based in New York.
With this in mind, I read with interest a recent piece on Forbes (in the Community Voice section) titled “Why Relocating Your PR Agency Could Better Serve Your Business.” Although the piece is somewhat advertorial in nature, it makes some great points about how some of the top PR markets are in expensive cities, where a lot of entry- and mid-career level employees would struggle to make sufficient income to live.
In many ways it does matter. When it comes to client density for public affairs work, for instance, you can’t beat being located in Washington, D.C. Yes, it’s expensive. But meeting with clients matters, especially when you’re developing high-stakes strategies that need client approval. It is also easier to be local when you’re trying to win new business.
On the other side is the expense-and-talent issue. The author of the Forbes piece notes that her agency, located in Reno, is winning tech PR business from firms in Austin, New York, and Silicon Valley. The Silicon Valley piece in particular is notable, because the housing prices there are nothing short of astonishing. It is no surprise to me at all that mid-career PR people would have trouble living there—and it would be hard work to stay on top of the level of business needed to manage employee salary levels in a market like that. Furthermore, the author notes that because of her firm’s location in a less expensive market, she can provide PR services at a lower cost, which makes her firm more competitive.
Gini Dietrich of Arment-Dietrich has written before about some of the challenges and benefits of going all-virtual. She’s made it work, and I think it offers a blueprint for other agencies out there that are struggling with this “location versus cost” analysis question. Assuming that there is only one right answer—that an agency must have a physical location in the field’s standard markets—ignores some of the potential upsides presented by different solutions.
With so many networking tools and access to high-speed internet, location probably doesn’t matter as much as it used to. What really matters is making the right hires who can work in a variety of situations.