One question I am always asked is what my #1 piece of advice is for aspiring publicists… My answer is as follows:
START YOUR PR CAREER AT AN AGENCY…
What does that mean and why do I say that? Well, first let me break down the different agency types, which will help shed some light on why I feel the way I do.
Big agencies are typically staffed with thousands of employees and often have satellite offices in other big cities and possibly even internationally. They tend to have brand-name corporate clients with large budgets, so the team dedicated to one particular client is usually quite big. These agencies offer a great deal of opportunity, lots of projects, BIG ideas funded by decent budgets, a lot more brainstorming and strategic thinking, etc. They usually have very large divisions that focus on different specialties such as Brand, Food, Health & Wellness, Healthcare, Entertainment, and Sports Marketing Groups. Examples of big agencies include Ketchum (my second job out of college), Edelman, Ogilvy, Weber Shandwick, Burson-Marsteller, Ruder Finn, Fleishman-Hillard, and Hill & Knowlton.
Mid-sized agencies are smaller than the giant agencies but still bigger than boutiques. They employ a few hundred to the low thousands and usually have one or two offices in the US. They typically service brand-name clients as well and can also have smaller divisions with special focuses. KCD, Marina Maher and HL Group are amazing mid-sized agencies.
Boutique agencies are small agencies with anywhere from 5-100 employees, and usually specialize in a specific niche like beauty, fashion, travel, etc. They tend to take on a lot of accounts with little staff, so the structure is sometimes not as organized as the larger agencies. However, you will learn a lot very fast and will move up the ladder quickly. You will also juggle many accounts at once, so you’ll be exposed to many different clients and will also be in touch with the press.
Working in-house means working for the client directly. It is sometimes the most profitable of all of the above, and almost always the hardest position to get. Once people are in-house, they tend not to leave for a while, and since the teams are usually very small (about 1-4 people on average), there is not a lot of opportunity to become part of the in-house teams. Working in-house is what most publicists work towards, as working for one client that you really love is the best case scenario. You become the representative of a brand, and if you are a big brand name or an advertiser, the press will always take your calls if they are not proactively calling you themselves. However, budgets are usually limited, teams are tiny, and there is just as much work to complete, if not more.
So, although I think there is always an exception to the rule, I know from experience just how much you can learn from being at an agency. You have large structured teams, various clients, a range of budgets that will challenge your creativity, incredible resources and lots of them, and so many PR tools that will help you develop strategic thinking skills, manage budgets, etc.
I usually suggest starting your career at an agency because you develop your skills and become a well-rounded PR professional who can eventually take all of those learnings in-house and truly excel. When you are not exposed to any of those agency resources, you are limited in your capabilities if you start in-house unless you have an excellent manager who can mentor you properly.
There are so many pros to agency life, so if you don’t start your career at an agency, find a way to eventually make it part of your career path along the way…