More Than Just Cost: The Hidden Benefits of Being an Independent Practitioner

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When I first pondered a life of independence in the public relations profession, I must admit I found myself daydreaming about some of the perks of working on my own. I'd envision working at my desk in a warm-up suit or getting out of the office early to see my son's football game. What I didn't fully appreciate were a few of the hidden business benefits of being an independent practitioner — benefits that have everything to do with a unique selling proposition.

While cost is always an advantage in marketing the services of an independent, it's hardly a hidden benefit. But just beyond that factor, independent practitioners have several advantages which reveal that in today's communications environment, in some cases, smaller is better.

So if you are considering the leap into independent life, you may want to keep these hidden benefits in mind as you develop your business plan and, perhaps, factor them into your own positioning.



Benefit No. 1: Less Bureaucracy

While most professional independent practitioners are prepared to work according to the most sophisticated of terms, as set by the client, the independent surely has the flexibility and simplicity of structure to keep the process uncomplicated. Mostly because of size, the independent is less likely to have client-conflict problems.

Large accounting and legal issues, such as purchase orders, contracts, and other formalities, are often quickly dispatched. And it nearly always takes only one telephone call for a client to reach the top dog, if not the only dog, in the case of the independent practice.

Benefit No. 2: A Quick Learning Curve

To be sure, having a quick learning curve is a very subjective benefit because many of the best and brightest in the profession work in both corporate and agency settings. But don't be too quick to write off independent practitioners. Many independents are steeped in experience, and some position themselves in niche specialties. This can work to the client's advantage.

For example, if a client hires an independent with investor relations experience to handle an annual report, it's likely the client won't have to spend much time educating her on the process. At the same time, the client may want another independent for a consumer product launch. Because independents tend to work project-to-project for multiple clients, they are usually forced to concentrate on a specific industry, communications discipline, or market. Under these conditions, it is less likely the independent will be learning something new on the client's nickel.

Benefit No. 3: Little to No Fanfare

Sometimes clients like the cache of hiring a big-name agency to work for their firms. Indeed, there are times when the mere engagement of a high-profile agency triggers the kind of buzz clients want to generate.

But there are other times when the project is such that the client would prefer that as few people as possible know about it, even if the project isn't a big deal or some top-secret assignment. This is often true when clients simply do not want to raise any red flags for some employees or other constituencies.

Other times, it's simply a matter of control. When I was on the client side, there were situations where independents made it easier for me to keep others in the organization from interfering, enabling me to get things done with less likelihood that turf battles and micro-management would slow my progress toward getting results.

No one can fly under the radar as well as an independent, whose identity may not be widely known and who may work from a home office. If you're the client, the only people that may have to know you've hired an independent are you, the independent, and of course the person in your accounting department that processes payment.

Benefit No. 4: Accountability

Okay, so what if you are the client? He either did what you expected, or he did not. Where is the chain of command? Well, that's pretty simple. It's from you to him, and the buck stops there.

If something goes wrong, there is no "agency review." He doesn't have to check with his staff and cannot plead ignorance or say that he was not kept in the loop when important decisions were made. While many large organizations can be very accountable, independent practitioners, by definition, simply cannot avoid being 100% accountable.

Benefit No. 5: Independents Can Be Non-Threatening

Independent practitioners do not have the organizational size to pose a real threat to larger agencies for the kind of work to which they are best suited. And when it is made clear to internal staff members that the independent is a professional sole practitioner and not just a flack in between jobs, she is no threat to the internal staff's job security as well.

As an independent, I have often worked for organizations which have had large firms on retainer and internal staffs to handle other responsibilities. In each of these instances, the client did not want to upset the status quo but wanted the specific capabilities I brought to the project.

So as you put things in order to launch your own independent practice, you may want to consider an extra slide for your capabilities presentation. It might be the one after the section that lists your unique professional qualifications. You could label it "The Independent Advantage" and list these five factors, as well as any others you can think of that best represent your competitive strengths.

These are the unique benefits you will offer as an independent practitioner, and they will be hidden no more. For it is this list that comprises your unique selling proposition, the deciding factors that may determine whether you get that next client.

Copyright PRSA. Reprinted with permission by the Public Relations Society of America (www.prsa.org).

About the Author

Tim O'Brien is principal at Pittsburgh-based O'Brien Communications and can be reached at timobrien@timobrienpr.com.
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