Cobalt-60 The Cobalt Blog

How to Choose a Communications Firm

By Catherine Wargo Roberts

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You’ve got a product or service, and you need people to know about it. You need consistent, effective, targeted communications that make the most of your budget and reach your audience. But the landscape of options for communications firms is complicated and you may not know where to start. What’s an agency? What’s a studio? And is a boutique really a thing?

Definitions: Who, What, Where and When


We’ll start off here with a disclaimer: the boundaries between the terms we’re about to discuss are murky. At Cobalt, we’d position ourselves somewhere between a “firm” and a “studio” in terms of capabilities, territory, and size.

Regardless of definition, a communications organization helps companies and people hone and communicate their message, better attracting the target market to their products and services. Communications professionals plan and harmonize internal and external communications on behalf of their clients.

The Agency


A global communications agency — a term often used interchangeably with “advertising agency” or “creative agency” — has the major benefit of size and diversity of offerings on its side. There are multiple teams, multiple specialties, and the agency can pick and choose their staff to put together the right team for your project, from art directors to writers and brand strategists.

A full-service agency will ensure that brand and messaging is kept consistent throughout all mediums, even on a global scale. That comes at a price: hiring a global agency may come with a minimum budget requirement of $100k or more. A global agency with a team of diverse players has lots of overhead and has to ask for higher fees. This might be a good match for you if you need to deliver messages to multiple widespread audiences or if you want a one-stop shop for all of your needs and have a healthy budget.

The Firm


A firm can be national or regional and may have one or more offices. In terms of expertise, it will probably cover some specialties but not necessarily be a one-stop shop for all of your communications needs. If there’s a service they can’t provide, say, web development or video production, they’ll collaborate with a trusted partner. A communications firm may be a good match for a business that needs creative services to launch a new product or to freshen up existing offerings.

The Studio


A studio will have a smaller team and a smaller area of focus; instead of trying to do it all, they excel in a few specialties or niches. A studio will most likely have high involvement from the principals, who work directly with clients instead of just overseeing their employees. A studio may focus on specific industries or a particular type of communications.

Studios thrive, despite their size, due to a small number of multitalented employees who have extensive background in the studio’s specialty. Clients will benefit from working with a team that has profound knowledge of the industry, rather than an agency employee who has worked lightly on accounts across a wide number of fields.

The Boutique


A boutique agency may just be a one-man or one-woman shop and will be hyper-focused on one specialty. Some boutique agencies just do logos and will be able to focus all of their talent and resources on the perfect logo for your company. Other specialties could include video production, website design, or even infographic creation. A boutique agency is a great match if you know exactly what you need and you want to work closely with the person you hire.


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The scope of a communication organization’s offerings will depend on its size. A global agency will be able to cover all or nearly all of your needs from strategy to media buying and placement to video and website development; a boutique may focus solely on a single discipline, such as logo design, search engine optimization, infographics or copywriting.


So…How to Choose?


Choosing which type of communications organization is right for your needs will hinge on the type of project you need help with. Your budget, materials requirements, and level of attention you require are all things to take into careful consideration. The more you know about your personal communications needs, the more you can focus on which type of organization you want to hire. If you know you need help but don’t know quite where to start, placing a few calls to a few agencies or firms will give you a good sense of their capabilities and how they can help you. And remember: personal relationships go a long way in this business, so if you find a team you like working with, one that delivers results, then it doesn’t matter if they’re part of a global organization or a dynamic duo located just across town.

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