For decades, the world of fashion public relations was dominated by a few powerhouse agencies. But in recent years, that standard has been disrupted by the launches of a growing number of boutique firms. At the helm of those firms are public relations professionals who are leaving big agency life behind in favour of opening up their own smaller shops.
The trend was first instigated by industry burnout from the grind that is often synonymous with agency life. It ramped up further during the pandemic, where widespread layoffs across the fashion PR sector served as the push some needed to go out on their own.
But since these publicists started their own ventures, they saw new benefits. They realised they could make just as much money (often more) running their own firms. They could also charge clients less than big agencies, given their smaller outfits and overhead costs, and select clients based on their own values and priorities, not just who offered the biggest payday.
In many ways, this rise of small, boutique agencies has widened the fragmentation in fashion communications, fundamentally changing how agencies think about clients and growth, as well as making it more difficult for larger agencies to find and retain senior talent.
After a fraught year for all of public relations, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, with the return of live events on the horizon and excitement brewing for the first time in years around New York Fashion Week. But the changes these new agencies have brought will remain, as their founders continue to prioritise quality over quantity.
A Changing Agency Landscape
Public relations was already an industry in flux, but the pandemic further challenged all players, from decades-old firms to startups. Many clients paused retainers or reduced services, forcing agencies to lay off staff and shift focus to pandemic-proof services like digital or influencer marketing.
Now that the fashion industry has recalibrated, mid-sized and larger agencies are beefing up their operations, either by offering new services or pursuing strategic acquisitions, like Karla Otto parent company The Independents’ purchase of influencer marketing firm Lefty. Olivier Bourgis’ OBCM agency acquired Robin Meason’s Ritual Projects, a Paris-based firm that helped to establish Vetements (Meason will go in-house at Balenciaga), while Amanda Carter’s firm Modeworld, which works with fashion clients like Sandy Liang and Jordache, added a new digital marketing division led by Need Supply Co. and Totokaelo alum Krystal Kemp that will offer e-commerce optimisation and content marketing services.
The way the industry has shifted, it’s no longer ‘these are the five stakeholders [in fashion PR]’ and you need to get in line with them in order to progress your career.
But smaller firms — those formed before the pandemic as well as during — are less intent on growth for the sake of it. They evaluate the clients they take on with as much scrutiny as the clients do the publicists. With many agencies offering similar services (albeit with varying degrees of reach and resources), differentiation is found in their ethos, be it a focus on sustainability, or supporting Black-owned brands. Value alignment is appealing to brands who may be wondering why to work with a boutique firm rather than a powerhouse one.
“I’m really going slowly and understanding what my values are, what do I care about, what are the types of brands that I want to work with and the type of people that I want to work with,” said Tenique Bernard, who left her role as senior publicity director at KCD in December and founded Tenique Bernard Consulting. In February, Bernard worked with the Black in Fashion Council in part to coordinate press appointments for the group’s showroom during New York Fashion Week, which highlighted 16 Black-owned brands like Beads Byaree and Come Back As a Flower. “Booking the press for that showroom really helped me to realise I’m in the right space, this is what I want to do, this is what I care about and this is where I know I can make a difference.”
It also may mean senior-level talent is less willing to continue the agency world grind, where a firm’s roster of clients may generate high revenue but not necessarily be purpose-driven. Several agency executives told BoF that hiring talent for senior positions has been difficult, even with the pool of talent that was laid off last year.
DLX, the mid-sized Paris firm Guillaume Delacroix founded in 2015 and expanded to New York with partner Justin Padgett in 2018, is interested in growing again after the pandemic contracted their business by 38 percent. The firm is looking to hire a New York-based senior position, but is having trouble finding a candidate with a breadth of experience in everything from content development to casting.
It’s one example of the new challenges facing the public relations world today. While they still appeal to billion-dollar fashion behemoths, these global agencies hold the sole key to success for fashion brands. Smaller agency founders, meanwhile, say their focus on a handful of clients whose work they believe in makes the work they do better, a win-win for both the firms as well as the brands.
“The way the industry has shifted, it’s no longer ‘these are the five stakeholders [in fashion PR]’ and you need to get in line with them in order to progress your career,” said Bernard. “We all, in our own right, have our contacts and strengths and skills and you can use it to your benefit.”
Startup communications agencies not only offer alternate options for employment, but also the chance to embrace a different approach to client relationships. Their focus is less about signing as many clients as possible and more on preserving work-life balance and finding a greater purpose.
“I don’t think about [my work] as having billable hours,” said Clare Drummond, who started her firm Studio Colette in 2020 after being laid off from her position as global communications director at Rosetta Getty. She currently has a few clients, both in fashion and outside of it, offering brand consulting, traditional PR services as well as serving as a sales representative for one of her clients.
Many of these smaller firms feel the same — growth is not the priority, but rather building a personally fulfilling business with a model that can last. Even with the goal of making a new hire and a return to growth, for example, DLX’s Padgett said he “never wants to be the biggest agency in the world.”
“When you talk about opening other markets, it’s definitely a question of work-life balance,” Padgett said. “If anything, the last year has told us that it is just so important ... So we are very selective in terms of who we work with and it has to be representative of who we are and what we stand for.”
But even without numerical growth as a major goal, these smaller firms are seeing their influence grow. Nate Hinton, a former KCD and PRC publicist who launched his agency, The Hinton Group, in December 2017, has seen his fashion clients’ work appear on the covers of Vanity Fair and InStyle (Aliette and Hanifa, respectively), while US Vice President Kamala Harris wore clients Sergio Hudson and Pyer Moss during the presidential inauguration.
Although Hinton hired a consultant in November of last year to help advise on the business, he is more cautious about expanding his team of seven full-time employees, many of whom have been with him since the firm’s early days. Instead, Hinton said he looks at growth in a non-tangible way, not just whether he’s signed on bigger clients or has more of them.
“Is it work that inspires me? Am I happy today?” Hinton said. “Am I attracting the right energy or am I just chasing the bag?”