2016 – Rise of the boutique agency

Natasha Hatherall-Shawe, Founder and Managing Director of TishTash, talks to TMN about the rise of the boutique agency and the new culture in the PR business…

“Whilst many of the big global agencies are reporting one of their worst years ever in 2016, boutique agencies such as ours are reporting record growth…”

When I started my career, some 18 years ago, the agency world order went something like this: Fortune 500 brands were matched up by global agencies with offices across the world − brands who could not afford global agencies would team up with mid-size agencies with key market presence and small, boutique agencies would cater mainly to local businesses and the very occasional big brand projects.

What a difference a decade has made! Five years ago, when I set up TishTash, the order was starting to crumble. And today, big brands are increasingly making the move from the ‘titans of the industry’, with established local offices and vast resources, to startups. So, whilst many of the big global agencies are reporting one of their worst years ever in 2016, boutique agencies such as ours are reporting record growth of over 50% year on year, as well as a doubling in team and office space.

To me, this is not at all baffling. It’s a reflection of the evolving industry and environment at the present: clients’ appetite for social media, influencer partnerships, SEO and content creation is high, and whilst they may not move as fast as they’d like or need to, they certainly expect that their partner agency does.

In my view, at this point in time, a boutique agency presents several intrinsic qualities that can turn it into the right partner for a big, global brand.

The skill set

First off, I feel that today the divide between marketing, media, social and public relations is blurred. Moreover, clients are looking for a communications partner that has all these expertise (and then some) in one room, and knows exactly how to optimise it to their brand’s benefit. Most boutique agencies in the region handle everything (beyond the regular PR scope) from crisis management and media training to media lists and pitching, and even stuffing goodie bags at events. We can prep the CEO for his big broadcast interview and we know what it takes to pitch to Gulf News or Zahrat Al Khaleej. We can assess the timeline for campaigns and the expected results, or the likelihood of collaborating with an influencer. We can do it all, because we do it daily. This mix of strategic thinking and hands-on, practical knowledge makes our workflow better than in most other agency setups, and importantly, drives greater results for our clients.

The client approach

In our agency, for example, we focus only on getting the job done, well and fast. This focus is a necessity. With a small team and lean structure, we can’t fill our day with status meetings. This approach works for clients too as they like to partner with someone who gets their business, is quick to respond and can deal with a myriad of tasks.

Growing solely by word of mouth and referrals, it turns out that size matters less and less even to the biggest of the clients. What they value most is the team they deal with daily. They value knowledge, honesty and passion. That’s not to say that it’s not tricky to scale up to carry out a global assignment!

The culture

I believe that a smaller agency’s culture defines itself quickly, from the fabric of the founder and the core team. Boutique agencies such as ours encourage young individuals to hone their skills in PR in a fun and nurturing environment as well as give the team an opportunity to learn first-hand the ins and outs of running a business. That’s why for us being knowledgeable, hardworking, resourceful, entrepreneurial, open and honest are not empty words.

The team

With a small but strong team, the workflow is direct and effective: there’s no room for things to get miscommunicated or fall through the cracks. Also, a smaller work place fosters a tight knit team that works smarter, faster, better. Clients of all sizes value a fast moving, seasoned and dedicated team that works at their side.


I don’t have a crystal ball to foresee the future of PR agencies, but based on my experience of running one in the last five years, I think a new culture is shaping up, and we should get ready for even more transformations and disruptions ahead.