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When is an agency not an agency?

The PR Week UK Top 150 Consultancies prompts anticipation and curiosity. But can a virtual collective of freelancers fairly be compared and ranked against conventional agencies?

Why the PR Week UK Top 150 makes us feel both proud and a little uncomfortable

Old habits die hard. When the PRWeek UK Top 150 was released this year, I couldn’t help feeling much of the same anticipation and curiosity that I always did when I was at the helm of a traditional healthcare communications agency.

It’s been a year of huge growth for our industry and seeing our five-year-old entity, The Difference Collective, listed at 136th overall and 22nd in the healthcare agency ranking is a real buzz, even though part of me feels that our presence is not wholly justified.

There’s nothing wrong with our client list, our impressive revenue figures or our rapid organic growth. I’m exceptionally proud of our virtual team's results on every project. So what’s behind my discomfort?

The question that troubles me is whether a virtual collective of freelancers with just one permanent employee (me) on the payroll can fairly be compared and ranked against agencies with a fixed workforce of FTEs who operate established businesses in conventional ways.

Of course, we don’t have to take part. But we do, because it’s undoubtedly true that by submitting facts and figures to PRWeek’s highly respected league tables, we have the chance to demonstrate to our clients and our sector that we’re a credible alternative to the traditional agency model.

There are several reasons why I believe it’s not a level playing field. For a start, we work in a streamlined and highly productive way, managing our budgets tightly in an on-demand model that isn’t based on achieving saturation within a client account. That cuts our overheads and means we can avoid imposing expensive retainers while still paying our talented workforce the freelance rates they’re worth.

We’re also blessed with exceptional agility because we’re a team of specialists. We don’t have to utilise and remunerate a fixed workforce continuously. If additional skills or knowledge are needed, we can handpick precisely the right people to contribute specific value in the moment – either for informal advice sourced from the Collective’s hive mind or to work on the project for a few hours or days, as required.

Another unfair advantage for The Difference is that we create the opportunity for our people to work only on projects and clients that they’re actively interested in and specifically qualified for. In fact, we insist on it. Everyone plays to their preferred strengths. Because they have a choice of what work to take on, how much they want to do and the way they want to work to deliver it, they’re always motivated to over-achieve.

If we don’t have the right people available, we can say so. That means we avoid the talent drain that afflicts many traditional agencies as their best people become bored and disillusioned with being tied to necessary but repetitive management work on key client accounts, driven by internal politics and profit targets.

It’s also significant that the Difference Collective doesn’t have a powerhouse of shareholders and financiers to satisfy. We’re not compelled to pursue financial growth and profit defined by others. We’re free to grow organically by building client relationships and delivering projects that deliver true benefit to everyone concerned.

With real freedom of choice in the work we do, ideal conditions for talented and experienced healthcare people to deliver exceptional results for a wide range of healthcare clients, under no pressure from financial paymasters and with a far lower overhead (no offices, either in or out of expensive urban centres like London or Manchester), The Difference Collective has a considerable advantage over most of the agencies who rank alongside us this year in the PRWeek Healthcare 150. That’s why I wonder if it’s fair to stand them up against us?

I’m also aware that our Difference in design and approach to business makes us something of an anomaly in the healthcare comms sector. Perhaps that’s why our Different business model has been something of a quiet revolution. We strive harder to explain* how it works, how it advantages clients and senior healthcare professionals, and why it’s complementary to established in-house and agency resources in healthcare communications. So we were pleased to hear The Difference and freelance models like ours mentioned in the launch episode of PR Week’s new podcast as part of our thriving industry.

We’re gratified to be where we are this year and very proud of our sustained growth, built on clients’ experiences of how well our unconventional approach works to deliver their goals. Even if the PRWeek 150 can’t easily compare like with like in this context, we really appreciate the recognition as an opportunity to raise our profile and stand shoulder to shoulder with established healthcare comms businesses.

A huge thank you to our enlightened clients and brilliant workforce for creating our exciting, eclectic and thriving non-agency and helping us continue to find new and better ways to deliver exceptional results in healthcare communications. We very much appreciate our PRWeek ranking for the opportunity it gives us to spread the word about our super-talented and successful Collective to more professionals and clients in the industry we love.

*Subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on LinkedIn if you’d like to keep an ear to the ground about how, where and why we’re working with clients and evolving our Different approach to healthcare comms.

24th May 2022



Company Details

The Difference Collective

03302 230 646

Contact Website

Old Rectory
Church Street
KT13 8DE
United Kingdom

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