There was a time when PR agencies and the brands they represented operated in a pretty clear hierarchy. Top firms with offices all over the world serviced Fortune 500 brands; middle tier agencies represented the clients that couldn’t afford those top firms; and boutique agencies handled small businesses, startups and modest local companies with modest PR ambitions. That's starting to change.

Big companies – the kind everyone dreams of signing - have been ending relationships with big agencies in favor of young upstarts. Over the last 6 months, we’ve seen numerous large accounts make that switch, leaving their former agencies baffled as the brands move onto significantly smaller firms.

But why? How could a small agency possibly compete with the titans of PR and their deep media relationships and extensive resources?

Here are the top five reasons we see playing out time and again.

1. Smaller firms are better at PR in the digital age.

From PR measurement and analytics to social media to automation tools, they know how to use new channels, new media and new tools. Often they’re staffed by digital natives who are comfortable with using PR and media relations software and agile methodologies to stay adaptable. In contrast, larger agencies are often sticking to entrenched processes and outdated thinking. Their team output tends to be slower as a result, with campaigns that perform on limited channels instead of mastering the new paradigm of earned, owned, paid and social media.

2. They’re attracting top talent.

Millennials aren’t the youngest workers in the office anymore; those would be Generation Z. Millennials are increasingly claiming leadership positions, however, and they’re sick of manual processes and vanity metrics that don’t reveal insights. Many of these emerging leaders are leaving bigger agencies in favor of smaller, more innovative agencies where they can hone their skills and create campaigns that evolve with media and business trends in real time.

3. They’re using PR tech to punch above their weight.

In a manually run PR agency, dozens or hundreds of workers store valuable information in their own spreadsheets and silos. Measuring results, building the right media list, compiling reports and creating campaigns requires hours hunting for information. The new PR management software tools, on the other hand, keep data in one location for faster and more efficient PR communication and turnaround times. The smaller team gets more wins with less effort on a smaller budget – and all the while they’re monitoring their own performance to get sharper, faster and better.

4. Smaller firms are investing in relationships – not spamathons.

A reporter might recognize a big agency name in a pitch, but they’re more likely to respond to a pitch from someone they actually know. Often a big firm has a revolving door of account executives contacting that reporter, while the smaller firm’s leader reaches out personally and invests in building personal long-term media connections. These innovators are also more open to new influencers like bloggers, social media stars and other non-traditional media. They know that traditional earned media is not a guarantee and they’re pioneering other influencer practices.

5. They deliver solid, measureable ROI.

The definition of “return” in PR has changed. Clients that hand over a monthly $20,000 retainer don’t just want to see a list of wins – they want to see numbers that track the impact of PR through the funnel and across the finish line. In short, they want firms that know how to use data to measure PR success. While big agencies have the budget to do this, the aforementioned tendency to rely on spreadsheets and manual processes makes it difficult to reveal how the PR program is impacting revenue.

If you’re a big-agency PR pro who’s thinking, “Great, so I’m doomed?” – the answer is no, you’re not doomed at all. Large firms can use the same tools smaller firms are using, and they’ll reap the same rewards when they do: sharper efficiency, increased media wins and better evidence of ROI. But in this transitional period, where agencies are still adapting to the changes in our industry, there’s no doubt that it’s the innovators and modern PR pros who are winning brands’ hearts and minds.

Topics: PR Technology Proving Value Account Management Clients Young PR Pros