When Virtual Becomes Reality

April 7, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — The virtual agency model that Clark Communications and Bird Design established last year is working, and it may be the only collaboration of its kind in the region.

Craig Clark of Clark Communications, a local public relations agency, said the major distinction between his virtual agency model and a business network is the number of companies involved. He explained that the typical network is comprised of a set number of businesses that always work together, and that membership is usually closed after the network is formed.

But he said his model is looser and offers largely open-ended membership. It can include firms that aren’t part of it today but could be tomorrow, depending on the assignment the agency is undertaking. New small businesses and sole proprietors can be invited to join if their skills and expertise complement the work the agency is doing.

So Clark feels the underlying difference between a network and the virtual agency model is something that often is an elusive trait in the everyday world of work: freedom.

“Unlike a network, this is a business model in which I, the owner of Clark Communications, and Mark (Bird) of Bird Design have the freedom to work with whomever we want to assemble a client team,” said Clark.

Clark added that while a business network usually limits collaborations to its half-dozen or so members, he and Bird can reach out to businesses throughout the PR, marketing and advertising fields.

“This virtual agency model is set up for people like me as a solo proprietor and as one man incorporated, so we can assemble a team from, I think, over 50 other small agencies and solo proprietors in the West Michigan area. So it’s a model. It’s the way that we work,” said Clark.

Clark Communications has hired Bird Design to handle the creative graphics work for a client, along with copywriters and photographers when the work requires them. And Bird Design, which helps clients with advertising and marketing strategies, has returned the favor when a client needs public relations communication, ad copy and promotional photos.

“All of whom are 15- to 20-year-plus players in their respective disciplines, as well,” said Bird of the firms he and Clark can call on.

“When we go in front of a client, we can legitimately say that the level of creative talent that they would be getting all are at a very senior level, without exception,” he added.

But Clark noted that because he and Bird have been working in the model for roughly a year now, the virtual agency has narrowed its reach a bit.

“We’ve grown to work a little closer with a handful of other individuals. So within that, we are starting to look at a little more of a defined relationship with some of these players,” he said.

“It will never be exclusive; we could have seven or eight of these networks. Right now, we are just working with a handful of people on client opportunities. But that’s not to say we wouldn’t bring in four, five or six other people if the demand grew or another opportunity came up.”

The idea behind the virtual agency came up when Bird worked with Frank Blossom of Frank Communications a few years back. Then Bird met Clark last year while both were serving on the communications committee of the local American Red Cross chapter, and Bird asked Clark if he wanted to write some copy for one of his clients.

“Well, we worked so well together that (the model) just kind of grew out of that initial project, and it was for a national account, Mass Mutual,” said Bird.

Clark and Bird have grown closer since that first project, so much so that they share an office suite in the Arena Station Building at 25 Ottawa Ave. NW.

“It’s grown from me working in Rockford and Mark working in East Hill, to both of us sitting here at the same shared conference table in downtown Grand Rapids. Our growth and our compatibility have strengthened in a short amount of time,” he said.

Bird feels the same. He said he is now doing ad work for a Lansing PR firm that Clark sent his way.

“Sometimes it works that way, too. Just our affiliations with different clients doesn’t necessarily mean that Craig would be involved, although I think he did work on that same project. And the likelihood of us collaborating with this client again is probably pretty good,” he said.

Bird said he doesn’t see the model solely as a way for small firms like his and Clark’s to be able to compete with the larger agencies, which have all the services in the traditional in-house manner that they have available to them through the model.

“That’s never been how we’ve positioned it, other than we have probably fewer expenses that we have to recoup from a client, so it can be a little more affordable that way. But they would certainly be getting the senior level of experience that they would want,” he said.

“It provides us the opportunity to lead a large agency without owning a large agency,” said Clark.

The virtual agency model really isn’t virtual any longer, as it has become a reality for Clark, Bird and the other small-business persons that work with them on projects. And as far as Clark and Bird know, their model is the only one of its kind here.

“I’ve seen some collaborations more centered around purchasing, where you can get better rates for goods that every company needs. But nothing really comes to mind where we have these complementary services that all work together to serve a client’s needs. I haven’t seen that,” said Clark.

“We can offer one-stop shopping and everything under one roof,” said Bird, “but everybody isn’t living necessarily under that roof.”

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