In the Ritz anniversary story, the virtual agency is a character of its own. Now that remote work has become ubiquitous, it’s easy to forget how groundbreaking it was in 2003 to assemble a virtual team.
“Elisabeth was ahead of her time,” says Joy Schmitt, a former client who is now a Ritz team member. “In those days I was used to trudging into fancy offices in Manhattan to meet with huge agency teams. Ritz was different because the team included a whole host of wonderfully qualified senior-level people, and it didn’t matter where they lived.”
Initially, the virtual agency wasn’t an easy sell. Big firms with global branch offices were in vogue then, recalls Bob Consalvo, one of Ritz Communications’ first clients. According to the big-firm sales pitch, satellite offices could be tapped for international PR initiatives. But Bob wasn’t impressed with global branch offices staffed with deep benches of junior associates.
“Ritz was small, boutiquey, but all of them were very experienced,” Bob says. “It was a very nimble working relationship.”
In fact, the virtual structure facilitated teamwork across the globe. Instead of siloed international offices, the Ritz core team included people from Canada and the United Kingdom, as well as coast-to-coast throughout the U.S.
Virtual work also presented an incredible career opportunity at a time when workplace flexibility was nearly nonexistent. Ritz Communications was a dream job, offering team members the rare chance to stay in the game with high-level projects and still set their own schedules.
“There was very much an agency feel to what we were doing,” says Molly Watson, a Ritz team member for all 20 years. “But it gave us the flexibility to be present for important aspects of our lives, as well as the opportunity to be with our clients at any time of day.”
“I loved being on the phone at 3 a.m. with somebody in Turkey,” adds former team member Carrie Sessine.
In a bricks-and-mortar culture, where did the idea for a virtual-first organization come from? Elisabeth says the agency grew organically as she added talented team members to meet the changing needs of her large pharmaceutical industry clients.
“When we started, “WFH” was like a dirty word. Remote work was primarily limited to individual freelancers or consultants. Pioneering a new way to deliver service meant we had to prove to clients we were every bit as professional as any bricks-and-mortar agency. As for our team, everyone loved the agency structure and was committed to demonstrating how efficient and capable we could be. In a very short time, we were no longer asked to pitch as a curiosity. We became a serious contender. Eventually, we had clients and colleagues asking for advice on how they could structure their own jobs remotely,” says Elisabeth. “It’s exciting to see clients and fellow PR professionals working remotely as well. Twenty years later, we know how much can be accomplished and how personally and professionally fulfilling it can be.”