By choosing to reorganise its PR agencies into a 30-strong roster,
British Telecom could be accused of trying to have its cake and eat
The agencies need to put considerable time and resources into
maintaining the client relationship, but they are guaranteed neither
work nor income, and are prevented from working for competitors.
On BT’s roster system, 10 core agencies, yet to be selected, will be
assigned work without having to pitch for it, and the other 20 will be
allowed to include BT on their client lists and will automatically be
invited to pitch for work.
’As a retained agency you are guaranteed income and work,’ says Bill
Penn, managing director of Spec Communications. His agency is not on
BT’s roster, but he has worked with the organisation for 15 years. ’On a
roster, even if you are not doing paid work, you are still investing
time and resources into getting to know a client and its industry.’
’There’s no advantage in paying people who are not working for you,’
insists Robert Dunnett, senior press and broadcasting officer at BT.
’The objective of the review is that BT has a manageable number of well
briefed, experienced agencies, which understand our communication
objectives and brand values, and reflect the needs of our business,’ he
Over the years BT has amassed a list of 600 qualified suppliers -
agencies vetted by the company as eligible to pitch for its contracts.
The review will impose stricter quality tests on agencies (similar to
the PRCA’s quality management standards) and produce a smaller, better
targeted supplier list.
Large organisations frequently need a variety of PR skills - as Dunnett
points out, promoting phonecards is very different to selling digital
technology to multi-nationals. Some organisations chose to retain a
handful of agencies, while others employ different agencies on an ad hoc
The advantage of a roster system to large companies like BT - which can
have more than 50 campaigns running concurrently - is that managers are
not forever tied up in the time consuming pitching process.
But rosters have their disadvantages. ’It can get out of control if it
is not managed properly - BT’s previous situation of having a list of
600 suppliers made it meaningless,’ says one industry source. Clearly, a
smaller list results in agencies having more chance of work.
’Providing you are getting work, being on a roster is in the agency’s
interests,’ says Penn. He argues that it can stabilise a relationship,
giving consultancies the confidence and knowledge to take risks with the
’It can be the only way you get a chance to pitch,’ says Liz Fraser,
managing director of Key Communications, which is one of the agencies
included on BT’s roster.
This is certainly true of the agencies on the Health Education
Authority’s roster of eight, which is up for review in June. The HEA
shares some common ground with BT. It is currently running over 20
campaigns, and consistently deals with complex issues and diverse
’The main reason for the roster is to save time,’ says Richard Hunt, the
HEA’s deputy head of press and publicity. As a public sector body the
HEA is bound by European legislation to re-tender all contracts with
external providers every three years. It has opted to review its roster
every three years, and appoint the rostered agencies on a project basis
without having to hold an external pitch each time.
Potential client conflicts are less of an issue for the HEA. Only
agencies working for tobacco companies, or companies closely associated
to them, are banned from working with the HEA, because of the body’s
The client conflict issue is only one reason why consultancies might
wish to avoid rosters. There is usually nothing to stop clients from
looking outside the roster for PR services.
Dunnett says that only in unusual and exceptional circumstances would BT
use an agency from outside the roster, but also insists that BT must
retain the right to do so.
One industry source understands this point of view. ’It’s not in an
organisation’s interests to be closed-minded and rigid, because they
could lose out on good PR,’ he says. ’Just because an agency is not on a
roster it does not preclude them from doing work. If they are any good
they will get the work anyway.’
Others feel rosters can only be successful if drawn up by the people
responsible for designing communications strategy and implementing PR
campaigns, people who in large organisations like BT could number
Dunnett disagrees. He says BT’s strategy is supported throughout the
company and has not been imposed from above. The selection panel has
representatives from the consumer, business and corporate divisions, and
the marketing communications and supply departments.
Ultimately agencies won’t want to lose out on the kind of companies that
choose to have rosters because a name like BT is an impressive addition
to the client list.
BT AND PRCA STANDARDS COMPARED
BT agencies must have
- A minimum of pounds 500,000 turnover and 10 staff
- 50 percent of employees with more than two years PR experience
- Equal opportunities policy
- Three recent case studies; four consultant biographies; and a company
- An outline of BT’s communication opportunities and challenges
- Details of evaluation techniques and quality controls
- Millennium bug compliance
- RCA agencies must have
- A minimum of pounds 200,000 fee income and five staff
- A training plan for each member of staff
- A written business plan
- Effective financial management systems
- Three client references
- Two years audited accounts PSigned the PRCA’s charter
- Campaign evaluation systems
- Client satisfaction measures
- A complaints procedure