Agency Rosters: It’s better to talk when the odds are narrowed - British Telecom’s new roster agencies will have the benefits of a streamlined pitching process but will have to turn down rival accounts with no guarantee of work from BT

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 it.

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

anti-tobacco stance.

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 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

- E-mail

- 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

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