Clients' wish list - Focus - Expanding agency horizons

Clients want agencies to recruit more widely, think laterally, understand social media better and focus on emerging markets, finds Adam Hill.

In 2008 PRWeek asked clients what they wanted from their agencies and distilled those thoughts into a six-point wish list. Four years on, many of the concerns remain, with perhaps the overarching theme of agencies taking greater initiative eliciting the most comment.

1. Greater focus on non-media audiences, especially employees and bloggers

There has been a fundamental change in terms of comms' routes to market over the past four years, and perhaps the biggest has been the ubiquity of social media networks. 'The blogosphere, the Mumsnets, the individuals who have an opinion they put on YouTube,' says Chris Wermann, director of corporate affairs at Home Retail Group, which owns Argos and Homebase. 'The breadth of media has changed and it's whether agencies link that into the bigger agenda about looking at corporate branding and what's relevant to that brand and makes it sell.' Some agencies are still much stronger on such insight than others, he believes.

Nick Hindle, McDonald's senior vice-president of corporate affairs, comes at it from a slightly different angle, suggesting the use of social media is as much about customer service as about PR. 'Social media are becoming an obvious place to resolve customer issues or create customer involvement,' he explains. 'There is no longer somebody between us and the customer so we can now have a direct conversation, and the good agencies will get their heads around that.'

Barney Wyld, vice-president campaigns and digital, global comms, at Unilever, takes this on board but has his own plea to PROs. 'Four years ago agencies drank the social media Kool-Aid and some of them have not worn well,' he laughs. 'It can be more difficult to get value out of those people. We need comms professionals who have a grounding in social media and who can add saliency to it or get the particular engagement you want. But don't send us evangelists.' When it comes to greater focus on non-media audiences such as staff, Hindle questions whether agencies have the skills for the job. 'Agencies lack confidence and competence when it comes to adding value to employees,' he suggests. 'Perhaps it's just something internal teams have a greater affinity for and maybe it's expecting too much.'

2. More cross-practice work

Getting 'teams of all talents' working for clients still seems difficult but Hindle insists he has seen an improvement. 'It's something we've called for in the past, the dropping of borders within an agency,' he explains. 'I have seen all of our agencies become more open to putting different types of people on to a problem on a temporary basis without having to renegotiate fees each time. They have become more flexible.' Wyld is not so sure. 'Agencies need to be more agile,' he says. 'Some are, but not all.'

3. Consideration of clients' business objectives before devising a campaign plan

GE UK corporate comms director Mark Maguire is blunt about what he wants. 'Know my business as well as I do,' he says simply. 'I want my agency to understand my business' priorities and act accordingly.'

This still appears to be easier said than done, although Wyld suggests more clarity on both sides might be helpful. 'Agencies do need to demand clients be clear: "What exactly are you looking for? Creativity, delivery or strategy?",' he says. He believes agencies are having to work harder because of a 'huge push' over the past five years from agency people wanting to go in-house, thus increasing the size and capability of in-house teams. For those on retainers, the mission should be to 'surprise and delight' the client. 'And when we're not in a formal contract, you need to be keeping up informal contact,' suggests Wyld. 'We need agencies to give us a reason to give them more work. We're more self-sufficient these days.'

4. More initiative - identifying tasks that would fit in with the client's comms strategy

One of the key client points from four years ago was the need for agencies to take the initiative. 'There's something in this but it's a bit of a mixture,' says Simon Warr, comms director of air traffic services provider NATS. 'On the one hand, agencies that sit there and take the retainer don't keep the retainer very long. At the same time if they're coming up with ideas they have to be cognisant of things like resource issues - and sometimes the ideas are just plain wacky.'

He recalls a piece of work around building environmental awareness in Abu Dhabi where the agency proposal was to put a solar panel on the roof of every house in the United Arab Emirates. 'I just don't know where to start with that,' laughs Warr. 'So please, yes come to us with innovative ideas, but even little titbits here and there of really good stuff are welcome. What do you know that I don't know?'

Maguire wants agencies to help GE to 'own' territories. 'For instance, our agency has helped us carve out a reputation in UK manufacturing aligned to our growth strategy by creating a thought leadership "vehicle" (a twice-yearly survey of 400 manufacturers),' he explains. 'So creativity is key. We can write our own press releases - what we want is added value that supports growth and helps define the brand.'

This value can come in a variety of forms, suggests Wyld. 'The thing I don't know is what is emerging best practice from other sectors,' he says. 'And I don't see enough agencies saying: "This is what's working in pharma or electronics, and you can repurpose this for consumer industries." Time spent by agencies keeping up to speed with "crunchy" best practice could be gold dust.'

5. Some degree of performance-related pay

McDonald's has a payment-by-results agreement with one of its ad agencies but has not yet found a way to 'move it over' to PR. 'What are the metrics?' asks Hindle. 'A lot of the value we get from (PR) agencies is over the longer term and that's harder to measure. I haven't seen measurements that would make me comfortable but I'm open-minded.'

Warr admits to occasional frustration in his dealings with agencies, at which times his thoughts turn to just this point. 'Sometimes the agency has a list of all the fantastic things it has done and meetings it has had, but the outcome is the bit I'm interested in,' he explains. 'I'm hiring you because you're telling me you can get through that process better than the other guy and get the results I want. If you're not, then why am I paying you?' But it does not seem to be something exercising a great deal of clients' time.

6. Less focus on timesheets and press cuttings files

Clients seem to accept timesheets are an inevitable consequence of many types of PR work. 'At our last agency review process a number of agencies said they don't focus on timesheets, which is interesting,' says Wermann. But he adds a 'handful' are still hung up on press coverage rather than thinking about the broader story and who might be advocates for the brand. 'There is still a big propensity towards "getting it in the papers",' he concludes.

Changing priorities

So much for PRWeek's 2008 wish list. In dealing with the progress - or otherwise - that had been made over the past four years, clients also revealed different concerns that make intriguing reading for agencies keen to help them maintain competitive advantage.

Hindle points to agencies' increasing maturity and status as purveyors of strategic counsel, allowing them to take 'the best graduates from the best universities'. The unintended consequence of this, he says, is a shift towards greater elitism in hiring, which means everyone will ultimately lose out.

'More diversity in the workforce will bring more creativity and insight,' he suggests. 'You don't need a list of qualifications as long as your arm, you need the right qualities.' The industry has recognised the issue, reflected in the new PRCA PR Apprenticeship programme, and it is a move Hindle applauds.

Meanwhile Wermann wants agencies to think more about 'future proofing'. This is, he says, looking at forthcoming issues that stakeholders are interested in and leveraging them to competitive advantage. The way he describes it is: 'I can see this trend coming, why don't we take a position? I don't see much of that from agencies,' he says, citing Argos' Safe Kids Online campaign, in which it partnered with Symantec to provide Norton safety software to parents, as a good example. It was endorsed by David Cameron and the Mothers' Union - and the key point is that it comes 12 months ahead of likely legislation on ensuring protection for children from adult content online. 'We can go out there as a leader,' explains Wermann.

Finally, Wyld believes that it is time to get to grips with global reality as developing and emerging economies start to drive growth. 'The whole locus of comms is shifting east and south,' he says. 'It's an accelerating trend and we're having to invest in comms capability and output in those areas. Our agencies tend to be London-, New Yorkor Washington-based, and on their own they will not come up with something that will work in Indonesia or can be tweaked in Brazil, Russia, India or China.' PROs need to be thinking hard about how to meet these new challenges, he concludes.

Given the pace of technological and economic change, it is hard to predict what issues will occupy the minds of clients in 2016. But that should not stop agencies taking at least some time and trouble to think about what they might be. Gold dust awaits.

 

WISH LIST 2012

The five changes clients want now
Learn to operate more effectively with social media
Bring in best practice from other sectors
Have a greater focus and expertise in emerging markets
Recruit from more diverse backgrounds
Work on 'future proofing'

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