What makes a successful client-agency relationship?

A PRCA survey has suggested agencies and clients differ widely on the key issues that matter most in their relationships. Alex Benady hears from both sides about their best and worst experiences.

Agency client relationships
Agency client relationships

In life it seems to be the customer who feels they are always being screwed, but agencies seem to be more often than not on the receiving end when it comes to the pitfalls of client-agency relationships.

Agencies fret constantly about the quality of their association. They pick it over and seem to want to talk about it all the time. Like an insecure lover, they live in constant fear of being dumped.

Recent research from the PRCA scrutinizing the minutiae of client-agency relationships will only feed that feeling of creeping anxiety. Not because it shows that clients are bent on being unfaithful, but because it reveals a serious gulf bet-ween agencies and clients in what they feel matters most in their relationships.

As part of its 2013 In-House Benchmarking report, the PRCA asked agencies and clients to list the three ingredients for a successful relationship. Perhaps the biggest agency misconception is that personal chemistry matters.

While 51 per cent of agency respondents thought it was the key ingredient, just 19 per cent of clients agreed. Meanwhile, 17 per cent of agencies thought 'regularity of communication' mattered, but only six per cent of clients did. It seems that agencies think they are having a relationship, while clients think they are having a transaction.

PRCA comms director Matt Cartmell says this probably reflects the increasing involvement of procurement specialists in PR contracts: 'It's true, PR agencies do have a history of being focused on personal relationships. Possibly they have over-focused, because our research shows that increasingly clients want them to do a job.

'As a result of the greater involvement of procurement specialists, there is a greater formalisation and less personalisation of relationships.'

Carey Evans, founder of Relationship Audits, a firm specialising in client-agency relationships, agrees. He says that, in his experience, clients do want communication, but want it in a relevant fashion.

He suspects that too many agencies justify their fees with sheer volume of 'stuff', when clients want quality: 'Clients don't have time for never-ending PowerPoint presentations. What they want to hear most is how agencies can leverage their learning and insights from other clients - and they want it brief and to the point.'

Even more puzzling is the business of effectiveness. Almost half of those from agencies thought 'demonstrating ROI' was key, but in contrast only 34 per cent of clients agreed. On the other hand, only 27 per cent of agencies thought value for money was key, compared with 38 per cent of clients. Clearly the two are related, but there seems to be a mismatch of emphasis.

However, Cartmell argues that the apparent ROI/value for money conundrum is simply a matter of perspective.

He says that one is 'a little picture', while the other is the 'big picture'. 'The two are obviously related, but ROI is very granular, very micro. Value for money is very macro.'

It seems that agencies are trying to prove the payback on every project. Overstretched clients simply do not have the time for such detail - they just want to know their PR budget has been well spent.

Another intriguing finding from the report was that, these issues apart, there was surprisingly little consensus on the issues that really matter in client-agency relationships.

As it appears to be so subjective, PRWeek asked senior agency and client-side figures for their experiences of agency-client relationships.

MY WORST CLIENT

Larry Franks, CEO, Beige PR


Please, let us all agree on one thing. There are some good, some bad and some ugly clients out there.

The worst client we have ever had, we never actually had. We pitched in May 2006 for a major drinks brand - a two-and-a-half-hour pitch, the full works.

To this day, we have never heard a word back. Not even a thank you.

I still tell the accountant that we live in hope and may even have won the pitch. Who knows?

The worst client we actually had took the approach that it was at war with the agency. Blame culture, scapegoating, even bullying was the order of the day.

You could argue it was a breakdown of trust, but on reflection I believe it was the internal culture of the client passed down to young people who thought that was the route to goal.

It's not. Treat your agency well and you will get the best results. If you don't, change agency.

Treat it badly and expect to have the best PR people unwilling to waste their valuable careers on your brand. Clients should remember they have a reputation within the PR industry too, but arguably, the worst clients simply do not trust their agency. However, a client is right to never trust an agency that lies to them. As for agencies, never lie to a client that trusts you.

The biggest point of difference in the recent PRCA survey between agency and client-thinking was personal chemistry.

Fine. The results are now more important than the journey, but at least let the agency hold your hand along the way.

Collaboration is key: shared responsibility and allowing the agency to do what it does best.

MY BEST AGENCY

Stephen Cull, PR lead, Roche Products

Stephen Cull

Early in my career, I was charged with creating a web resource for patients based on emerging trends in social media.

Creating and implementing the project was an exciting challenge, but as the interaction between patients and the pharma industry is highly regulated in the UK, I needed to ensure the programme was appropriate yet met our objectives.

After a rigorous selection process, we found a young, fresh agency that presented us with a credible and inspiring vision of how we could make the patient element of the campaign work.

The agency presented a new way of interacting with our stakeholders and, at the same time, satisfied industry medical and legal requirements.

Throughout the campaign, the agency was less a hired hand and more like a part of our comms team.

It always provided great counsel and expertise, anticipated our requirements and drove us on to the next stage of the project.

In hindsight, I would say that we worked very well with the agency because it displayed values and behaviours that were similar to ours.

The agency was passionate and energetic, and really cared about our programme. It also looked after its team and never blamed issues on juniors.

If there was a problem, the agency fixed it or came up with an alternative that would still help achieve the project objective.

The ethos of this agency was also evident in its interaction with the patients with whom we worked.

They related to the agency as trusted friends. After a while, we did too.

Financial management was a non-issue and the agency could be trusted to deliver on budget.

In short, working with this agency was a delight because it was always fun, it anticipated our needs, was solution-focused and delivered what we needed.

MY BEST CLIENT

Alan Twigg, Managing director, LightBrigade PR


When the good client relationships flourish, it's not about knowing the names of each other's kids or football team of choice. They fly because they are fruitful.

The best clients with which I have worked respect what we do and leave us to get on with it. Susie Davidson and Gerry Tosh at Highland Park, Scott Pack at HarperCollins and Nigel McNally of Brookfield Drinks all know that trust is massive, but it starts before that.

They understand PR, but recognise our ability and insight. They talk straight and are clear about what they want, so we can aim to give them more than they ask.

I always know where I stand. If something is wrong, they tell me. They are busy people - they don't want to spend their time managing agencies, checking work or coping with their demands. If you throw them something edgy, creative or a bit risky, they ask you to justify it and then let you go with it.

The best clients always stimulate me and we should do likewise in return. During a call or in a meeting, my goal is for them to enjoy it, take confidence and even look forward to it.

They should not be sitting through tedious status meetings. Too many PR professionals value the status report and timesheet over nous, the ability to move things on or spring a surprise idea. With the good clients, I see no hierarchy - we are there to help one another.

MY WORST AGENCY

Rebecca Salt, Group comms director, Balfour Beatty


When I was asked to talk about my worst agency relationship, my first thought was: surely relationships only fail if they are left to sour over time?

But then I remembered an agency that had been foisted on me by a global parent, rather than selected to fit the brief. It could have been the best team in the world, but I was unlikely to ever enjoy working with it.

Like an arranged marriage, we didn't have the time to go through a proper courtship.

We were never able to establish mutual respect and understanding from the outset. As a result, we never had anything to build on or to work with.

The problem was that the agency was concerned with the global relationship, but we were just a small division in one country.

The agency's global team passed our business to another country, where it gave us a team that was far too junior.

Maybe marriage is not such a bad analogy for client-agency relationships. We felt that what had been promised didn't materialise. The marriage vows had not been honoured.

Other relationships with agencies have failed for one of two reasons: underdelivery - the failure to meet, let alone surpass, expectations was the most important. The other was the inability to deliver perceived value for money.

Picture of Larry Franks by Julian Dodd

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