The top of the list

Agency searches demand clearly defined criteria.

Agency searches demand clearly defined criteria.

You may have seen Coinstar's big green coin-counting machines at your local grocery, perpetually willing to swallow all your spare change and give you cash back, for a small fee. But as the company sought to expand its offerings to corporate and b-to-b audiences, it needed an agency with broad expertise to serve as a partner in its new ventures.

"I was looking for scalability as well as expertise in various areas," says Coinstar PR director Marci Maule. "Certainly strategic business thinkers - an agency that really could get in and understand our business."

Over the course of three months, the company's internal review team winnowed a large field of possible agencies down to four firms, all of which came in and made presentations based on an assignment from the company. Coinstar chose Porter Novelli, and the partnership has been thriving since the start of the year. "Chemistry is important," says Maule, "especially when it's the model where [your PR agency is] more business partner than vendor."

Coinstar is not unique in its desire for a firm that can work with a corporation as a true team, rather than just a vendor - which is the dream of many agencies, too. PRWeek's 2005 Agency Excellence Survey (PRWeek, May 23) identified three characteristics viewed by clients as important points of differentiation among agencies and key contributors to client satisfaction: first, developing creative programs that meet objectives; second, demonstrating a measurable ROI; and third, that an agency be considered an important business partner. Combining these requirements with a solid understanding of a client's unique challenges can separate great partnerships from six-month burnouts.

A disciplined approach

Of course, choosing a PR firm is a big investment. The right agency can reform a corporate image, open new and unseen avenues of business, and introduce a client to the world stage; the wrong choice can represent a colossal waste of time, money, and opportunity. Because the stakes are so high, it is preferable for a business to identify the optimum agency on the first try.

Jerry Swerling, a PR management consultant and director of PR studies at USC Annenberg School for Communication, has spent years pairing clients with firms that meet their needs. He has his own extensive step-by-step method designed to narrow down a wide field of agencies to a perfect match. "Process is very important," he says. "You've got to do it in a disciplined, rigorous way."

That process, whether handled by a consultant or by in-house PR managers, must draw upon a deep understanding of a client's needs: where they are, where they want to go, and what they are willing to do to get there. Companies should also understand that the firm they need might not be the one they had in mind. A boutique, while dynamic, may not be big enough; a worldwide agency with a strong infrastructure may not be able to give enough attention to small accounts.

To be most effective, clients must set up a process that is proven to work, and be willing to follow it wherever it leads, even into unexpected places. Talent is widely dispersed throughout the agency world, and PR pros with the right ideas for a particular brand are more important than the agency name on their business card. "You must look specifically at the folks you'll be working with, what they have done, and what their qualifications are," Swerling says. "You're not hiring a brand - you're hiring a team."

Agency leaders agree that the team actually servicing an account is the epicenter from which differentiating factors will spring. Doug Spong, managing partner of Carmichael Lynch Spong (CLS), says PR firms have historically rated lower than other marketing disciplines in client surveys measuring creativity. But companies that desire above-average creativity can focus their search on firms with solid reputations in that area.

"When a client comes to us, they typically know our reputation for great creative," Spong says. While CLS doesn't have the global reach or deep pockets of major agencies, its niche is clear.

Spong adds that just because a firm is prized for its creativity does not mean clients should pigeonhole it as simply a vending machine for ideas. "You'll see procurement refer to agencies as 'vendors.' That term brings the hair on the back of my neck up," he says. "Creativity is not a commodity. ... Working with a client to develop insightful strategy, and then the great creative to bring that strategy to life, is really a team effort."

MWW Group CEO Michael Kempner stresses that clients should not invest in a firm that presents creativity as a stand-alone goal. "Strategy must lead to creativity, not the other way around," he says. "I find that most firms don't understand that, [while] most clients do."

Even when a client has clearly defined requirements and deal-breaking criteria, it may need to adjust its expectations to meet those needs. Home Depot, the nation's second-largest retailer, found that hiring one mega-agency AOR wasn't the best way to address its goals - even though it had planned on doing just that. Instead, it decided it could maximize the strengths of different firms by splitting its PR approach into discrete parts.

"Before we even looked at a specific agency ... we had to examine our existing business needs, what may change in the future, and then look at the overall structure of how an agency relationship could work," says David Sandor, Home Depot's director of PR.

The final decision - Ketchum for marketing PR, MS&L for corporate reputation - was made after Sandor's team saw the results of a "strategic challenge," a specific problem presented to the agency finalists. "That was a very worthwhile process," says Sandor. "It gave you a window into how people think, and how firms approach clients."

The CFA Institute, a nonprofit professional association of financial analysts, was on the hunt for an agency two years ago that could bring a high level of creativity to the table, while operating within the somewhat restrictive confines of the world of financial services.

Marketing and communications head Jim Cudahy wanted a partner with a "squeaky clean" reputation and operating culture to match the institute's own. He spent weeks sifting through 60 responses to an RFP he issued before narrowing it down to six finalists, all of which had a global network and specific experience in finance. The group eventually selected Ogilvy PR Worldwide, based largely on the strength of the personnel who were pitching, and who would work on the account.

"It was a pretty narrowly defined set of criteria we were looking for, so the ability to bring new ideas to that process" was important, Cudahy said.

Measurable ROI was also a factor in the choice, but Cudahy recognizes that "PR is a difficult process to put a clear ROI on." Cudahy finds that whether the agency has proprietary measurement systems or not, a true test of ROI is the company's overall performance, rather than upticks in a strict set of metrics.

The value of experience

When a business is seeking to establish itself in a new and upcoming industry, specific agency experience in the sector can be a defining factor for success. In such cases, the concept of agency as business partner is absolutely crucial.

Havens, which is building a niche in the luxury time-share business, selected Financial Dynamics (FD) because of its knowledge of the industry and its major players. "With FD we had the understanding that we're building a business relationship," says Havens cofounder and president Dejan Bucevski. "[They] really give us advice on how the industry's changing, and what we need to do to ... be competitive."

Michael Bayer, FD's MD of corporate communications, says sector expertise and a close relationship with client CEOs drive the agency's results-focused brand of creativity. "[CEOs] are under pressure to deliver business value, and they're not going to entertain creativity for the sake of creativity," he says. "We don't believe in art for art's sake. ... It has to be completely related to the business."

A thorough agency review requires a PR firm to demonstrate all of its differentiating characteristics. Rob McMurtrie, Porter Novelli's account manager for Coinstar, says the agency landed the account by gambling on big thinking. "They were asking us to tackle a very specific part of their business problem," he recalls. "We won the business in part because we stepped back and said, 'You know what? There's a broader business issue that we need to look at.'"

And as confidence in the economy builds, agencies themselves are working harder to make sure clients are a good fit. "We spend a lot of time when an RFP comes across analyzing, 'Is the underlying business sound?'" McMurtrie says. "If [it's not], you're just going to create a bad situation ... for the relationship with that company over the long term."

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