Client-agency relationships thrive off equal footing

The PR agency-client relationship is one in which the onus of account well-being is presumed to rest squarely on one side: the agency. Clients, after all, are paying customers. Why should they be responsible for seeing to the ins-and-outs of how work is proceeding?

The PR agency-client relationship is one in which the onus of account well-being is presumed to rest squarely on one side: the agency. Clients, after all, are paying customers. Why should they be responsible for seeing to the ins-and-outs of how work is proceeding?

At the furthest extremes, clients fostering this attitude believe that giving orders should be the extent of their involvement with a PR "partner." But agency executives say the path between client and firm runs two ways, and both sides must be fully engaged in order to create a truly productive alliance.

A healthy agency-client relationship takes root from the very beginning of an engagement, says Lou Hoffman, president of The Hoffman Agency in San Jose, CA.

"In the agency review process, you get a pretty darn good window into [a potential client's] DNA and how they're going to behave," Hoffman says. He admits, however, that many firms are loathe to back out at that stage - even if they get bad vibes - because they already have too much effort invested. Consequently, it's up to them to try to nudge the client's behavior onto the right track.

"Having mechanisms in place that allow you to course-correct are very valuable," notes Hoffman. That includes scheduling 60-day-point check-in meetings to align budget expectations and review the progress of the agency's work.

"If you can get everything on the table and get it addressed [then]," he explains, "you can actually change the trajectory of a relationship that maybe wasn't going so well."

"Treat [the relationship] like a marriage," advises Laura Grimmer, president and CEO at New York-based Articulate Communications. A good, solid marriage can be accomplished by encouraging open, ongoing communications and honestly appraising its limitations. By doing so, an agency is less likely to fall into a relationship in which unreal expectations turn an alleged partner into "Clientzilla."

Kraig Smith, founder of Chicago-based PReturn, emphasizes to clients that he actually works for two stakeholders: them and the media.

"That's something a lot of people need to be told early on" to help them understand how the agency works, Smith notes. "Sometimes [clients] are surprised at what goes into it... you look at it, and you don't realize all the different moving parts that go into making [the relationship] work."

There are the seemingly obvious things, too, that PR professionals expect of their clients, but sometimes need to spell out in order to maintain peak-condition partnerships. For instance, clients must pay invoices on time and treat agency staffers with respect (no matter what their rank). At the same time, Grimmer stresses the need for agency executives to "understand the client as a person" and realize that he or she has the same human issues as anyone else.

Above all, Grimmer emphasizes, agencies should make it a point to seek out plenty of client feedback - at all levels of the "relationship" spectrum.

"It's amazing how much [clients] won't want to tell you [that] you are doing a bad job because nobody wants to have those kinds of conversations," she says. "But you need to force them to."

Key points:

In fostering a healthy agency-client relationship, both sides should be engaged and accountable

Agencies should encourage open, frequent communication between them- selves and their clients

 Requisite check-ins at least every 60 days can ensure budgets are met and work issues are addressed

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