Great clients are essential to building the best PR agency partnerships

Bill Margaritis, VP of global communications and IR at FedEx, makes a point of publicly thanking Ketchum, the company's long-running AOR, for its work.

Bill Margaritis, VP of global communications and IR at FedEx, makes a point of publicly thanking Ketchum, the company's long-running AOR, for its work. He did so recently at an industry awards show where he was honored; it's kind of a thing with him.

Most clients don't spend a lot of time thanking their agencies in this way, though that in itself is not necessarily a sign of trouble. But those who work on the account routinely testify that FedEx is a “great client.” And, frankly, that isn't the kind of thing most agencies will say. Agencies might say a company is a “great brand to work on” or that the head of communications is a wonderful person, but it is relatively rare for firms to really offer that a client is “great” as a whole, as a matter of institutional excellence.

Being a great client goes beyond the charisma of one individual, though it is essential that quality is in evidence at the very top levels. But there's not a lot of attention paid to the specific characteristics of good clients. Far more focus is given to agencies mastering client service, which is a critical part of the equation, but only one half of the story.

Great service is born out of a great partnership, not a one-way delivery of ideas and execution. The most effective clients are powerful internal managers, who marshal talent effectively and work hard to build a great reputation for their teams internally and externally. When the communication team commands respect from business functions outside PR, the agencies are more effective at applying their work to the organizational mix.

Having the courage to share credit for brilliant work is a part of client leadership that is essential for fostering excellence. Recognition is not only right, but also practical, as accountability naturally engenders higher standards.

Great clients are not easy. Best-in-class companies are often the most exacting and demanding, pushing the limits of conventional partnership, and bringing their agencies with them into new frontiers, where PR has previously not engaged. Agencies need to have the courage to take on great clients.

Over the next several weeks, I will address specific angles on this topic, trying to get at top 10 qualities of excellence in client leadership. I welcome comments and direction from our readers on all sides of the relationship.

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