ANALYSIS: Collaboration is key for multi-agency PR briefs

Clients managing a number of agencies can face colliding egos and confusion. Mark Johnson looks at ways to get the best out of a potentially thorny relationship

Selfridges on London's Oxford Street held a glitzy, red carpet launch for its Body Craze season last week, with an appearance by Kylie Minogue, followed closely by the press pack.

As is often the case when several marketing strategies for the same brand are in full promotion mode, the press were almost matched by the number of PR agencies in tow.

Working behind the scenes were no less than six PR agencies, each with a different client or product to promote. Selfridges had three: Borkowski PR as lead agency, working alongside the store's retained home and food agency Camron PR and its fashion agency Modus Publicity.

At the same event, Cake, Halpern and Coalition Total Communications were running promotions for Evian, the Love Kylie range and Eskalony premium vodka respectively. While not suggesting that all those involved had a difficult time, the potential for confusion was immense.

Selfridges head of PR Emily Owen says she has overcome many of the potential issues, such as rivalry, by using a lead agency model, which has the advantage of structuring responsibility and a hierarchy from the outset.

She says: 'They (Borkowski) put the bigger plan together and other agencies add into it. Over the years of working together, we have developed a team spirit. '

This collaborative spirit is something BT Consumer Division head of PR Damian Peachey says is essential, since each of the three lead agencies usually works on through-the-line campaigns. They are expected to work with each other, as well as in tandem with advertising, direct marketing and other departments.

'They share work so that they can leverage each other's activities,' says Peachey.

Something both BT and Selfridges do is measure their agencies' performances against set targets. Owen says the collaborative spirit is maintained by not evaluating agencies individually, but the project as a whole.

Woolworths Group head of comms Nicole Lander says the responsibility for ensuring overlapping briefs avoid conflict lies firmly with the client, adding that 'the key is being very clear about what you want'.

Woolworths Group works with a roster of five agencies. The Ideas Network handles product PR, Weber Shandwick produces staff magazine Woolies News, Tulchan Communications handles financial and Joe Public Relations consumer PR. On top of this, there is a network of freelancers.

Overlaps most often occur on the consumer brief, where Joe PR and freelancers may jostle for work, says Lander.

But she overcomes potential rivalry by making sure her agencies and freelancers understand that she expects collaboration rather than competition.

'If a tough decision has to be made, I explain that it was a business decision,' Lander adds. 'I get all my agencies together on a quarterly basis and set the media agenda for the next quarter. It can come down to a grassroots level, such as a relationship with a particular journalist.

For example, if we want to land a tabloid story, and we have someone who has a really wonderful relationship with someone at The Sun, we put our best person into bat.'

The financial PR industry faces quite different challenges. When two City firms are edging in on the same brief, it is often because the chairman and CEO disagree over strategy. It can be hard for two financial firms to work well in such cases.

One senior staffer at a financial PR agency, who declined to be named, says: 'An overlapping brief is usually a sign of deep divisions within a company. Usually, if you are appointed because the incumbent agency is not very good, you can have a political battle on your hands over the right to advise.'

Often, investment banks will advise a client to seek a second financial PR adviser in situations such as a hostile takeover bid. The bank will dictate which accountants, lawyers, and even financial PROs, with whom they have a previous working history, are their preferred suppliers.

Gavin Anderson & Company chief executive Neil Bennett says that, although such situations can create nearly impossible working conditions for an agency, 'the mature thing to do is for the two agency heads to sit down together, with the client's agreement, and work out collective responsibilities'.

While communications and clearly laid-out strategy are important, often problems can be best avoided through the simple nuts and bolts management of carefully checking timesheets and invoices.

Lander says: 'I don't allow my consultants to have a champagne and caviar lifestyle when it is not replicated at Woolworths. I'm very traditional - I ask for receipts.'

TOP TIPS

How to avoid clashing egos

- Know the strengths and weaknesses of consultants (and encourage

collaboration)

- Let consultants know collaboration will not mean losing your

appreciation

- Explain decisions as business imperatives to avoid favouritism

- Measure the outcomes of each agency's work

- Ask for receipts that match invoices and time sheets

- Put agency briefs in writing, making each team's responsibilities

clear before anyone starts working

- Consider a lead agency model and allow that agency to lead the brief

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