News Analysis: PR middlemen face changing role

A report by The Survey Shop shows PR agencies have little trouble crossing the dance floor to lure clients, calling into question the role of matchmakers. Richard Cann asks whether intermediaries still offer value.

The Survey Shop's 'PR 2004' poll of in-house communicators involved in the selection and management of PR agencies - released last week - suggests that only 15 per cent of pitch longlists source agencies from an intermediary or independent adviser.

This is in stark contrast to the advertising world where business tends to pass through the watchful eye of introduction specialists. 'I don't believe the PR side is as healthy as the rest of the (intermediary) business,' says Agency Assessments partner Stuart Pocock, adding that this has traditionally been the case despite the fact that clients often don't understand PR, which he says 'sits in a silo' in the marketing world.

He explains that while pitches for other marketing disciplines are similar to each other, PR presentations can seem unstructured in comparison.

However, PR accounts for only ten per cent of the agency's business, which Pocock attributes to the fact that smaller PR budgets create a false impression that using a consultant would be disproportionately expensive.

A model at odds with PR?

Publicis Consultants MD Richard Moss says that while clients will almost always go through intermediaries to find an advertising agency, the practice is limited in PR. He says this is odd given the fragmented nature of the PR agency landscape, where the 'profile of even the largest PR agencies is not nearly as pronounced as that of ad agencies'.

'Clients feel PR is about the people working on their business, so they follow people around rather than an agency,' adds Moss, explaining that ad agencies are 'machines' involving different departments such as planning and account management, while staff at PR agencies seem to 'do the lot'.

The intermediary model is at odds with this in that it puts clients in touch with agencies, rather than individuals. Yet Carolyn Jordan, head of marketing at PR matchmaker AAR, says its knowledge of an agency is far deeper than compiled company details, client lists and case studies and offers real knowledge of capability.

'An agency may not look like it has the skills to handle a brief but we might know if it recently hired someone with specific experience,' she says, adding that while clients are typically involved in a PR pitch once every few years, intermediaries' exposure to pitches allows them to detect whether an agency's claims are realistic: 'Why should clients spend time doing something that's not their day job?'

Biss Lancaster Euro RSCG brand managing director Jonathan Sanchez doubts how easy it is to differentiate between agencies: 'Ultimately, agencies are not going to be honest about what they can and can't do, because there seems to be this historic approach to what we sell - everyone wants to be generalists.

'We tend to work as a multi-specialist, hiring people with real sector experience and then encouraging those individuals to market their skills and our business,' he says.

Sanchez adds that ultimately, an agency's ability to sell itself must be fundamental, but suggests that the PR industry would benefit from an objective source of basic information about agencies.

Online marcoms matchmaker Creative Brief claims to do just that by positioning itself as a 'knowledge management tool' and attracts more hits from people looking for PR agencies than for firms in other disciplines.

Managing director Paul Donaldson, a former marketing controller at Andrex and ex-international marketing director at Sony PlayStation Software, says it maintains its objectivity by allowing marketers to conduct their own searches of its database of agencies, which features case studies, people profiles and client lists.

Saving time and money

Creative Brief is involved in the initial screening of agencies, which can be done using an objective set of criteria, either by the client or on the client's behalf, says Donaldson.

He says marketing directors who are increasingly being asked to manage their company's PR function are worryingly unfamiliar with the machinations of PR.

The biggest benefit of intermediaries is the amount of time and therefore cost they take out of the selection process. 'If a marketing director has to see ten agencies at four hours a time, it would take him or her 40 hours,' says Donaldson.

Weber Shandwick deputy chief executive Sally Ward says intermediaries have a place and act as facilitators rather than barriers.

As a large agency with a recognised brand, she says WS does not need matchmakers to get it onto pitch longlists, but the presence of intermediaries helps create an even-handed pitch process.

She adds that intermediaries also 'totally minimise the time-wasting element' of clients dipping their toes in the water without the intention of appointing an agency.

Ward concedes though that once the shortlist for a pitch is drawn up, intermediaries seem to step back.

So whether intermediaries are involved or not, sooner or later agencies have to do the wooing themselves.

THE MATCHMAKERS

AAR Launched in 1975, it has consultants dedicated to each marcoms discipline. Charges clients for agency searches and sells marketing and credentials preparation advice to larger PR agencies.

Agency Insight Founded in 1992, it covers a range of marcoms sectors.

Advises clients on creating a brief, shortlisting agencies and contract negotiations. It is retained by clients and receives no payment from agencies.

The Haystack Group Launched in 2000, it charges clients for managing marcoms agency searches. Agencies can subscribe to feature on its online database.

Agency Assessments Set up in 1988, it only charges the client, with no agency registration fees. PR represents about a tenth of its agency search business and it stresses its global affiliates.

Creative Brief Launched in February, the online service allows clients to search a database of agency profiles. Fees come from clients, although agencies can pay to enhance their online 'showcase'.

PRCA PReview Allows clients to choose between PRCA-audited members, charging only a confidentiality fee if required, as well as taking about one per cent of the successful agency's fee.

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