If one thing is clear from this year’s PRWeek Top 150 league table (supplement enclosed), it is that the PR industry is feeling the pinch. The explosive growth of 2007, a bumper year for the PR agency, has halved. In 2008 the average
increase in fee income at the top PR agencies in the UK was around ten per cent.
Despite optimism that the industry will weather the recession, there is still a need to make every penny count.
This means clients are going to become even more discerning when they hand out accounts. There is already a trend for project-based work to replace cosy retainers, and this year’s league tables reveal that a number of agencies have no retained clients whatsoever, instead making all their money from project work.
As purse strings are tightened, agencies are also reporting that the pitch process is taking longer. What used to be over in a matter of weeks can now stretch into months as clients deliberate over how to get more bang for their buck.
It has never been more important, therefore, to know exactly what clients are looking for when they choose a PR agency. And despite the recession, it is not just a cheap deal clients are after. Comms directors at the UK’s top brands, organisations and charities are increasingly seeking a sophisticated combination of assets from their PR agencies. Being a Top 150 agency helps, as does winning awards, but there is more to the selection process than simply having a shiny trophy cabinet or offering cut-price services.
Here, in no particular order, are the eight key factors clients consider when choosing an agency, whether they are seeking a long-term retainer relationship or planning a quick, one-off project.
1 Awards and league tables
Awards, league tables and accreditations do help and are worth chasing. The smart agencies use awards not just as a way to showcase work to their peers, but also as a way to impress potential clients who may be sitting on judging panels. ‘I would never have been as aware of Cow PR as I am if I had not seen its submissions for awards,’ says Ian Wright, corporate relations director at Diageo. ‘And Blue Rubicon is seen as the agency of the moment, because of clever positioning in awards.’
For some clients, awards are not just helpful, they are absolutely essential. Carolan Davidge, director of PR and brand at Cancer Research UK, says: ‘We would be looking for an agency that has led award-winning campaigns. They need to be acknowledged as really cut-through campaigns. We would be unlikely to work with an agency that did not have any heritage.’
But it is not just PR agencies that look at league tables such as the Top 150, published today. Communications directors use them to understand more about an agency and its performance – vital in the selection process. Alex Aiken, director of communications at Westminster City Council, says: ‘Performance in league tables is a good way of giving context to the position of the agency.’
A client is unlikely to appoint an agency for a big-money campaign or contract if they have not spent time getting to know each other. ‘Never underestimate the importance of chemistry,’ warns Tim Baxter, head of external comms at Standard Chartered. ‘I always insist on having the first meeting at their offices, so we can see them on their own turf and get a feel for who they are.’ Openness is expected across the board and Hugh Davies, director of corporate affairs at mobile phone company 3, says it would be an instant deal-breaker if an agency refused to meet at its own offices.
Brian Butler, director of comms at the British Medical Association, says agencies need to remember they are working with a wider variety of people than just the comms director. ‘The agency will also have to win over elected members
who are professionals in their own right and often opinionated,’ he says.
Davies adds: ‘There is a tendency on the agency side to work for your client, who is a comms director, but not think about to whom they are reporting.’ The job of an agency, he says, is to help a comms director become an integral part of the business.
Money matters, especially in these troubled times. But it might not matter quite as much as agencies think. Price is more of a starting point that can be negotiated than a hard-and-fast stipulation.
‘Price is important, but not at the expense of quality,’ says Ian Beaumont, director of communications at Bowel Cancer UK. A cheap PR campaign can damage a client’s reputation and cost more money to fix than a more expensive campaign would have cost at the outset. ‘We don’t want to go for cheap for cheap’s sake,’ agrees Paul Charles, director of comms at Virgin Atlantic.
‘We want an agency that will deliver best value.’
The main thing, says Westminster’s Aiken, is agencies must be able to justify their fees.
‘A lot of agencies fail to sell the benefits of what they are offering. The price can sometimes look high, but spelling out the benefits is critical.’
Roger Williams, head of marketing at the Scottish Government, agrees: ‘Demonstrating value for money and added value is essential.’
But the smaller the client the less flexibility it may have. Chris McLaughlin, comms director at Inmarsat, says with just 460 employees, his company is ‘probably more price-sensitive than others’.
What comms directors are looking for, says Standard Chartered’s Baxter, is ‘the ideas we may not be able to have ourselves’. In-house comms teams often come up with exceptional campaigns and Beaumont says much of Bowel Cancer UK’s PR is done in-house. The same goes for Derbyshire County Council, says head of comms Rod Cook.
So PR agencies need to offer clients something they cannot provide themselves.
Agencies should be brimming with ideas but they must be original and relevant to the brand or organisation. Clients will be able to spot a recycled campaign. ‘I avoid anyone who seems to have a campaign they have taken elsewhere that has not quite made it,’ says 3’s Davies. ‘If an agency has not made an effort to understand our brand and business strategy that comes across quickly.’
At a pitch held by 3, he says, ‘there were some great ideas, but were they really for 3?’ The winning agency had come up with original ideas that were relevant to the brand and well-researched, he adds.
The Scottish Government’s Williams says: ‘As audiences move online, it is key agencies have experience in digital comms and how information and messages can be delivered effectively online.’
Without a doubt, an agency needs to have a good reputation. ‘The agency needs a track record that can be investigated,’ says Diageo’s Wright. Clients will look at previous successes – and failures – when choosing an agency. ‘You are only as good as your last project,’ warns Virgin Atlantic’s Charles. ‘An agency winning my business would have quality, not necessarily quantity, of campaigns and clients.’ The best form of recommendation is word of mouth. ‘You can’t beat it,’ says Charles. ‘I would go to an agency if other people are saying good things about it.’
Westminster’s Aiken agrees word of mouth recommendation is one of the most important factors in choosing an agency, especially in a specialist field: ‘We are a very close-knit family of people talking to each other through vehicles such as the CIPR, and emails asking whether anyone knows a good agency. If you want to work for local authorities you have to build a relationship with the sector.’
Cancer Research UK’s Davidge says she would not work with an agency that did not have a good reputation. This does not rule out new agencies, she says, but they would need to be set up by people who had already built up a strong reputation at their previous agency.
An agency is its people and clients will, in general, be looking at the team as a whole. Having one ‘star’ who puts him or herself forward as the key player in a team will not convince everyone.
Diageo’s Wright says: ‘A breadth of competence is needed. There is always a danger the star player will walk.’ Clients will also want the team that pitched to be the one handling their account. Too many stories are told of agencies where account directors win a pitch, and then hand the account over to a junior executive. Clients are cottoning on to this trick.
‘I won’t accept anyone working on the account who was not on the pitch team,’ says Inmarsat’s McLaughlin.
This does not mean, however, that small or new agencies cannot win big clients. If enough raw talent is there, communications directors will in some cases be supportive and help an agency build up a team. 3’s Davies says he looks for ‘enough of the core qualities in terms of people who are good, and will make things happen. Then I help them build a team, either from people within the agency, or help them hire in the right talent to get the job done.’
7 Get on the list
You have to be in it to win it. The Central Office of Information recently overhauled its roster and out of 600 applications, just 16 new and seven existing agencies made the cut. The efforts of these agencies will be rewarded with potential account wins from major government departments. And considering the Government is set to become the UK’s biggest investor in advertising, it is likely PR spend will also be on the up.
Even clients that do not choose agencies from a shortlist may use some form of vetting procedure. Cancer Research UK’s Davidge says she uses consulting firm AAR to help her find a suitable agency: ‘It keeps an eye on the agency market the whole time and has a sense of where the best people are, who is winning awards and where clients are moving to.
‘Specialised advice is important to me,’ she adds. ‘AAR handles the whole process, right through to pitch meetings’.
Westminster’s Aiken adds that local authorities tend to choose from a small pool of agencies that have built up a relationship with the sector. ‘It’s very close knit,’ he says. ‘Agencies have to build relationships with both the sector and individual authorities.’
8 The no-nos
An account can often be there for an agency to lose. First and foremost, 3’s Davies says, do not underestimate the client’s knowledge.
‘It really puts me off when an agency spends the first 15 minutes of a meeting promoting itself. If we have invited an agency, it is because we have done our research.’ Time is better spent demonstrating an understanding of the client’s business.
Standard Chartered’s Baxter says: ‘If an agency has a templated one-size-fits-all approach it suggests it has not thought about our business at all.’
Clients appreciate agencies that are honest about what they can offer. ‘Sometimes they try to position themselves as offering everything, but knowing what they are good at is critical,’ says Diageo’s Wright. The BMA’s Butler agrees ‘over-selling of the ability to deliver’ is a definite turn-off.
Clients also want to know they will receive a good service. Virgin Atlantic’s Charles says: ‘If an agency did not get back to me on deadline or give me regular updates on a daily basis, I would be put off.’
Baxter adds: ‘I do not like it if they pick up the phone and you get the sense you are on the clock and they are always conscious of how much time they are spending on you.’