Top 150 issue: Client/agency relationships - The good and the bad

How can PR agencies build client relationships? Kate Magee asked some senior comms directors for their advice.

PRWeek's long awaited Top 150 agency league table is out (enclosed). The supplement is a key aid for clients when shortlisting and rating potential agency partners. And with the financially demanding 2009 behind them, agencies claim they are now seeing a rise in new business opportunities. With this in mind, PRWeek surveyed a selection of senior comms directors about what they look for in an agency, their good, bad and in some cases downright weird, agency experiences.

My best/worst pitches

Agencies have their complaints about the pitching process: it is too onerous, there are too many people on the shortlist, clients steal their ideas. But what do clients think? What are their best, and worst, pitch stories?

AC: The best pitch I've seen was when two guys from a New York agency presented a simple PowerPoint and peppered their presentation with ideas from the sublime to the ridiculous. They didn't leave reams of forest behind for us to cogitate over. They told it as it was and left us in no doubt as to their ability to deliver.

LF: The best pitch I've ever seen was during my time at NICE. The successful agency had strong creative ideas for supporting our communications, and a sound understanding of how comms opportunities and threats differ in the public sector as opposed to the private sector.

SW: Mine was a non-pitch, just a brainstorm really. But by throwing around thoughts and ideas in a dynamic way, almost like a jamming session, the team convinced me they could do a great job.

AC: Recent contenders for the worst pitch I've witnessed include an agency in Latin America where we were presented with four pages of regurgitated brief by a couple of disinterested participants, or the pitch in Asia when the agency owner continually stroked her hair, rattled her long string of pearls and barked at a very junior account executive. However, the worst imagery and language in a pitch was one in the US when I was categorically told: 'If you can dream it - we can make it snow' and 'We are going to help you rip the chicken out of the wolf's belly and get you that coverage'.

I'm hoping this was just a case of being lost in translation.

LF: The worst pitch I've ever witnessed involved the CEO of an agency pitching with three junior colleagues. She was an impressive individual who gave robust answers to the questions we asked, but we knew from experience that we were unlikely to see the CEO again after the pitch. We couldn't appoint the agency because we had no idea what skills and experience the rest of the team would bring to the project.

PD: I believe the PR pitch beauty parade is a legacy of an old industry. The process is lengthy, costly, resource-hungry, inefficient and often does not result in the required level of understanding which will lead to a fruitful partnership. We have to move the industry on, for both the agencies' and clients' sake.

CD: The worst one I've seen was when the pitch was off brief, the team couldn't answer our questions and the ideas were completely unfeasible.

IW: I was involved in one where the pitch leader suggested that she'd met the prospective client 'in another life'. I wished I was in one too.

TAS: My advice to agencies when pitching is that turning up with a small army is unnecessary. About four representatives is enough, but bring account executives. It's good to find out who will be on the front line representing the brand. Make sure everyone speaks.

Better relationships

Common sense is the best ingredient for creating a good agency/client relationship. Clients want honesty, creative ideas and a good attitude. What are the panel's top tips for keeping them truly happy?

AC: Remember that the majority of us have been agency side - we know the score; just give us the facts, your insight and advice. And be as creative with new ideas as you are with invoices.

CD: Give us as much feedback as we give to you.

TAS: Objectives always change. Keep reviews regular to make sure you are still delivering what the client wants. Positively surprise us.

LF: See the client as the other half of a team. Rather than trying to out-do the client as an expert on their business, a good agency should bring skills, experience, ideas and the capacity to support them.

IW: Spend time trying to understand both the client's business and the way in which your consultancy's work is seen at every level of their business.

PD: Get to know your clients' business in depth, not just what the media think or write. Understand how their business works and how they measure success and failure. Don't do PR for publicity's sake.

SW: Listen and respond. If you are putting a lot into proving to the client that you have delivered, then it probably means you haven't.

My ideal consultancy

What do clients think are the criteria for the perfect PR partners?

AC: The perfect agency would frequently introduce me to key media contacts I don't already know, be armed with creative and quirky angles and wouldn't rest on previous laurels. It would possess creativity, team-fit, social media smarts, be results/metrics driven, have the right attitude, good contacts, a track record, recommendations and be good at doing its own PR.

CD: A good agency should feel like an extension of the in-house team, without sacrificing any of the external perspective and expertise we've employed it to bring. It should challenge us constructively, strive to over-deliver while managing our expectations, be bursting with creative ideas, and (hopefully) be fun to work with.

TAS: An ideal agency would be proactive, energetic and have a can-do attitude. It would give us what we need - it's not always what we want.

SW: It would focus on delivery, not on telling me how good it is.

PD: It would bring new, creative ideas to me, challenge my thinking and tell the company when we are going wrong, missing an opportunity or ignoring a looming threat.

IW: The best agency would bring more really impressive, innovative thinking and less everyday activity that could be done more cost effectively in-house.

Faux pas to avoid

What are clients' main gripes about agencies?

LF: Bringing lots of consultants to meetings so the costs rack up, and being opaque about out-of-pocket expenses until the bill arrives.

CD: The occasional cold, hard seller who won't take no for an answer.

TAS: Over-promising, under-delivering.

IW: Charging for activity that one knows has been done at the most junior possible level.

SW: PR by numbers without engaging your brain.

How I choose agencies

Clients have a range of ways to rate agencies, from recommendations from industry colleagues to using the AAR.

CD: It's really helpful to use an intermediary like the AAR. It knows the industry well, gives great advice and manages the process for you.

TAS: Word of mouth and reading PRWeek. If my team admires campaigns, it will track down who is responsible for them and keep them on the radar.

LF: I tend to use the COI's agency rosters and the PRWeek Top 150 agency supplements to pull together a shortlist of eight to ten companies. I check each agency's website to see if they have done similar work before, and use this information to whittle the shortlist down to three agencies I can approach to tender.

PD: A mix of experience, both personally and within the corporation, recommendations (or damnations) from trusted media and client-side PR colleagues. Occasionally I'll believe what I read in the trade press as well.

Who pays for lunch?

AC: Usually we take turns if it is an agency that I work with regularly.

CD: We're a charity so I'd always expect the agency to pay.

LF: I don't lunch very often, but when I do I usually split the bill 50:50.

PD: My PR lunches tend to be meetings with key stakeholders, rewarding the agency team on a job well done or discussing business issues, so I usually expect to pick up the tab.

SW: The person who does the inviting.

IW: I don't really do lunch. Now, dinner ...

Who We asked ...
TAS: Tabitha Aldrich-Smith, Communications director, Whitbread
AC: Alison Couper, Global communications director, Expedia
CD: Carolan Davidge, PR and brand director, Cancer Research UK
PD: Peter Devery, EMEA director of corporate comms, Microsoft
LF: Louise Fish, Director of comms, NHS Confederation
SW: Simon Warr, Director of communications, Jaguar Land Rover
IW: Ian Wright, Corporate relations director, Diageo

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