PR TECHNIQUE CHANGING AGENCIES: When to hire a new PR firm

Changing circumstances, dwindling client service and cost are all causes for switching PR firms. But, Eleanor Trickett warns, such an upheaval demands lengthy consideration.

Changing circumstances, dwindling client service and cost are all causes for switching PR firms. But, Eleanor Trickett warns, such an upheaval demands lengthy consideration.

If you were to believe some PR firms, an agency review situation brings to mind a fat client reposing on a chaise, while desperate agencies pop grapes into his open mouth, and dollar bills into his open fist. Which any client will tell you is nonsense. Most clients agree that a review process can be one of the most harrowing parts of the job - not least because the day-to-day business still must trundle along. So what drives them to do it?

On a macro level, economic movement over the past two years or so has caused some companies to rethink their agency relationships. Slashed budgets and a radically altered strategic direction mean that some firms are left with agencies that no longer fit their budget and culture. Some of the newer companies and their relatively inexperienced communications staffs were pushed by skittish venture capitalists to hire a big-name PR agency, rather than one more tailored to their needs. And for the companies that survive the slump, both budget and culture will be issues in an increasingly aware world.

Not that budget changes are a recent trend. Jim Brown, an independent consultant in Orlando, FL, was media relations director at TWA in the late '90s. "TWA had struggled to become profitable for a very long time,

he says. "As it went towards becoming a much leaner company, we had to move from our big agency to The Standing Partnership in St. Louis, which is essentially a boutique agency."

Tom Branigan, now the corporate group practice leader at CKPR in Milwaukee, and former head of PR at Airborne Express in Seattle, agrees that in a cost-conscious environment, there is a "pressure to be constantly reviewing vendors - which is tricky if you have an established relationship with your agency. But you have to benchmark against other firms to see if someone else can provide the service more cost-effectively.

However, he adds, "It's unethical to hold a review without any intention to change agencies - maybe even doing it just to network."

Of course, it's not only rocky financial times that can necessitate a change. Sometimes the opposite happens the client's growth and subsequent needs outstrip the agency's capabilities. This isn't always enforced by higher powers on the client side - quite often, a company just realizes that it needs an agency with more offices in a wider variety of markets.

Especially for larger companies - such as IBM and Kodak recently - change can be a result of a company-wide agency network alignment, where the individual communications pros have little or no say in the matter. Perhaps the grain of comfort that can be extracted from this scenario is that the "winning

firm is often a fait accompli, with no review process necessary.

But the most compelling - and difficult - reason for changing PR agencies is when the client-agency relationship has broken down beyond repair.

And even this, says consultant and client-agency matchmaker Jerry Swerling, should be salvaged where possible. He recently counseled a Fortune 100 company that had been having problems with its large PR agency. But it transpired that part of the "fault

was that the client side had changed, both organizationally and in terms of objectives, and that the agency hadn't been brought in to that dialogue. "I advised the client that because of the longevity of the relationship and the mutual loyalty, the agency deserved an opportunity to turn the situation around,

he says. "Now, the relationship is back on track."

Many clients agree that the desire to change comes from a sense that the agency no longer considers your account a priority. An in-house pro at one of Silicon Valley's big tech players explains her company's agency switch: "Things can get stale, and agencies can rest on their laurels, thinking they have nothing to prove. One by one, our divisions seemed to lose faith in (the firm). We were one of its largest clients, but didn't feel like we were treated like it. And as individuals jumped jobs all the time, we were always training people."

Sonia Snyder, president of Quill Communications in Florida, says that a neon sign that you have been moved down the priority list is that "the agency principals who sold you their proficiency and agency depth begin to fade off, and newer, younger team members take over your account."

Snyder, who has years of experience on the client side with travel and tourism companies, also believes comprehension of your business is fundamental. "If, after in-depth brainstorming and a nice long grace period, you find the agency still can't relate to your industry like an insider, or can't represent you at a level which your competitors enjoy, then it's time to change.

And more measurable reason for changing, she adds, is "when you see reports showing hours of busy work, but your in-house marketing team can find few results or progress for all that billable time.

Other reasons ought to be obvious, such as an agency making a serious violation of ethics, or repeated errors in strategic judgment.

A strategic change in the business or marketing plan is another reason to rethink agencies. One such company is Perrier, which repositioned its San Pellegrino business in January. It went from Ogilvy PR to New York and San Francisco-based Lewis & Partners, because it wanted a firm with more experience in the restaurant business - an area the client had identified as being the best place for the brand. While Ogilvy lacked experience in this field, said marketing manager Elena Paraskeva at the time, Lewis & Partners had handled PR for Nestle and Tropicana, and was well-versed in gaining prominence for its products in restaurants.

A similar thing happened in one of Brown's earlier jobs, on the corporate communications team at American Airlines in the late 1980s when the company decided to push into Europe. "With a focus on international, we had to change to an agency with a more international focus. And now they're one of the major European airlines."

But the one thing that should not be a factor, says Swerling, is cost.

"At the end of the day, you're not going to save much. Costs are largely generic. What's different from agency to agency is the smarts."

See the upcoming April 1 issue for a PR Technique on starting work with a new agency.

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