Compared with the free-for-all of years past, the new-client market
these days might resemble more of a Polish supermarket than a New York
department store. But while the shelves may seem a little bare, there is
still business to be had.
Potential clients are sometimes viewed by PR agencies as "mean" people
who relish the idea of lining up and grilling prospective partners -
like a bad cable TV dating show. But an admittedly unscientific straw
poll of clients reveals the contrary: most dread the review process.
It's drawn-out, it's expensive, and it's time-consuming.
So, let's assume for now that you're a client and you've made that
decision to get a new agency. Where do you start? Chuck Meyst, CEO of
Business Partnering International, which operates Agencyfinder.com,
illustrates the size of the problem: "There are 9,000 PR firms in the
country," he says. "If I'm a client, I don't want to have to talk to all
9,000 of them."
Many clients have a few agencies in mind, just through having worked in
the industry long enough to know a number of them by reputation and,
sometimes, from previous experience. But for those starting from
scratch, there are a few neat tricks to use. Jane Windsor, director of
communications for UK-based Cambridge Positioning Systems, needed
someone for the company's October 1 launch in the US. The first thing
she did was pick the brains of journalists. "I asked them who was the
most responsive agency," she says.
Meyst's operation is one of several that offer matchmaking services.
Free to clients and consultants (not agencies), his service allows
clients to pick just a handful of agencies, based on chosen criteria,
bypassing the tiresome process of rummaging around a frankly complicated
Meyst says that the first criteria the searcher will normally look for
is vertical market experience. This is generally followed by what
services they want, then experience with reaching the target
demographic, location, and who will work for the budget you are
If your account is global, adds Larry Sennett, Edelman president of
technology (himself a former client at Oracle), then the searcher should
dig a little when an agency claims to have offices in whichever
countries you want.
"Having a couple of lead offices and then 30 affiliates just doesn't do
it," he says.
As well as such specifics, consideration should be made to the overall
culture of the agency - big or small, mainstream or niche, one-stop
shop, or boutique. But, says Steven Blinn, principal of Blinn PR, you
must be serious about all these prospects if you are to include them.
"Boutique agencies are often brought in to balance the playing field,
and that's insulting," he says.
Lining up the options
Jeff Manning, executive director of the California Milk Processor Board,
responsible for the famous "Got Milk?" campaign, says it's vital not to
fall into the trap of being enamored by the big agencies, and not just
line up the usual suspects for your pitch.
But how do you look beyond the obvious? Manning suggests using word of
mouth - something that he noticed happening a lot more in his work with
ad agencies. "If you see a campaign you like, you should ask, 'Who did
that?'" he says. "People don't do that with PR, but it really is worth
One issue that must be resolved in the early stages of a review is
All agencies know the frustration of being excluded from a pitch list
due to what seems like a tenuous clash. A straightforward conflict
between two direct competitors or big names is often insurmountable. But
clients are sometimes happy to have an agency work on two seemingly
competing clients if the geographic or demographic targets are
The next step is to distribute the brief to the selected agencies. As
much information about your company as possible should be detailed,
including who the company is, its marketing objectives, current
communication activity, target sectors, and key messages to get across.
It is also important to make sure that the agencies are able to start on
the business immediately.
Budget may or may not be included at this stage.
Often, clients will set tasks for agencies to complete as part of the
process. But Jerry Swerling, who runs a search consultancy in LA, warns
clients not to go too far with this. "I don't believe in asking agencies
for full-blown campaigns - that's not fair," he says. "But what we do is
think up a good strategic challenge and lay that on them. We look for
the quality of thinking. Not bells and whistles, but insight and
When it is time to meet the agencies, there are a number of decisions to
make, including where the pitch should take place, what the format
should be, and who will be in the meeting itself.
In Windsor's, case, she picked her agencies remotely while she was in
the UK. She then came to the US and asked them to pitch to her, as well
as to the general manager of the US office and the person who was head
of the product team here - who would also be the spokesperson. "I really
wanted them to be a part of it, so they wouldn't feel that the PR
campaign was being imposed," she explains.
Giving good vibes
However, it is the chemistry between the client and agency that is most
important to get right. A unanimous agreement across the industry says
that it's imperative that the agency presents the people who will be
working on the account if they win it - not just the senior
Naturally, the client is going to see everyone at the agency behaving as
if they are meeting their in-laws for the first time. If the meeting is
at the agency, it's likely that the whole place has been warned to be on
its best behavior; accordingly, the receptionist's shirt will be crisply
ironed, and the desks in the creative department will be unusually tidy.
Failing that, the client will be ushered straight into a boardroom.
But a two-hour presentation doesn't give you enough of a feel for the
agency, says Edelman's Sennett. "You should want to spend a day with
your proposed team and interview them in great depth," he insists,
warning that the person who is to head the account should be
Incidentally, he adds, "I would make it imperative that your lead has
both corporate and agency experience."
Having met their selected agencies, many clients will opt to whittle the
field down to just a handful - perhaps even two firms - for the final
round. Some advocate ending up with two virtually identical agencies
honed from an exacting elimination process, while others say that a
diverse list provides better ideas and insights. There is no right
answer to this, though your preference should be determined by the
assignment. If you're seeking an agency for a nuts-and-bolts task, you
might not want to line up a couple of left-of-center boutiques. But if
the assignment has more creative and strategic flexibility, you'll want
to hear ideas from a variety of backgrounds.
Money is no object
Swerling insists that "price should never be the deciding factor, unless
you have a situation in which the firms are exactly alike. But even then
I'd be suspicious of that decision." He also advises clients not to get
seduced by agencies wheeling out pitch toys, such as fancy proprietary
tools, when making decisions. "It just depends how important they are to
you," he shrugs.
In fact, most will agree that provided the rest of the criteria have
been met - frequently the case with more than one agency - the ultimate
deciding factor should be good chemistry.
Provided you have picked the right agency, this should be the end of the
process. And even if there are teething troubles, persevering is surely
preferable to enduring the whole process all over again. Although many
agencies have complained that clients view a pitch process as a way of
scoring free information on their business, (though, to be fair, one
never hears those complaints from the winning agency), it is undoubtedly
an arduous process.
To paraphrase Swerling's final golden rule of holding a review: if you
don't need to, then don't.
JERRY SWERLING'S TIPS FOR A PAIN-FREE REVIEW
1. Allow adequate time Running a good review should take between 100 and
200 person hours just to manage, including research, coordinating the
committee, and getting to know the agencies. Taking less time is an
invitation to disaster.
2. Talk to your peers and contacts in the business Learn from their
experience. What have they done right and wrong? Who did they like and
dislike? Every relationship is different.
3. Build consensus internally Who else in your organization comes into
contact with the PR function? This is your chance to get buy-in from the
marketing director, the CFO, and other functions. You don't want to lose
control, but making them feel like they're part of the process is a
great way to integrate PR into the business.
4. Carefully define your needs and search criteria, in writing, in
advance. Look at the contenders' capabilities, but also their culture.
Do they have any conflicting business? Where do they need to be located?
Deal with all of this up front - it's really embarrassing if you
5. Be painstaking about your research. Many clients have never worked
with agencies, and know little about it. You might miss potential
partners if you leave stones unturned. Don't just rely on who your golf
6. Don't be dazzled You're going to see the very best presenters you've
ever seen in you life, making an extraordinary effort. You have to
understand that this is exceptional. You've got to dig in and look
beyond who's actually pitching.
7. Keep the process on track If you start creating delays, avoid making
decisions, and as a result the schedule falls off-track, the agencies
start to suspect that you're neither serious nor competent.
8. Treat all the agencies with courtesy and respect Recognize that
they're putting in hundreds of hours, thousands of dollars, and a huge
emotional investment into the review. Treat the losers with the utmost
respect - it's a very small world. Don't notify them by e-mail or
9. Avoid gimmicks Don't be seduced by things like guarantees,
pay-for-placement, low-balling on prices, etc. That's not what this
process is all about. It's about the right team with the right
capabilities and the right chemistry.
10. Avoid the "usual suspect" syndrome Don't just go for the same big
firms that you always hear about. A lot of clients are doing themselves
a major disservice in doing that. There are lots of great independent,
specialist, or regional firms.
11. Don't rush it Take eight to 14 weeks - minimum. If you have to do it
faster, then there are ways. But the less time you take, the greater the
risk of error.
12. Avoid a review if you can! There are never any guarantees. You might
want to think about your current relationship, and whether or not it is
fixable. There are plenty of professional moderators around.
- Jerry Swerling is a PR management consultant based in Los Angeles.