CHOOSING AN AGENCY: Picking the right PR firm is no easytask. Eleanor Trickett discovers the best way to find an agency thatshares your chemistry

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,

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

sufficiently different.

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

particularly scrutinized.

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.


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

partner knows.

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.

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