PR agencies that bill clients according to the number and quality
of media placements are fanatical about the system. The mantra of
success-billing loyalists is: 'measurable success rewards customer and
'It keeps everybody focused on goals and objectives,' says Chuck
Greener, senior partner at Porter Novelli. Greener consults with clients
who pay based on results. 'You are a true partner with the client.'
Graham Wilson, president of PRStreet, has been offering
performance-based rates for four years. 'It is a great way to get new
business,' he says. 'When I mention it to a potential client, their
eyebrows go up.'
But performance-related billing also has its critics. 'I don't believe
in it,' says Noemi Pollack, president and CEO of the Pollack PR
Marketing Group. 'It changes what our profession stands for. We become
bounty hunters rather than professional counselors.'
But Wilson says success billing helps win back clients who became
disenchanted with PR after paying agencies on retainer without seeing
the media placements they expected. 'It leaves the client feeling like
they are getting what they pay for,' he says. 'I am big on
accountability, and clients welcome that.'
Dick Grove, CEO of Ink, a virtual PR agency, defines its appeal even
more succinctly. 'Ultimately, top management wants one thing from their
PR firm,' he says. 'They want ink; they want publicity; they want to see
themselves in the media.'
Any PR agency or start-up firm implementing success billing needs to
develop a specific operating model to decrease risk and manage client
expectations. The first step is to determine how to calculate media
placement value. This can be tricky; not everyone will necessarily imbue
the same value on a particular media placement.
Some agencies create a media menu for clients, listing the cost of
placements according to varying tiers that might be determined by
circulation, ratings, media outlet prestige or advertising rates. The
problem with the approach is that publication or program desirability is
'A client might really want the Akron Beacon Journal, and that might be
worth more to them than The Wall Street Journal,' says John Hellerman,
EVP of Levick Strategic Communications, which specializes in PR for law
It is essential that the agency help the client identify which media
placements will best achieve the desired results. 'The first thing we do
is try to determine their objectives in terms of exposure,' says
'Then we try and design a program that includes media targets that they
feel will help them achieve those kinds of results.'
PR firms must strike the delicate balance between building a profile of
the ideal media targets and ensuring the clients have a realistic
understanding of the challenges facing the agency in pitching the story.
'It's managing the client's expectations,' says Grove. 'Be straight and
truthful with the client and never, never over-promise.'
Securing high-profile coverage can be time-consuming. 'It can take
months to get them that placement,' says Wilson. 'Last year I had a
client on CBS Evening News, and it took six months to get that. Another
client was on Oprah, and that took almost a year.' The client must be
educated in the complexities of the process, he says. That will prevent
the company from growing impatient or, worse, defecting to a
Protracted negotiations can be a hardship for the agency. A PR firm has
to be financially solvent to survive the lean times that will sometimes
come while waiting for a pitch to succeed. Some agencies, such as Ink
and PRStreet, choose to combine a retainer- and results-based fee
The retainer, substantially lower than typical retainer fees, covers
time-intensive tasks, such as writing press releases, and more
difficult, defensive PR services, such as crisis communications. Bonuses
are paid for media placements.
Success includes unique complications. Since the client pays only when
media placement efforts succeed, the original billing discussion can be
easily forgotten. When media hits start rolling in, the total cost can
take the company by surprise.
'We are so successful that sometimes it gives the client 'sticker
shock,' because we get them more results than they imagined,' says
Wilson. 'We brace them and say, 'Look we are getting a great response,'
to soften the blow.'
Wilson recommends weekly e-mail or fax updates to keep clients
up-to-date on responses to pitches.
Wilson says clients will sometimes ask to change to a retainer system,
which is actually a credit to the agency's success.
Finding the right PR practitioners is crucial to the survival of a
success-based operation. 'You find out who is really good at media
relations and pulls their own weight, and who stinks up the place,' says
Steven Blinn, principal of Blinn PR. 'There are a lot of PR people out
there who don't like to pick up the phone and talk to reporters.'
Hellerman adds that a performance-based billing system also appeals to
'I think people have a tendency to feel like telemarketers, and that
creates burnout really quickly,' he says. 'Our people love coming to
work because they know that they are doing whatever it takes to see that
there is a return on the client's investment.'
1. Do meet with clients at the start to determine primary goals
2. Do keep clients up-to-date on progress
3. Do be flexible. It might be best to combine retainer and success
billing for certain clients
1. Don't make unrealistic promises about the likelihood of media
2. Don't hire people who are uncomfortable pitching to reporters
3. Don't assume the client's dream is to be in The Wall Street Journal.