As a former corporate communications minion (meaning I wrote the staff newsletter and did the press clippings), I've always taken an interest in the in-house communicator's role and the challenges of counseling from inside an organization.
But over the past couple of years, I have been more consistently impressed by the intellect and innovation coming out of PR agencies than I would have expected. Not because I did not believe them capable, but because I saw them mobilizing in a more reactive way, rather than delivering both tactically and strategically above and beyond expectations. Whether that was ever true or not, I believe it is no longer the case, particularly among the best firms. While this year's Agency Excellence Survey highlights a few agencies that stood out from the rest in service, the results reveal that agencies overall are doing an impressive job meeting client needs.
One area that needs further development, however, is that of demonstrating ROI. The tension between the kinds of products and services that agencies are delivering, and their abilities to prove their value to in-house partners, is at the heart of the conflict. As several industry observers point out in the Excellence Survey article, many clients retain firms as arms and legs, only to then remonstrate with that same agency for not being creative or strategic enough.
Moreover, many clients are still not benchmarking their own performance, and identifying an agency's success in an ROI vacuum is uniquely difficult in PR. Agencies have become experts at helping clients clarify specific objectives and measure against them, but only enlightened companies are embracing that function.
Our pages are full of such progressive clients, but there are many more out there desperately needing an education, not only in how to maximize their agency resources, but in how their own worlds are changing. Many agencies are trying to do just that, investing a huge amount in thought leadership, including surveys and studies. Sure, much of this is used in client prospecting. But a lot of the really interesting data serves the dual purpose of allowing a firm to flaunt its intellect, while offering clients fresh perspective.
"Thought leadership often allows us to have a more fundamental discussion with clients about the direction of their programs or the need for new ones," says Paul Taaffe, CEO of Hill & Knowlton, which counts among its numerous efforts an annual Corporate Reputation Watch survey. But Taaffe says the real value comes from giving clients the tools to increase their relevance and credibility with internal management and the C-suite. That is an example of the mutually beneficial by-product of a successful agency/client relationship.
Agency people say it all the time, but never on the record: Many clients are their own worst enemies. In the most painful cases, competitiveness and territoriality about resources and C-suite contacts limit the contribution of PR firms and will ultimately undermine the objectives.
Agencies aren't perfect. But the best companies and in-house communicators are expert at cultivating them and building partnerships with them. Believe me, everyone knows who I am talking about, and they also know how rare those people really are.