Agencies ultimately will need to push back against prospects' excessive expectations

Two executives from separate PR firms - one owned and large, one small and independent - complained to me during the past week about RFPs and increasingly demanding prospects.

Two executives from separate PR firms - one owned and large, one small and independent - complained to me during the past week about RFPs and increasingly demanding prospects.

In general, there has been a lot of talk about what clients expect, even as the market has improved. The role of procurement and margin pressure is a perennial topic, including Sun Microsystem's decision to employ "dynamic bidding" in its review.

But another concern relates to prospects who demand full-fledged campaign plans from firms pitching their business. Many firms believe that it is not only unfair, but tantamount to intellectual theft for those that do not walk away with the business.

Advertising agencies apparently suffer from the same range of client expectations as their PR counterparts, in terms of how much of the campaign is expected to be fleshed out in the pitch. "The fact of the matter is there is no one standard," affirms Bill Nicholson, head of an eponymous marketing consultancy. "I hate the fact that some clients hold out a carrot only to gather what's out there and don't fairly pay for it."

In the advertising world, the expectation that firms pitching the business will deliver campaigns makes more sense, says Steve Dahloff, managing director of strategy and planning for Ogilvy PR. "In advertising, you are buying the direct communications to the target audience," he says. "In PR, you're buying a broad set of communications skills that may be direct or indirect in terms of reaching the target audience."

There are several areas of concern. One is simply that the task of creating programs for non-clients is an arduous one that has the possibility of being fruitless. Another is that clients are simply putting agencies through the ringer because they can; they have the power, and they like to prove it. Finally, there is the risk that ideas will be co-opted - OK, stolen - for use by the clients and the winning firm.

Of course, it's far easier to prove that an advertising execution was ripped off than a PR program. As Nicholson put it, "You're never going to win that one in court, and you don't want a reputation for being litigious on that anyway."

Prospects can be educated, and the smart ones will devise ways to find out how the PR team thinks, not demand a literal demonstration of it. But unfortunately, in the small number of cases when the client's demands are unreasonable, it is down to the agency to draw the line, or walk away. And, yes, I do know that's easier said than done.

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