In many PR campaigns, the time comes when a bigger budget is required to take the effort to the next stage. Anita Chabria finds out how to ask for more fundingMoney conversations are always challenging. And economic worries over the past few years have left agencies more concerned with retaining clients than growing them. But with some small signs of a recovery, it's a good time to shift focus back to increasing the size of accounts. While it might not be a market flush with money, clients are loosening their purse strings if given the right reasons.
"What we've seen is that ongoing budgets are still tighter with respect to the retainer," says Elke Heiss, San Francisco VP of Sterling Communications. "However, clients have extra budget for project work."
Before you ask for a larger paycheck, though, make sure you really deserve it. Check back over the past six months of account activity and take stock of what you've accomplished, where you could have done better, and where you still have room to go. Having a clear picture helps to bolster your position when you do approach the client and helps you to avoid any appearance of being out to take advantage.
"It's a fine line between wanting to get paid as much as we can and being greedy," warns Robert Smith, head of Robert Smith & Associates. "Clients know that. They may not understand PR as well as we do, but they do understand when people are trying to get money out of them."
If you do think you are at a fair point to request an increase, be careful of your timing. Make sure you're not asking just after a fiscal year has begun, when budgets have already been decided on, or at the start of another big project, when PR costs are already high. And most important, don't jump the gun. Relationships need to have been in place for a significant amount of time before clients feel confident enough to spend more.
"One should not approach bigger budgets right at the beginning," says Heiss. "This has to be a phased approach, and you need to first prove yourself."
Kim Amsbaugh, director of Eastwick Communications, based in Redwood City, CA, says the key to creating client confidence is being clear with communications, both in what you can do in the future and what you have done already. You've already taken stock of the situation, but clients also need ongoing information, as well as timely recaps, to remind them of all of your accomplishments. By keeping the client continually informed, it's also easier to point out gaps in strategy or tactics that could give an agency the opportunity for a new program.
"Generally, when you kick off with a client there are specific programs that they want to implement, but six months down the line those programs may not fit the bill anymore or new things need to be added," says Amsbaugh. "The first thing that we regularly do is engage clients in conversations about future plans and objectives, and, from those conversations, just keep an ear out for any opportunities."
It's an approach that Heiss describes as "no-surprises account management."
"We develop ahead of time a scope of work on a monthly basis, as well as on a six-month basis, and we revisit that," she says. "And if, for example, we have met our goals of the activities we decided we are going to focus on, but new things come up, we are able to get more money from the client that way. They're willing to increase their budget over time if you can over time show the ROI."
Expert negotiators agree that return on investment is the single most important factor in winning increased business. If clients know they can trust you to put their money to good use, they are more willing to take a risk on your ideas, says Matt Frankel, VP of communications for IFC.
"The most important thing we look for is results," he says. "If they provide the results for the brand, I will be very happy and interested to support them [with a budget increase], almost as I would support a member of my staff asking for a raise."
Amsbaugh says that she uses that ROI approach to create a "mini-plan" when asking for more budget funding, so that client companies can have a firm set of results and expectations in mind for future work when deciding if the extra cost is worth it.
"Rather than just saying that we need $5,000, it's definitely important to tie that increase in budget to what it is going to result in," she says.
She adds that it's also important to approach the client in person, no matter how shy you are when it comes to talking about money.
"Never propose an increase in budget over e-mail," she cautions. "I always pick up the phone or do it in person and have a conversation because so many questions are going to arise. You get better results."
And what do you do if after all your preparation a client still says no to a budget increase? Get creative and stay bold.
Roberts says that when faced with a negative, he gives clients case studies and information about past successes to show what he could accomplish. And, if all else fails, he gives the clients access to other clients as references.
Amsbaugh adds that sometimes it pays to give the client a preview as a way to prove the worth of increased services.
"One tactic that I've taken that works well is if a client says no, I say, 'OK, let's do a trial period. Let us do two contributed articles for you, and let's see how you think they've turned out and evaluate the results, and then if we meet or exceed your expectations, let's have the conversation about integrating this as an ongoing PR plan,'" she says.
And even if that "no" seems firm, never stop coming up with good ideas that might in the end be tempting to implement.
"When it comes down to a company hiring a PR firm, it already thinks it has something the world should know about," points out Roberts.
But it's also critical to keep in mind that over time some clients just might not be worth keeping if the bottom line isn't paying off.
'If we're going to invest time and money, we need to make sure the client is also a good investment," explains Heiss. "We have to run a business at the end of the day."
Do review client history to understand if increased budget is fair.
Do be thoughtful in your timing.
Do keep clients informed of accomplishments and opportunities.
Don't ask via e-mail. It's best to do so in person.
Don't jump the gun. Build a relationship first.
Don't give up. Keep the good ideas coming.