PRWEEK.COM Q&A: Jerry Swerling

Jerry Swerling is a PR-agency search consultant and director of PR studies at USC's Annenberg School of Communication. Here he answers PRWeek readers' questions about his role in the pitch process, sizing up agencies, the worst pitches he's ever heard, and more.

Jerry Swerling is a PR-agency search consultant and director of PR studies at USC's Annenberg School of Communication. Here he answers PRWeek readers' questions about his role in the pitch process, sizing up agencies, the worst pitches he's ever heard, and more.

Q. When evaluating agencies for clients, what are your general thoughts about size of agency versus size of client or client budget? Can a large firm do a good job for small clients? Can a boutique firm handle large clients? -LG, New York A. When considering agency size versus client need, along with many other factors, it's essential to remember that no two reviews are quite alike. No matter what the client's needs might appear to be on the surface, there are always unique, subtle biases and preferences that can only be discovered by asking the right questions of the right people, listening very carefully, and running the data through the filter of past experience and knowledge. An important part of my job is helping clients crystallize their needs and preferences before there is any consideration of specific agencies. Naturally, one of the common variables is agency size. My experience has been that small and midsize agencies can do great work for big clients. One of my first searches was for Honda Motors, and six years later they're still going strong with the midsize agency we hired, Rogers & Associates. It all depends on the true scope of the client's needs, and whether the client is open to smaller firms. Some are, and some aren't. That's why it's so important to do a thorough needs assessment up front. As for big firms handling small accounts, it's very difficult to generalize. The recent economic environment has seen big firms go after clients they wouldn't touch in normal times. But, as the market returns to normal (which it is doing), the big agencies' enthusiasm for small accounts will increasingly hinge on whether or not the client meets a strategic need. I think that big-agency-small-client relationships can be problematic, but there have been enough successes to warrant smaller clients at least considering this option and then making informed, fact-based decisions. Q. Do you look for different skill sets in technology agency reviews versus consumer agency reviews? -LG, New York A. Again, it all depends on what the needs assessment reveals. Cisco Systems' needs were largely corporate in nature, but product marketing support was also important. And their stakeholders are amazingly varied. Obviously an agency lacking deep tech credentials would have difficulty establishing credibility with Cisco, but solid credentials in corporate reputation, public affairs, b-to-b and consumer marketing, and many other disciplines, all on a very broad scale, were also essential. One desirable agency attribute that consumer and technology searches often share is a keen understanding of how PR can work with the other marcomms disciplines to bring the client the best possible bottom-line results. That's the kind of experience you either have or don't have. There's just no way to fake it. Q. Will large clients of the P&G magnitude look at small but powerful firms in the $1 million category? Are boutique firms viable? -DS, Indianapolis A. I think that a $1 million shop might be a tad small for a very large client, depending on the size and type of the assignment. In several of my reviews the clients were very impressed with small firms but concerned about their ability to quickly scale up for bigger assignments. But, speaking as a person who has built two successful agency operations from scratch, I have to semi-quote Dirty Harry: ?An agency has to know its limitations.? My advice is that you build your $1 million agency into the best $2 or $3 million agency in your market by doing great work for quality clients of any size. Ultimately that will get you in the door of the P&Gs of the world. Q. What do you look for when your receive materials from a prospective firm in the selection process? What grabs your attention and you say, "Damn...these guys are good?" -DS, Indianapolis A. In a review I don't ask for standard agency materials, no matter how good they are. Rather, in every review I create a Request for Credentials (RFC) questionnaire based on the needs assessment. The RFC asks for very precise responses to very precise questions. In this way the client and I are able to make very fair, objective, apples-to-apples decisions about the agencies' abilities to service the client, rather than tell a good story. That said, there's still a lot of room for creativity in the process. There are lots of ways to catch the client's eye while demonstrating that you care about him or her. The trick is to not get carried away with the creativity and keep your eye on the ball ? meaning the client, not the agency. Q. Why should an organization hire a search consultant such as yourself? I've worked both ways in an agency search - with a consultant and without. What is your elevator pitch to prospective clients? And do you ever tell a prospective client they don't need you for their agency search? If they don't need you, please explain your reasoning. -JL, Chicago A. There are lots of reasons why various clients have used my services, but in the interest of holding your attention I'll share only the most common five: 1. Process. Mine is a rigorous, rational, and proven process that gives clients the accountability tools they want. 2. Precision. My reviews are highly focused, well organized, and stay on track. This brings credit to the internal client and is much appreciated by the contending agencies. 3. Consensus. Properly handled, an agency review is a great opportunity to build internal consensus around PR opportunities and challenges, strengthen ties with other internal functions, etc. For some clients this is just as beneficial as hiring the right agency. 4. Efficiency. Running a quality review can take 100?150 hours. That burden is shifted from the clients' shoulders to my own, enabling them to remain 100% focused on their real jobs. 5. Credibility. I've had the privilege of working with such great organizations as GM, Cisco, Home Depot, State Farm, Toyota, the American Cancer Society, Dairy Management, and many others, all with impeccable results. That experience translates into credibility that serves my clients extremely well with their own stakeholders. Have I told clients they don't need me for a search? Indeed, some of my most rewarding engagements have entailed convincing clients not to conduct reviews and put more effort into fixing their existing agency relationships instead (sometimes with my help). I've also turned down some clients for financial reasons, but even then I've tried to lead them in the right direction. But, generally speaking, once clients decide to contact me they've recognized that they need outside help, for any number of reasons. Q. Since so many agencies' responses to RFPs are very similar to one another, what distinguishing characteristics or contents do you look for in screening them? -NK, Chicago A. Actually we want the responses to the Request for Credentials (RFC) to be similar to the extent that they all address the same questions in a particular sequence. Otherwise it's far more difficult to make fair comparisons. The key point of distinction is always the extent to which each agency's response demonstrates that the firm does, indeed meet the specific criteria we've established through the needs assessment. Assuming that you've asked the right questions in the RFC, you'd be amazed at how distinctive the responses become when you line them up against each other. Q. How can a boutique agency best leverage its assets when competing with the "big guys?" Like many other small firms, we find ourselves pitching against midsize and large agencies for clients and budgets that they would not have even considered a few years ago. -CK, Los Angeles A. First, make sure you're on a level playing field. Try asking the client this question: ?As you know, we're smaller than some of the other contenders. We don't have 43 practices, offices in every nation on Earth and a publicly owned parent company. We are, however, great at (fill in the blank), and are willing to invest lots of our own money (not Wall Street's money) in your review. Tell me true ? is there any internal bias toward the big household names? Are we at even a small disadvantage walking in?? Once you've crossed that hurdle, it's time to put up or shut up, meaning you have to deliver a pitch that will trump those of the big guys. It also means clearly demonstrating the passion you have for the business and the advantages of working with an agency for which the client will be truly important. But remember this: I've heard very few pitches that didn't end and/or begin with some variation on this theme: ?You'll be an extremely important client to us and we really want to be your partner.? You have to find ways to make that claim real. Q. What are your top five "tips" for agencies wanting to work with search consultants and getting their capabilities in front of a broader scope of potential clients? -AF, San Antonio A. As person who has built two solid agency organizations virtually from scratch, I really empathize with the up-and-comers, and want them to succeed. Their success is crucial to maintaining a healthy blend of agency players. Yes, I have relationships with people at large agencies, because I've been in the business for 33 years and many of my reviews have been for larger clients in need of such firms. But I know lots of smaller players, too. And small to midsize firms (though never any firms smaller than $1.5 million) have won nearly half of my reviews. I urge the smaller shops to take these steps: Do great, recognizable work. Make sure the world knows about your great work. Treat the firm like a client. Become an expert on some aspect of the business and speak with authority. Don't be all agencies to all clients. Pick a niche and dominate it, if only at a regional level. Keep me and other consultants posted on major wins, successful campaigns, etc. In my case all it takes is adding me to your normal agency-promotion e-mail distribution list. Send me an email, and I'll send back a list of questions that will get you into my database, for free. That's where I start every search. The address is Q. The post-dot-com era poses new challenges for larger agencies in particular. Clients are seeking cost-effective solutions and services that are highly tailored to their needs - at prices that can be found in midsize firms and boutiques. Larger firms with their overheads are hard pressed to find solutions. What adjustments have you seen as firms respond to these competitive pressures? Are there any agencies that have developed new operational models to maintain a competitive positioning? -JC, Issaquah, WA A. Lots of things are happening. Pricing is flexible. New proprietary tools are being introduced all the time. Everyone is searching for a competitive edge in a field that's looking increasingly commodicized. But none of them are as powerful as the tools that have always carried the day, and always will: really smart, highly professional strategic thinkers who are fully committed to working closely with clients to achieve the latter's business objectives, even if it means falling a bit short of that month's profit goal. The best agency-client relationships are still about great work done over the long haul, along with mutual trust and respect. There really isn't any magic to it. Fortunately that much hasn't changed. The bottom line: finding a way to demonstrate, in real bottom-line terms, the value of what we do remains the Holy Grail. Q. You're obviously well known as a business consultant for corporations seeking guidance in hiring public relations agencies, but as a business person do you rely solely on your reputation and relationships to secure these engagements, or do you have some secret weapon that you'd like to share with PRWeek readers as to how you end up working with some very prominent corporations? -BS A. First, it's important to remember that consulting isn't my full-time job. Serving as director of PR studies at USC's Annenberg School for Communication fits that bill. Go Trojans! On the consulting front, if I had a secret weapon, I'd be spending this Saturday night sipping martinis in some high-class joint rather than sitting at my computer, writing answers to interesting questions from PRWeek readers. But quite honestly, the formula that has worked for me is the same one I recommend to agency folks seeking the silver bullet. It's all about doing solid, thoughtful, highly professional work while maintaining one's integrity. Do that, and the rest (generally) takes care of itself. Q. Do you consult with PR agencies, and if so how do you handle questions of conflict of interest? -JH, New York A. In the past I have consulted with agencies on staff training sessions, workshops, etc., because I love to share knowledge and it's good for everyone, including clients, if the agencies can put that knowledge to work on their clients' behalf. Regarding conflicts, anyone who knows me at all knows that there's just no possibility of such a thing happening. That said, I understand why some folks might be concerned about the perception (rather than the reality) of this, so I no longer consult with agencies on a paid basis. However, at the risk of still being just a little non-PC (please forgive me), I do speak to agency groups, on a very limited basis, for free, or in return for travel expenses (coach class only). I'm always open with my clients about such things and none has ever expressed the slightest concern. Q. How has the rise of the role of procurement affected your role/process? -DJ, New York A. It really hasn't been much of a factor in my practice. Usually they come in and handle the compensation negotiations after the client has chosen an agency for all the right reasons. My function sometimes includes meeting with them to provide a framework for those negotiations and urge them not to squeeze so hard that the new agency-client relationship is poisoned from day one. Q. What are the three attributes that make agencies really differentiate themselves from one another? -KL, Washington, DC A. I'll give you four: Great work. Great people. True concern for the clients' interests. And a willingness to sacrifice short-term financial gain for long-term success. Q. What's the worst pitch you ever saw (without naming names)? -ES, Seattle A. Ah, where to begin. Actually no single presentation has been just awful from start to finish. What tends to happen is that there's one awful element or aspect or moment that badly damages (or even sinks) the whole enterprise. Here are just a few of those that still cause me to cringe when thinking about them:
  • The agency CEO insults the client by coming on too strong about what the client is doing wrong.
  • 90% of an agency-led meeting has nothing to do with what the client clearly asked for. (Even the muffins are stale.)
  • The proposed ideas show a fundamental lack of understanding of the client's situation. (Actually even just one such idea, if it's sufficiently off the mark, can be fatal.)
  • The agency relies on the client to do most of the talking, thinking that this is how you show interest in them - even though the client is there to learn about the agency.
  • Asking forced, dumb questions.
  • Agency person who heads a losing team blames the consultant for providing incorrect direction, even though all of the other agencies were given the same information and none of them made similar mistakes.
  • Placing too much emphasis on awards. Clients generally don't care about most of them.
  • Damaging an otherwise great professional's chances of working with the client by having him/her handle a major part of the presentation, even though he/she is a terrible presenter. (Deal with such things in advance with the client, by phone.)
  • All client questions are handled by the agency CEO and EVP, while the people who will actually be on the business remain silent.
  • Equipment failure causes the whole presentation to freeze in time.
  • Office tours. Trust me - they all look alike.
  • Too much PowerPoint!

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