At the heart of PRWeek's Agency Excellence Survey, every year since its inception in 2004, are the performance attributes that collectively form a picture of what clients are looking for from their agencies, as well as individually show which firms are thought by their clients to be meeting them.
We also ask respondents to tell us, in their own words, what they like best and least about the agency. Predictably, some of the comments are interchangeable from one firm to the next. Others are so specific that if we ran a blind listing of them it would be no problem for many readers to decipher what agency was being described, even from the outside.
But one comment crosses every brand and every type of agency relationship - current clients or past. It is the issue of price, or as some put it, expense of the agency. No firm is exempt from a negative characterization of its pricing. Cost structure, to a lesser extent, also featured fairly prominently in a negative context.
Is this simply a natural response for any type of professional services relationship? One can hardly assume it is unique to PR, and yet there is something telling about the ubiquity of that comment in every survey we have done since 2004.
The attributes, and their analysis, offer some clues for defeating this perception. Through this research, we look at how clients rate their agencies in the various criteria and also ask what attributes they objectively think are most important. This model shows us how to differentiate between qualities that are distinctive, as opposed to those that are merely good to have.
Thus, this year's differentiating qualities include two very telling markers: collaborating with other agency partners, and being viewed as a strategic partner among all other marketing disciplines and agencies (the latter is a new attribute this year).
We have all grown used to looking at a two-way relationship: client and agency. But increasingly, the picture is more of a marketing matrix, with PR firms partnering in new ways with other types of firms, as well as broader internal teams. PR is involved earlier, and deeper, in the process.
In addition, clients have increasingly sought models that bring brands together in unique ways, inside and beyond the holding company structures that individual firms may occupy. And as we have seen with companies like Procter & Gamble, they are keen to see how each discipline performs against expectations, but as part of an overall strategy to meet solid business objectives.
The goal is not to have one big happy family of marketing companies and colleagues, but to maximize spend across the board by leveraging creativity, opportunity, and platforms to their fullest extent. If one part is not seen as contributing proactively to maximizing spend, it risks being seen as expensive and in isolation.
PR is playing a larger role in this process, but it still has some distance to go before it can put the silo firmly behind it and move those attributes from Differentiating to Cost of Entry on the chart.