Agency Excellence Survey 2007: Relationships that deliver results

PRWeek's fourth Agency Excellence Survey shows that firms need to develop creative PR programs that can really impact their clients' business.

PRWeek's fourth Agency Excellence Survey shows that firms need to develop creative PR programs that can really impact their clients' business.

When the Washington National Opera got to the final stages of its recent agency search, three firms stood out. Each had a strong mix of corporate, nonprofit, and arts PR experience; each provided similar capabilities in terms of size; and each had a wide variety of established media and influencer contacts. In the end, there was one particular deciding factor, says PR director Lisa Marie Meier.

"We chose Powell Tate/Weber Shandwick," she says. "The overarching thing out of all the criteria we had was they listened more than they spoke."

It wasn't that agency executives sat through the process in silence. In fact, Meier says, the team offered lots of creative, new ideas and approaches and "were excited and enthusiastic about where we could go with our goals."

Sometimes, she adds, firm execs "ask a couple of questions, then are ready to tell you all they [can] do." This firm's reps didn't, she says. Instead, they asked how they could "expand and replicate our objectives and initiatives."

This approach, Meier says, has helped the agency become "really part of our team inside."

Listening, learning - truly understanding a client's business - this was among respondents' higher priorities for potential PR firm partners in this year's PRWeek Agency Excellence Survey.

Whether dealing in opera or orange juice, it's a quality seen as critical to successful client-agency relationships. Similarly, a firm's deep understanding of a client's business is an element that can help it provide the "appropriate strategic counsel and advice" expected of it, a trait also ranked among this year's higher priorities.

In this year's survey, Weber Shandwick scores well above the industry average on the attributes clients consider to be a "higher priority" or "differentiating." In addition, WS is among the two strongest agencies in terms of top- two-box client satisfaction; Fleishman-Hillard is the other.

This year's survey, conducted by global research firm Millward Brown, is based on the responses of 828 clients who work with 14 different agencies that paid to receive a copy of the full results. (The full methodology can be found at the end of story.)

For the first time, the survey polls an equal quota of both past and current clients for all agencies (50 of each for every firm). Respondents were allowed to comment on up to four agencies they currently work with or have worked with in the past two years.

The respondents represent a wide variety of industries including tech, auto, healthcare and manufacturing. Twenty-two percent are either C-level executives or VPs. The survey also polled marcomms directors and brand or communications managers.

While the survey places some emphasis on attributes clients consider "differentiating" or "higher priority," it also reveals qualifications that some clients consider the bare minimum. (See below for the list of attributes that firms were rated on in those criteria and their relative importance.) This "cost of entry" checklist includes requirements such as working within the budget, demonstrating a measurable ROI, and being able to anticipate problems and issues that could put a company at risk.

Coverage is key

In addition to these fundamental, foot-in-the-door qualities and "understanding what our business is all about," the extent of a firm's coverage area is also an important consideration for some clients.

"We did want a firm that could cover the US and Canada as best as possible, [an agency] with pretty good coverage," says John Lampl, VP of corporate communications, Americas for British Airways.

The company recently selected Porter Novelli as its AOR, he says, in part because of these coverage capabilities. "We need some sort of West Coast and Midwest representation, particularly if there's a crisis, because CNN's there in 25 seconds," he notes. "In that first golden hour, we need somebody to represent British Airways."

"We always like to have someone on the ground immediately without us traveling," echoes Brian Eley, communications director for Animal Planet. No matter what, Eley says the network prefers to have a PR rep on-site "to make a connection between our brand and the talent" and the media.

While Eley doesn't always expect that person to be the firm's most senior-level executive, he adds that a senior person should be available if needed - and not only for matters of expert advice and counsel.

"It's rather disappointing when we need all the stops pulled out on a project [and] we need someone who has senior experience, and they can't contribute," Eley says. "We'll work around it, but that contributes to whether we rehire. Senior people can't be so removed that they can't get down and dirty and roll up their sleeves when needed to deliver something."

At Toyota Motor Sales USA, a "major agency contact person" needs to be available to work out of corporate headquarters at least several days a week, and a senior agency executive working on the account "should stay informed and show face time," says Chad Harp, marcomms administrator, Toyota division communications.

It can be equally advantageous "if [a firm] can bring in an AE that can talk the talk," he adds. A staffer at that level - someone with great enthusiasm and the ability to take initiative - can be a tremendous help, he adds, "when I'm pulled in different directions [and] need one or two go-to people."

"I expect an agency to be an extension of my team, to enhance and protect my brand, to understand my message points, and translate them into an effective PR program," says Alfredo Padilla, AVP, corporate communications, Western market, for Comerica Bank. To forge that kind of relationship, he says, an agency partner must be proactive and creative, and there must be open channels of communication on both sides.

True partnerships

To that end, survey results show, a differentiating factor in selection is that the firm is viewed as an important business partner within a client's organization. Another related differentiating issue, new to the survey this year, is that the firm is viewed as a strategic partner among a client's other marketing disciplines and agencies.

But "working collaboratively is not always an agency's first reaction," says Chris Hosford, Hyundai's corporate communications VP. "I sought agencies that could and would work collaboratively; it was a very important part of our search process."

Greyhound's recent review also stressed the ability of working well with other in-house groups and agency partners, an effort "to create a truly integrated team."

"We're no longer in silos where marketing does its own thing, and PR does its own thing," says Kim Plaskett, Greyhound's director of corporate communications.

In some cases, Plaskett says, Greyhound found it could get more exposure - and even change brand regard among relevant consumers - by crafting outreach programs reliant on a mix of PR, advertising, interactive components, and branded entertainment efforts all working together.

That extended scope of thinking speaks to another characteristic clients have come to expect from agency partners, as displayed by this year's survey: an ability to develop creative programs that help meet business objectives.

"I [sought] an agency that could offer something unique, not your basic PR programs that my own team can do," Plaskett says. "I was looking for that strategic insight that gives us the 'A-ha!' factor - something you'd never [expect from] a bus company."

At Six Flags, creativity is also a key factor in agency selection.

"There's a lot more competition in the PR industry now," says Lissa Mariel Brown, director of corporate PR. Media outlets receive "so many different pitches from different places, you have to differentiate yourself. How [a firm] thinks outside the box in terms of pitching our company separates good PR people from great [ones]."

In pharma, specifically, "finding the new role or contribution for the PR team relies more than ever on creativity," says Lisa Garman, director of US communications and PR at UCB Pharma. "The media is played out with awareness campaigns. Every month now has five or six diseases. How do you break through that clutter?"

The answer: "Outside-the-box thinking." For Garman, an agency partner must "come up with very creative, dynamic campaigns that break through the clutter."

Another "cost of entry" on this year's survey - last year a high priority - is a firm's ability to demonstrate a measurable ROI.

Mei Li, SVP of corporate communications for business software company NetSuite, agrees that the best agency partner "executes and delivers results."

NetSuite works with New York-based Brew PR, Li says, and is consistently impressed by its "results-oriented" approach to garnering business-media coverage and relationships within the tech and VC community, as well as positioning NetSuite execs as industry experts.

But while clients agree that ROI measurement is expected from an agency partner, what this actually means is still open for discussion. To measure PR's effectiveness, clients cite information such as word of mouth, analyst reports, sales results, and research data. Though these all rank high on the survey's list, media monitoring remains clients' top preference. But unlike in the past, media hits today are more about quality than quantity, clients say, and the ability to genuinely resonate with target audiences.

"We're definitely looking at the clips to see what we're getting for our money," says Six Flags' Brown. Those clips can range from articles in "mom-centric" magazines to posts on ride-enthusiast bloggers.

Digital expectations

These days, many clients expect their firm to be on top of digital strategies. Survey respondents say it is still a lower priority in selecting an agency partner, but it is becoming more important.

Still, finds the survey, clients will more likely rely on a digital/online, ad, or even direct-marketing agency to develop their organization's digital strategy over a PR firm.

"More and more, we expect [PR firms] if not to have competency in new media to certainly connect with partners who do," says P.J. Sinopoli, VP public affairs, QTG (Quaker Tropicana Gatorade).

But partnering may not be enough, says Animal Planet's Eley.

Even quite recently, "PR had been very formulated: broadcast, radio, print," he says. Now, PR pros must focus "on those things, [while] totally ramping up their knowledge on Web sites, blogs, SEO. PR can't hide or say there's a specialty shop that does it. PR pros must be up to speed on that."

Sinopoli notes that a key thing to keep in mind in establishing or extending an agency partnership is that they succeed "when they do not confuse motion with progress. It's not enough just to do a lot."

At some point in every account experience "there's a lot of activity - but it's not always focused," she adds. "Is the stuff they're doing truly moving the business forward? Is it serving to meet the objective? Activity isn't what matters. It's effective activity that matters."

Interviews for the PRWeek Agency Excellence Survey were conducted via a computer-assisted Web interviewing [CAWI] methodology.

All respondents were PR clients involved in agency selection and management. The 828 respondents were recruited from the ERI panel between March 1-24, 2007. The ERI Panel has more than 1 million business professionals across the US and Canada, and is made up of opinion leaders, decision-makers, and purchase influencers for companies and organizations.

Qualified members are invited to complete an in-depth, business-relevant profiling survey that indicates their work roles, responsibilities, job-related interests, and more. The 14 firms that took part in the survey paid to get a copy of the full results.

Modeling of results: Agencies were ranked on two dimensions, high importance and differentiating, which were derived from the Stated vs. Derived Importance Analysis. Statements which were high in both Stated and Derived Importance are considered of high importance, while those which are high in derived importance, but lower in stated importance are considered differentiating.

High importance and differentiated attributes were given a greater weighting in the model, which also factored in a client's overall satisfaction, likelihood to rehire, and likelihood to recommend the firm.

The structure of the model was designed by Millward Brown, with analysis carried out by a Millward Brown analyst.

Weber Shandwick
CEO:
Harris Diamond
President: Andy Polansky

Nature of work for clients:
Media relations (55%);
Marketing communications (45%);
Product or service promotion
or launch (43%)

Top-scoring attributes against average: Generates accurate work; collaborates well with in-house contacts and other agency partners; demonstrates a measurable return on investment

Bottom-scoring attributes against average: Has the tools available to measure the results of PR activity; provides tools and advice that help support your company's senior management; provides actionable research to inform campaign strategy and execution

Top attribute for current clients: Has high-quality staff

Bottom attribute for past clients: Is viewed as a strategic partner among all other marketing agencies and disciplines

Weber Shandwick scored well above average on all attributes that clients considered a high priority, or differentiating, when selecting a PR agency.

Diamond believes that the biggest factor differentiating agencies in client service is a client's "perception of you being a true partner - of you viewing [their business] from the same perspective they are. [We look] at assignments from [the perspective of] what a client needs to accomplish its task. A successful engagement is defined by a client's success, not the firm's success. Our success comes from clients' success."

Polansky notes that client satisfaction "always comes down to people and having high-quality staff." To that end, WS is constantly deepening and broadening its senior talent pool.

"We're putting more people through training who have global account experience [and] hiring people from [varied] backgrounds who can add a lot with respect to intellectual capital," he says.

Diamond explains that "we're big believers in ROI... Clients understand we're accountable. Making sure the client is getting a good return - be that in enhanced reputation, stock price, or sales - is key for client success."

Polansky cites several developments and evolutions in tools, including a proprietary methodology called ARROW, which is being built into all the firm's client engagements.

"It [will] always be tailored to a particular client," he says. "It's not a one-size-fits-all methodology."

Brodeur
CEO:
Andy Coville

Nature of work for clients:
Product or service promotion or launch (38%);
Media relations (35%);
Marketing communications (34%)

Top-scoring attributes against average: Provides strategy for and access to global markets; has the tools available to measure the results of PR activity; offers client service that is truly outstanding

Bottom-scoring attributes against average: Has a deep understanding of what motivates target stakeholder audiences; consistently delivers your company's message to all target audiences; provides tools and advice that help support your company's senior management

Top attribute for current clients: Offers client service that is truly outstanding

Bottom attribute for past clients: Anticipates problems and issues that could put your company at risk

Coville credits measurement scores to setting up-front goals and an integrated approach. The firm uses a metric that shows how messaging is connected "across the gamut" of marcomms disciplines. It has also invested heavily in online measurement tools.

Continued investment in research and data access will help Brodeur improve client service, Coville adds. "The more we can tell clients what they don't know already know - that's really valuable."

Burson-Marsteller
CEO:
Mark Penn
 
Nature of work for clients:
Media relations (43%);
Marketing communications (37%);
Product or service promotion or launch (34%)

Top-scoring attributes against average: Has a deep understanding of what motivates target stakeholder audiences; understands your business; develops creative programs that help meet your company's business objectives

Bottom-scoring attributes against average: Collaborates well with in-house contacts and other agency partners; works within the budget; provides actionable research to inform campaign strategy and execution
 
Top attribute for current clients: Has a deep understanding of what motivates target stakeholder audiences

Bottom attribute for past clients: Provides tools and advice that help support your company's senior management

Penn is "heartened" by the firm's top-scoring attributes, and says Burson has been working on significantly broadening programs it uses to meet client goals "by expanding the digital component and other services, such as grassroots, to tie together a series of programs."

Penn thinks low scores on research are "outdated," noting that the agency works closely with sibling Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates on research, which is a critical element to driving strategy.

Cohn & Wolfe
CEO:
Donna Imperato

Nature of work for clients:
Marketing communications (41%);
Product or service promotion  or launch (41%);
Media relations (40%)

Top-scoring attributes against average: Demonstrates a measurable return on investment; provides good value for money; develops programs that are meaningful to key stakeholders

Bottom-scoring attributes against average: Understands your business; has high-quality staff; collaborates well with in-house contacts and other agency partners

Top attribute for current clients: Demonstrates a measurable ROI

Bottom attribute for past clients: Understands your business

At C&W, talent development programs are mainly focused on creativity. "We put teams together with different thinkers to get the most creativity," says Imperato. "Clients talk about creativity a lot, but I'm not sure they know what it means. I've seen [clients] talk about not getting creative work [from other agencies], but what they really seek is strategy."

C&W scored high in demonstrating a measurable ROI and unsurprisingly has "a long list" of ROI tools. But Imperato says clients often have their own ideas about how to measure.

"It's hard to measure what we do," she acknowledges. "Rarely does it tie directly into sales, which is what a marketing person wants. We use different measures for everyone."

Edelman
CEO:
Richard Edelman

Nature of work for clients:
Marketing communications (47%); Media relations (43%);
Product or service promotion or launch (36%)

Top-scoring attributes against average: Provides appropriate strategic counsel and advice; develops programs that are meaningful to key stakeholders; works within the budget

Bottom-scoring attributes against average: Is considered an important business partner within your organization; develops creative programs that help meet your company's business objectives; is viewed as a strategic partner among all other marketing agencies and disciplines

Top attribute for current clients: Provides appropriate strategic counsel and advice

Bottom attribute for past clients: Is considered an important business partner within your organization

Richard Edelman is very pleased that the firm's top-scoring attributes include strategic counsel and meaningful programs for stakeholders. "PR being a bridge to stakeholders is an important part of what we offer," he says.

A lower score on partnering with agencies was a surprise. US president and CEO Pam Talbot notes clients have directly cited the agency as partnering well (in both leading and supporting roles) with other firms, but she feels all agencies can improve. "We share experiences and best practices internally and with clients," she says.

Fleishman-Hillard
CEO:
Dave Senay

Nature of work for clients:
Marketing communications (48%);
Media relations (39%);
Product or service promotion  or launch (33%)

Top-scoring attributes against average: Collaborates well with in-house contacts and other agency partners; understands your business; has a high-quality staff

Bottom-scoring attributes against average: Anticipates problems and issues that could put your company at risk; provides good value for money; responds to your needs and requests in a timely manner

Top attribute for current clients: Collaborates well with  in-house contacts, as well as other agency partners

Bottom attribute for past clients: Low staff turnover rates

Senay believes that client satisfaction starts with an agency's employee selection.

"We talk about partnership as  a verb - to partner," he explains. "We can find or develop great practitioners, but they have to start off as really great people. [It's] a mission to make [Fleishman] a place where unusually talented people can come to do the best work of their lives."

High scores in understanding clients' business also reflect the agency's "emphasis on understanding industries and audiences," he adds.

GCI Group
CEO:
Jeff Hunt

Nature of work for clients:
Media relations (51%);
Marketing communications (38%);
Product or service promotion  or launch (32%)

Top-scoring attributes against average: Anticipates problems and issues that could put your company at risk; consistently delivers your company's message to all target audiences; has a high-quality staff

Bottom-scoring attributes against average: Has low staff turnover rates; develops programs that are meaningful to key stakeholders; offers client service that is truly outstanding

Top attribute for current clients: Demonstrates a measurable return on investment

Bottom attribute for past clients: Demonstrates a measurable return on investment

GCI has invested in making communications, digital media, and creative relevant to its clients' business goals.

"Making the business case for communications leads to ROI and to working across a board spectrum," says Hunt. "If you're demonstrating and quantifying results, you're doing what clients really need."

Hunt also notes that clients increasingly want "big ideas that drive business - not just PR. [When] we can blend and quantify impact," he says, "they are all for it."

GolinHarris
CEO:
Fred Cook

Nature of work for clients:
Media relations (41%);
Marketing communications (36%);
Executive positioning (35%)

Top-scoring attributes against average: Has low staff turnover rates; provides actionable research to inform campaign strategy and execution; responds to your needs and requests in a timely manner

Bottom-scoring attributes against average: Consistently delivers your company's message to all target audiences; is considered an important business partner within your organization; is viewed as a strategic partner among all other marketing agencies and disciplines

Top attribute for current clients: Has low staff turnover rates

Bottom attribute for past clients: Provides strategy for and access to global markets

Cook attributes GolinHarris' low staff turnover rates to corporate culture. "We try to keep clients and people for a long time," he says. "It's one of the main tenets of our business."

Low scores around client partnership issues surprised Cook.

"We have 15- to 20-year-range clients, which shows we're long- term strategic partners," he says. "We try to be future-focused - understanding their business and giving strategic counsel on issues before they happen."

Hill & Knowlton
Chairman and CEO:
Paul Taaffe

Nature of work for clients:
Marketing communications (43%);
Media relations (38%);
Product or service promotion  or launch (34%)

Top-scoring attributes against average: Considered an important business partner within your organization; has a deep understanding of what motivates target stakeholder audiences; consistently delivers the company's message to all target audiences

Bottom-scoring attributes against average: Offers client service that is truly outstanding; responds to your needs and requests in a timely manner; is viewed as a strategic partner among all other marketing agencies and disciplines

Top attribute for current clients: Has a deep understanding of what motivates target stakeholder audiences

Bottom attribute for past clients: Responds to your needs and requests in a timely manner

Taaffe sees three aspects to differentiation in client service: insight capability, senior talent, and collaboration with other providers.

Research and measurement are essential, and H&K will likely increase its $1 million spend on R&M this year. "It's not just program measurement - it's stakeholder [thought] or [behavior]," he says. "If you can't measure that, how can you advise?"

Ketchum
CEO:
Ray Kotcher

Nature of work for clients:
Marketing communications (53%);
Media relations (50%);
Product or service promotion or launch (39%)

Top-scoring attributes against average: Responds to your needs and requests in a timely manner; understands your business; is viewed as a strategic partner among all other marketing agencies and disciplines

Bottom-scoring attributes against average: Works within the budget; collaborates well with in-house contacts and other agency partners; has low staff turnover rates

Top attribute for current clients: Understands your business

Bottom attribute for past clients: Works within a budget

Kotcher says understanding clients' business and building strategic relationships - its two highest scoring attributes - are "two sides of the same coin." Agencies must understand what motivates audiences, how they get information, and what resonates, he adds.

The demand for knowledge workers is an issue Kotcher sees increasing for every professional service provider. Ketchum has a "very serious" and structured program to develop career paths, and "a large portion of [yearly] budgets [go to] training," he says. "We also look at alternative streams of talent."

Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide
CEO:
Marcia Silverman
 
Nature of work for clients:
Marketing communications (46%);
Media relations (46%);
Product or service promotion  or launch (35%)

Top-scoring attributes against average: Understands your business; has a deep understanding of what motivates target stakeholder audiences; collaborates well with in-house contacts and other agency partners

Bottom-scoring attributes against average: Helps you understand and develop programs within the new media environment; anticipates problems and issues that could put your company at risk; provides strategy for and access to global markets

Top attribute for current clients: Has a deep understanding of what motivates target stakeholder audiences

Bottom attribute for past clients: Is viewed as a strategic partner among all other marketing agencies and disciplines

Low new media marks surprise Silverman. "Our digital influence operation specializes in reaching target audience and is as a vast resource for all clients," she says.

"We have a variety of global resources and staffing has changed dramatically in past few years," she adds. "We have hired more strategic people and made senior hires in an effort to produce a very senior operation."

Porter Novelli
CEO:
Helen Ostrowski

Nature of work for clients:
Marketing communications (41%);
Media relations (40%);
Product or service promotion  or launch (37%)

Top-scoring attributes against average: Has low staff turnover rates; consistently delivers your company's message to all target audiences; works within the budget

Bottom-scoring attributes against average: Provides appropriate strategic counsel and advice; demonstrates a measurable return on investment; has a deep understanding of what motivates target stakeholder audiences

Top attribute for current clients: Helps you understand and develop programs within the new media environment

Bottom attribute for past clients: Is considered an important business partner within your organization

Ostrowski and president Gary Stockman both stress that clients want partners that have material impact.

"Clients [want to know] how the agency work[s] and how you make things happen and deliver," says Ostrowski. "[We] bring the best minds and ideas together - wherever they come from within the agency - on behalf of clients," Stockman adds. "Emphasis [is] placed on ideas [rather than on] job titles."

Ruder Finn
CEOs:
Kathy Bloomgarden, Peter Finn

Nature of work for clients:
Marketing communications (42%);
Media relations (41%);
Product or service promotion or launch (34%)

Top-scoring attributes against average: Responds to your needs and requests in a timely manner; is viewed as a strategic partner among all other marketing agencies and disciplines; works within the budget

Bottom-scoring attributes against average: Has a deep understanding of what motivates target stakeholder audiences; offers client service that is truly outstanding; consistently delivers your company's message to all target audiences

Top attribute for current clients: Is viewed as a strategic partner among all other marketing agencies and disciplines

Bottom attribute for past clients: Consistently delivers your company's message to all target audiences
 
Strengthening strategic partnerships has been a priority for both Bloomgarden and Finn.

"It's vital for [PR] as a whole  to be viewed as strategic partners," she says. "It has cascaded through [RF], and we're pleased to see it's coming across."

Training staff to have good financial-management skills and giving them the tools to track spend in real time has also been important, adds Finn.

Waggener Edstrom Worldwide
CEO:
Melissa Waggener Zorkin

Nature of work for clients:
Marketing communications (53%);
Media relations (39%);
Research and measurement (32%)

Top-scoring attributes against average: Provides actionable research to inform campaign strategy and execution; works within the budget; anticipates problems and issues that could put your company at risk

Bottom-scoring attributes against average: Understands your business; develops creative programs that help meet your company's business objectives; has high-quality staff

Top attribute for current clients: Anticipates problems and issues that could put your company at risk

Bottom attribute for past clients: Understands your business

With its deep roots in science and tech, WE has long been invested in research and measurement, and Zorkin is glad to see clients demanding more.

"It's not just measuring the end of a program," she explains. "Clients watch every step. We like that. Course correcting in real time drives real results."

A top priority and challenge is growing talent and leadership at all levels. "It's less about title," Zorkin says. "Getting leadership out of every person at the firm [is what] works."

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