Avoiding agency-client mismatches

Having worked both sides of the PR fence, I have seen my share of agency-client mismatches.

Having worked both sides of the PR fence, I have seen my share of agency-client mismatches.

But I have often wondered to what extent agency size itself is a complicating factor. After all, many firms sell themselves on the basis of "more" - more offices, more people, more specific industry expertise, more specialized groups, and more integrated communications. You get the idea.

This is not to say that big agencies can't deliver. They must - otherwise, how did they get so big?

But, based on my experience as a client of two top 10 agencies, as well as my earlier work at another top 10 agency, big firms tend to make more fundamental client-services mistakes than small or midsized agencies. Maybe it's just the way they're structured.

The first issue you need to deal with is "senior person syndrome." The senior person - typically a practice head, sometimes an agency head - shows up for a while to impress your management and negotiate the fee. Then they're gone. Where? Probably off to the next big pitch. For you as the corporate team leader, it doesn't really matter.

Then there's the "junior person syndrome." With the agency big foot gone, you're stuck with the rest of the team - typically younger, less-experienced account managers. Is this on-the-job training? You bet... and it's on your dime.

Then there's the "know-too-much syndrome." Chances are that the big agency sold itself on the basis of its superior industry knowledge in a practice group like healthcare, technology, or consumer products. That's great, but once the agency big foot leaves the game, you're stuck with the young account team. And chances are they're going to reach for off-the-shelf programs that worked for someone else.

Then there's the "late night syndrome," when you're sitting in your office after everyone else has left for the day, trying to make sense out of the work product your agency team has just sent over to you.

Finally, there's the "blame the client syndrome," where your agency team tells you that they could do much better work if they only had better material to work with.

What can you do?

First, pick an agency for what you actually need. Are offices in every major city around the world really necessary? How important is sports marketing to you as an add-on practice area? Do you really want access to the agency's book publicity unit?

Second, figure out where you fall in the agency's client-size matrix. Top quartile? You'll get the attention. Bottom quartile? I don't think so.

Third, beware of agency up-sell, in which their more esoteric products (like Web 2.0 marketing) suddenly become essential components of your account's success story. The fact is, another vendor may be better at it, and having two vendors can lower your delivery risk.

Finally, don't fall in love with your account team. Chances are, even the junior people will change.

How important is all of this? Well, choosing the right agency is going to make you look better in front of your boss. After all, you have your own career to worry about.

Laurie Dodge is an SVP at Marketcom PR

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