Don't be that client nobody wants

Get a roomful of PR agency executives together and what do you think they talk about? The pitfalls of pitching some potential clients. You should hope it's not about you.

Get a roomful of PR agency executives together and what do you think they talk about? The pitfalls of pitching some potential clients. You should hope it's not about you.

If you could have been a fly on the wall at a recent industry gathering, you would have gotten an earful about the new business landscape. While opportunities are out there, some of them aren't pretty.

I'm not even talking here about clients who are late paying their bills or demanding more service than they're willing to pay for – although these are also true. The real grumbling can begin just about the time the RFP or RFI comes over the transom with particular client names attached.

In a nutshell, some clients have developed a negative reputation for running a new-business process that just isn't worth competing in.  

There have always been companies who gain a reputation for running excessively demanding reviews, reaping all the best thinking of competing agencies, then retaining their current firm. There are others who play favorites, including additional agencies in the mix just for show. Perhaps most distressing of all, there are brands that run massive reviews, full of promise, and then, in the end, never award the business.

But as the first quarter of lean and mean 2012 comes to a close, there are additional – or at least elevated – tendencies that make an invitation to compete for the business more dread than delight. 

For starters, with the heightened presence of procurement in the mix, an increasing number of clients are presenting agencies with little or no opportunity to speak with the in-house client team, let alone provide sufficient opportunities to bond with them.

To save money, response and turnaround times have been shrunk significantly. A search that would once have progressed organically over eight weeks might now be compressed into one or two. 

Finally, without a PR or even marketing professional in the procurement role, the ask can be so general as to require something akin to a PR 101 primer in response. Alternately, PR firms are forced to gaze into the crystal ball, putting excessive hours into research, intelligence, and strategic guessing just to take a stab at what the company is most likely to need from them. 

In this new business climate, some of the best agencies have been known to take a pass, leaving clients with only the more desperate in the pack from which to pick. I've even known of cases in which particular clients have put out an RFP and received not a single taker. Take heart, if this has happened to you – even the client with the shakiest reputation can be resurrected with some emergency rehabilitation.

In one recent agency search debacle I was called in to fix, the remedy included starting from scratch with a new, more explicit RFP with a specific scope of work and budget articulated. More client face-time was built into the process. And most importantly, the client's CEO became personally involved. Given the improvements in the process, I felt confident enough to hand-walk some agencies into the pitch, assuring them they were the right size, geography, and specialization, and that the field would be limited so that they would each have a fair chance. The result: the client ended up with an excellent agency partner and no more bad buzz.

Many of you clients have been on the agency side, so you know the tremendous pressure agency personnel are under to put in a great effort to win your business. If you don't want to grimace with chagrin, alongside the fly on the wall, pay heed to the first and potentially most important part of the corporate reputation-building process – a fair, respectful, and productive agency search.

Dan Orsborn, CEO of Orsborn Partners, has spent most of the last decade leading PR agency searches for major marketers. His column will tap into his expertise, from both sides of the equation, on the agency-search process. He can be reached at dorsbornco@aol.com.

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