VP, external comms, Pfizer
Former executive director of strategy and communications at Novartis and global healthcare practice head at Ogilvy PR
When I was asked to share why agencies are key partners to companies, I had to take the pro side as a PR professional who spent the first two-thirds of her career at agencies.
When I moved to the corporate world eight years ago, I vowed to always keep my consultant mindset as I worked across the company I joined.
Even with my consulting approach that includes analysis, challenge, and presentation of recommendations, agency partners make significant contributions to our PR success beyond what our internal teams can do on their own. These include:
- Cross-industry experience. When Pfizer was developing its US reputation program, Get Old, we needed to understand how it would match up in making a social contribution compared with other top companies.
Our agency partner, Edelman, worked with many companies and could share insights from the Edelman Trust Barometer to add insight as we sought to build consumer connections around an issue we all must deal with: getting old.
- Deep capabilities. The great part of working in communications today is the real-time feedback and learning we can gain from our programs with social and digital channels.
While companies can measure a lot from inside, where we truly need agency partners is in staying current on technologies, deep-analytics experience, standout creative, and content. Agencies have the fresh talent we need to think digital and images first to move our companies into the snackable world.
- Perspective outside. As much as I strive to stay in touch with partners and the moves of other companies outside, my agency partners do this for a living.
Whether Pfizer is launching a cancer medicine, developing a culture plan, or building our social presence, our valued agencies bring us new thinking and relationships that will accelerate our position.
With the right level of investment and when tapped in the most productive ways, agency partners can make a great contribution to an organization's communications.No
CCO, Dow Jones & Co.
Experience includes roles at BNP Paribas, Bloomberg, the British Council in Paris, and the BBC
The obvious challenge with a black-and-white argument is that it is rarely that simple - and the decision to retain a PR agency is no exception.
Nonetheless, my experiences have shown me that in many cases, an agency is not the best use of your budget.
For starters, you are ultimately paying for your agency's infrastructure. Do not doubt that much of your retainer goes toward office space, electric bills, and time spent wining and dining other communications officers. I recently received a monthly report from one of our agencies and was shocked to find that compiling the report had been counted as one-and-a-half of the allotted 40 hours.
The money we spend on agency fees goes much further if we keep it in-house.
We also need to consider what we lose. First up - time. Anybody who has managed an agency is aware of how long it takes to brief and manage an external group on projects. Agencies don't live and breathe the business like an employee, so even the most talented of pros need some hand-holding.
The second thing lost is effectiveness. Most businesses are changing fast, and it is hard for external agencies to be as nimble as necessary. From seeing colleagues in hallways to hopping into impromptu meetings, staffers gain unparalleled insight from simply being present each day. Not fully getting it means agencies can easily miss the mark with the solution.
The greatest loss is institutional knowledge. When an agency does the work, you miss out on lessons learned from disaster or success and those priceless media relationships.
Lastly, communications pros need to focus as much time feeding information back into the organization as they do on pitching externally. As a member of the in-house team, you have the relationships and credibility on your side to enable that. To the contrary, it is hard for an agency to fulfill that role.
Using agencies can be good on a project-by-project basis, especially if you lack the bandwidth or skill set. But we should ask ourselves what we would gain from putting that budget into an in-house resource first.
The PR agency world is more competitive than ever - to the benefit of clients. Firms often bring valuable expertise and perspective, but it is up to the client to ensure he or she is getting the most out of their company's vendors.