My previous column focused on the agency selection process and featured commentary from a range of agency CEOs. They asked for anonymity because they were fairly critical of how most reviews get done.
I promised for this column we’d hear from the other side: the clients. And I have good news and bad news.
The bad news: Most clients don’t seem to care too much about agency gripes. I asked about half a dozen CCOs to comment on the observations of the agency CEOs, and all but one declined.
I must conclude that their perspective is straightforward: There are many agencies and if you don’t like the process, there are other firms that would eagerly take your place.
That is a very unfortunate point of view.
The good news: The one response I got was from Dave Samson, head of communications at Chevron and the new chairman at the Arthur W. Page Society. Samson is one of the more enlightened CCOs, having served in senior positions in both the corporate and agency worlds. His influential role as head of the Page Society gives me hope his perspective will become more widely shared.
Samson’s commentary was so thoughtful, I asked if I could liberally quote him directly. He gave me his permission, so here is Samson’s advice to his fellow CCOs (and agency execs) on searching for and retaining an agency:
Shortlist the agencies best suited to do the work. For example, if you need outside counsel on a shareholder activism issue, you are best suited to shortlist the boutiques that specialize in handling these kinds of issues. If you need a firm with global reach, a boutique is not your best answer. The client should do their upfront homework to shortlist the right firms — and chemistry does matter. Clients should also be clear about who the decision-maker is for the agency review; if a direct report of mine is going to manage the relationship because the work is being done on that person’s behalf, I make that person on my team the principal decision maker. Despite what my own feelings may be, I would be very reluctant to overrule that person’s decision. Doing so would undermine their authority and send the wrong message to all involved. Depending on the circumstances, it could also be viewed as a conflict of interest.
Be clear about the scope of work and allow the agencies to actually make money for the work they do. Procurement may be part of the process, but the hiring communications manager must own the process. If it is solely a procurement exercise to secure the lowest fees, then the relationship will never be more than transactional. It will never be a true partnership where both parties benefit from the business relationship. In the end, both parties lose. The client doesn’t get the best team or the best thinking on their account, and the agency doesn’t view the work as meaningful or rewarding. The minute the agency can replace the client’s business, they will do so.
Both sides must be accountable to each other. I’ve always believed that agencies are only as good as their client. Clients must give their agencies the access they need to do the work. Clients must be forthright in how the relationship is going and be understanding of how agencies work and make money. Clients must also accept candid feedback if there are obstacles getting in the way of the agency’s ability to meet expectations — and clients must act on that feedback. In turn, agencies must be able to work collaboratively with other firms (seldom does a large company work with only a single AOR). Agencies need to understand that there are always trade-offs inside a corporate environment. Who has the trump card on any given initiative or issue — communications, legal, marketing, HR, finance, etc. — varies depending on circumstances. Also, agencies need to think beyond the profit-center model and optimize and leverage the talent they have to the benefit of the client. When I hire a firm, I want to tap the talent that exists across the firm, not within a single location. I believe the profit-center model continues to be the Achilles heel of the holding company model. Although they talk a good game, most fail to deliver on the model’s promoted benefits.
Agencies are good at mobilizing for a pitch, but less so in committing the best team to serve the business once it is won. They may tap their network to win the pitch, but often retreat to a lesser-experienced team to provide the bulk of the day-to-day support (often from the office that led the pitch). Usually, that is not the best solution.
Too often, agencies propose a laundry list of actions or initiatives they feel will achieve the client’s desired outcome. The best agency pitches are those in which the agency suggests what few actions are really needed to achieve the client’s desired outcome. While this may not be the most lucrative approach for the agency, agencies would be well served to take a disciplined approach to trimming ideas of marginal value. Less is often more and, if the agency delivers on expectations, it will grow its business.
Know the client. Few agencies demonstrate a good understanding of the inner dynamics of a corporation and they often do little homework to understand the culture and character of the company they are pitching. These two things undermine many agency selections.
How to Win. I would counsel an agency looking to earn my business to structure the new business pitch to accomplish four things: First, demonstrate that they have done their homework on my company and offer an informed perspective; Second, be honest in its assessment of what my company is doing well and where we have gaps; Third, show that they have the relevant experience and ensure that their talent will used on my business (no bait and switch); Fourth, engage the client in a substantive conversation. I have sat on both sides of the table, and the winning firm is usually the firm that is most adept at driving a meaningful exchange that allows it to showcase that it has done its homework, has good ideas, and will field a smart team with relevant experience. Also, chemistry matters.
My thanks to Samson for his thoughtful, valuable observations. I hope they are read — and taken to heart — not only by agency execs, but by Samson’s CCO peer group.
Bob Feldman is cofounder and partner of PulsePoint Group, a management and digital consulting firm. He can be reached at email@example.com. His column focuses on management of the corporate communications function.