Ghosted: Scorned PR agency pros recall a time a client prospect vanished

It's becoming more common for prospective clients to ghost PR firms, industry execs say.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Ghosting is an unpleasant fact of life in the dating scene, but now it’s cropping up in unexpected places, including the RFP process, PR pros say.

"I darkly joke with colleagues that I am still waiting to hear the outcome of pitches from five years ago," says Jon Meakin, West Coast lead and global head of strategic services at Grayling.

Some PR agency bosses and senior executives say they were ghosted following informal searches or instances where companies reached out to agencies over email or over the phone.

Others circumstances where client prospects suddenly went silent, however, required an intense amount of resources and time from the agency side. In these cases, PR pros went through all the normal stages of "courtship": an RFI and RFP, followed by pitches and presentations. But then the client prospect stopped answering their phones and emails.

The contract was either never awarded or its winner was never announced. The client simply flaked.

One former executive at a large PR firm, who did not want to be identified, said ghosters obviously want to avoid the discomfort of delivering bad news.

Some of the scorned agencies just wanted constructive criticism so they could improve, especially at a time when multi-million dollar accounts are becoming increasingly rare, as one PR boss notes.

Ghosters should beware:  The PR industry is "a small world," warns one exec. Word gets out quickly if you’re an unethical operator, he says.

"Most people would rather simply focus on getting started with the new partner and assume the others will get the hint when they don’t hear anything further," he adds. "I suspect there is little gratitude for the hard work that went into preparing the pitch or appreciation for how competitive it is to win business."

Another reason clients may disappear: They don’t think there is much value in spending their time helping losing agencies, says one exec.

Another agency boss recalls a pitch that involved several steps: An introductory phone call, a more focused call with their larger team, followed by a couple of meetings at their offices with the prospect’s full executive team.

"[Then] the prospect just vanished and never got back to us, even after we followed up – politely, of course," he says. "Ironically, this firm preached endlessly about the importance of doing the right thing and how values should always come before everything else."

Jim Wilkinson, chairman and CEO of TrailRunner International, says ghosting "seems to be happening more than before."

One possible reason is clients, who are demanding better work from their agencies, didn’t see anything worth buying. Another is that budgets are tightening and "sometimes the head of comms get a little ahead" of their resources, Wilkinson adds.

Another agency executive that spoke on background agrees with the assessment that comms divisions over-promise.

"More frequently, we have pitches that start off guns-a-blazing and then fizzle to be non-opportunities," the executive says. "We find this is most often caused when the prospect doesn’t have the necessary internal buy-in or executive alignment with the search; it’s more of a fishing expedition."

Sometimes, clients haven’t had the budget approved upfront. Other times, agencies are expected to get internal management to sign off on their ideas.

"This isn’t ideal," the agency executive says.

Another reason for ghosting is a leadership change happens mid-pitch, changing the priorities and strategic direction of the company.

Meakin says he doesn’t believe procurement is driving the ghosting trend.

"It tends to be more common when the process is run solely by comms or marketing personnel," Meakin says. "Towards the end of process, they become more focused on the final one or two agencies and everyone else is left at the side of the road."

But the increase in ghosting over the years belies other aspects of the fraught client-agency relationship, notes one exec. PR pros have long suspected clients run out of ideas and invite agencies to pitch to generate new ones.

A number of agency CEOs over the past few years have commented that business development no longer relies as much on the RFP process because of the amount of time they require.

Some agencies have revamped their business development units to pursue accounts more judiciously, meaning they only commit to one if they’re certain they’ll be awarded the contract.

In an interview with PRWeek for its 2019 Agency Business Report profile, Ketchum CEO Barri Rafferty said the agency won two out of every three pitches in 2018, in part because it does more due diligence on what business it should chase.

"We doubled down on our centralized business team, which is also much more seamless," Rafferty said in a previous interview. "They can move fast and the RFI processes are much more automated than they used to be. I think we’re able to be much more agile."

Rafferty attributed Ketchum’s strong batting average to its new organization. The Omnicom shop is engaged in a two-year project restructuring its U.S. business into a single P&L, dismantling its practices and forming itself around 14 industry sectors and 13 comms specialties.

"Our industry leaders can make the call," Rafferty said. "It’s not like we’re a geography and it comes in and we just say, let’s go after it because it’s in our backyard. We waste no time."

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