I have been having a lot of conversations with clients and colleagues about evaluation recently, as many are undertaking their half-year reviews.
Increasingly, though, I have found myself frustrated with the framing of those conversations. For a while, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, but now I think I have it: the language we use is all wrong.
Think about it – the term 'half-year review' suggests something that is backward-looking. And while one has to look back to learn lessons for the future, my observation is that more often than not agencies do one but not the other.
It's not just about language, of course. These meetings are important, for clients and agencies alike. They are one of only a handful of occasions when all the key stakeholders get together to focus on the PR programme. On the agency side, hours and days are spent preparing. But then the opportunity provided by this valuable face-time with the client is effectively wasted – or at least, not maximised – because the first instinct of PR people is to try to put a positive spin on everything.
I've been guilty of it myself. We look back at what we have done in the previous six months, and we focus on the things that worked well, slapping ourselves on the back and seeking our clients' approbation.
It's great to celebrate our successes, and we absolutely should do so. But to stop there is to fail our clients.
At the AMEC Summit in Prague earlier this year, Facebook's Daniel Stauber reminded delegates of the story of Abraham Wald.
Wald was a Hungarian mathematician and part of the Statistical Research Group in World War II. One of this group's projects was to study the patterns of bullet holes in the Allied planes that returned from bombing raids, to ascertain where best to place armour to reduce their chances of being shot down.
However, Wald observed that it was not the bombers that had returned they needed to study, but the ones that didn't make it back. The ones that were shot down. The ones that had 'failed'.
Apply that thought process to a PR campaign and we can see that as well as celebrating our successes, we need to analyse even more closely those elements that, well, bomb.
In 25 years of agency life, I have yet to see a campaign where everything went 100 per cent according to plan. Life just does not work that way. So why are we so reluctant or afraid to discuss that reality when we come to those 'reviews'?
This is where we can and should learn from each other. Agency folk may be arch-rivals, but we share common goals (we want to make our clients successful), common frustrations ('stuff' getting in the way of our ability to make our clients successful), and common ways of doing things (like the half-year review).
This is especially true of measurement and evaluation. We all need to do it, but many of us – admit it – don’t do it well, and don’t like doing it because it’s not our strong suit.
This is why the AMEC Agency Group launched Common Ground, with the aim of creating a forum where PR people from agencies large and small can share ideas and experiences of measurement and evaluation in a non-competitive environment, and learn from each other to the benefit of the whole profession.
Get in touch with me or with AMEC to find out more about Common Ground.
But let’s start by thinking again about how we use that valuable time with our clients. Let’s stop calling it a ‘review’. Let’s be honest about what works and what doesn’t. Let’s analyse those things and apply lessons for the future. Let’s make evaluation about planning ahead, and not just looking back.
Jon Meakin is global head of strategic services at Grayling, and chair of the AMEC Agency Group