Industry reaction: 'Overservicing is rife', 'Time sheets are abhorrent', 'We need to sell value'

PR industry leaders have agreed "overservicing is rife" and agencies are too desperate to please, but is there a way to combat this "epidemic"?

A new study has revealed that 92 per cent of agencies overservice clients, with about one in five overservicing every account.

This has lead to eight in ten PR professionals working unpaid overtime to meet the expectations gap, while a fifth of PR professionals have considered quitting due to this workplace pressure.

PR's 'overservicing epidemic': 90% of agencies overservice client accounts

PRWeek asked agency bosses for their thoughts on overservicing, and what the industry can do to combat it.

Almost all broadly agree with the findings of the Ginger Research study and some are resigned to overservicing being a part of agency life.

However, many have offered some sage advice on how to minimise overservicing and rallied the industry to tackle this growing problem. 

One prominent agency boss has his cross hairs firmly aimed at time sheets, while another pines for the 'Tudor era of PR'.

James Herring, co-founder and CEO, Taylor Herring

Just try getting a lawyer or a plumber to do a few extra hours of work for free. Or a cab driver to do an extra 10 miles as a cheeky favour. Not in any other bill-by-the hour industry do you find this kind of practise. By their nature, PR account handlers tend to be obliging folk. They’re tasked to nurture happy clients and often judged by the monthly coverage they land. Too often the default directive by taskmasters is to ‘do what it takes’ and so over-servicing is rife. Sometimes earned media can be harder to ‘earn’ than normal, but try explaining that to the testy CMO, who's a born-and-bred performance marketer, the type that only reads the spreadsheet and cares not a jot for the context. Naturally, some CMOs are more enlightened than others. Ultimately, If your client isn’t prepared to pick up the bill for those hard-slogged extra hours, it’s maybe time to find a new client.

Sara Gourlay, global technology practice director, Hill+Knowlton

Overservicing happens, but it’s avoidable if you put the right team together and establish clear, shared expectations, and that means writing it all down in black and white for everyone to see. It’s all about getting everybody heading in the right direction. Otherwise, things can go off course.  

Greg Jones, managing director, Mischief

Overservicing will never be completely removed, but it can be reduced and managed. Key to this is ongoing conversations with clients, ideally on a monthly basis. Those conversations need to focus on servicing levels, identify 'problem' areas and the reasons behind them, the 'consequences' of overservicing and - finally - some solutions about how best to bring servicing levels down. Realistic budgeting and scope at the start of each campaign. Not easy, I know, but the more realistic the budget and scope, the less likely the campaigns are to be overserviced. Clear KPIs agreed at the start of each campaign. In my experience a lot of overservicing comes when neither client or agency know what success looks like - and the sell-ins (or whatever) drag on and on, sucking up more and more time, resulting in chronic overservicing. 

Andrew Bloch, founder and managing partner, Frank

Time sheets go against the grain of most PR people, their results are pretty meaningless, clients don’t like them and in many instances their use actually inhibits an agency’s ability to make money. PR shouldn't be about selling time. It should be about selling value. At Frank, that value is in our creativity, the intellectual property we conjure up with our ideas, and the results that are forthcoming. I think that clients are not particularly bothered about how long it takes us to do the job, as long as we meet or exceed their expectations, targets and objectives. The PR industry seems hung up on using time sheets; they are a regular feature in the majority of PR agencies despite the fact that most PR people dislike them. A financial director will tell you that you can’t run an agency and make money without having access to this time sheet information. But what they don’t realise is that the data they are basing their judgement on is largely inaccurate. The majority of PR people would admit time sheets are filled out inaccurately, incorrectly, or retrospectively, so it turns out the finance and HR departments are wasting a fair amount of time analysing this in reports for senior management. Time sheets provide largely useless information to agencies that have them, are counter intuitive to most creative PR people, and clients would prefer not to have them. The PR industry needs to become better at selling value.

Roxy Kalha, director, The Romans

Agency teams need to work hard to create and nurture client relationships that feel a bit more mate-like, where there are regular opportunities for both parties to check in on the budget and the scope. If agencies act like scared children when it comes to discussing money, they quickly get into a transactional supplier vs. client situation and that’s when over servicing levels become as thorny as Prince Andrew’s ‘put the record straight’ interview. 

Amit Chakravarty, head of earned, YOU Agency

Overservicing is a reality for agency-side comms professionals. However, it’s often referred to as a ‘dirty term’ because agencies might feel they need to provide more, or are unclear on the parameters, to keep clients happy. From my experience, there are two things. Firstly, it’s about valuing our time better as consultants – our craft is our value proposition. Similarly, lawyers or financial consultants offer their services with a specific value placed on their expertise and clear real-time communication to the client of the costs. The latter point is interesting because that links to how we plan out and pace campaign activities to match the required outputs. if both sides know what good looks like and what it’ll cost to get there, then overservicing shouldn’t be an issue. Secondly, it’s about having grown-up conversations with clients about scope creep and/or overservicing at the earliest opportunity. No-one likes surprises, so a retrospective conversation about additional fees is rarely going to end well. If we take pride in our craft, value our time and are realistic about the price of success, conversations on overservicing should feel less dirty and part of how we plan out great campaigns.

Mary Whenman, director of communications, British Business Bank

When I started in PR back in the Tudor era, I never worked on more than three accounts. At Paragon it was Orange, Royal Mail & Samsung. At Biss Lancaster it was Butlins, British Steel & Cable & Wireless. At H&K it was De Beers & Opodo. The fees were big. We tracked the hours. Then something happened in the mid-noughties and suddenly directors started working on five accounts and account executives/managers on eight. The fees all became a lot lower. It became a race to the bottom line and the cheapest deal. PR started to lose its ability to be valued and to charge the fees of earlier years. Clients became more sophisticated, demanded more and as they built their in-house teams, outsourced a lot of the commodity work and kept the interesting, higher-value work for themselves. Today we’re in a position where I interviewed somebody recently who worked on 11 accounts! Nobody can work across 11 clients. The work cannot be of high value and the fees are no doubt low.

Lucy Newson, director, Alfred

The PR industry does have an overservicing problem, and whilst it’s not unique to us, from experience, other disciplines are better at clarifying scopes and asking for additional budget. Overservicing usually comes from a good place, a desire to keep clients happy, but can lead to unrealistic expectations and teams feeling that they’re not delivering despite putting a huge amount of hours in. At Alfred we’ve put in place a clear process to reduce overservicing and it’s had a really positive impact over the last year – from clearly defined scopes of work at the start of relationships or projects, monthly servicing check-ins with clients, and being better at anticipating potential issues that could lead to overservice. We’re also committed to making the whole team, and not just the senior team, aware of servicing levels. Most of all, we believe transparency and honest conversations around servicing with clients is key, there’s nothing worse than over-investing on hours but only letting clients know at the end of a project or in some cases never at all."

Francis Ingham, director general, PRCA

We have always been vocal in saying that over-servicing is detrimental to the industry, and this research confirms that. Agencies and clients need to have open conversations about expectations and outcomes in order to avoid overservicing. The key to this is ensuring that we are using proper evaluation methods and communicating this to clients. Overservicing will continue to harm our businesses and client relationships unless we embrace rigorous evaluation methods, and start treating one-another with greater respect and candour. We are delighted to have worked with Ginger Research on this survey and we hope this sheds a light on how damaging overservicing can be for the industry. Going forward, this research will play a major part in our new piece of work on improving the agency-client relationship - hint of which was given at this Autumn’s National Conference. 

Mandy Sharp, founder and CEO, Tin Man

Part of the excitement of our industry is that we’re often delivering ideas that have never been done before - either by us or our client. So, if we’re honest, how can we ever know the true cost and time this work will take to deliver until it’s done? Ideally, budgets would always include some flex to navigate this. Experience and commercial savviness obviously reduces over-servicing, but when problems arise it helps to have open and honest relationships with clients and staff. And there needs to be an element of realism and understanding on both sides. If there is constant over-servicing, clearly something isn’t right. Trust is super important.  If agencies flag over servicing to their clients, you hope the clients will trust that it is something that needs to be addressed. The same goes for staff. We do specific staff training on how to run accounts efficiently. This not only helps them understand the commercial side of running a business but also helps them manage their own work/life balance and deliver good work at the same time.

Katy Stolliday, co-founding partner, Blurred

In traditional PR models you have retainer-based clients or rolling monthly contracts that are open ended and don’t have any clarity on what they are delivering for the money. There’s no mechanism to stop. Another reason is that traditional agencies have junior teams working on clients. This can lead to multiple rounds of amends where if you had a more experienced and skilled team you would be able to land a higher quality service and end product on the first go. There can often be pressure from finance team to absorb these costs and agencies are under pressure to bring in more revenue and hit targets without thinking about the time.

Does estimate costs by the hour commoditise PR and creativity in a restrictive way?

James Gordon-MacIntosh, Hope&Glory

Creative planning is all too often given away before we start billing for the time spent when execution starts. We all too often find ourselves giving away time spent post-campaign on measurement and evaluation as we write and rewrite wrap reports. When goalposts shift or the scope of work drifts from the original plan we are all too often reticent in having open conversations – and clients are equally shy of that discussion. It’s what happens when you have a group of people who by definition want to keep relations cordial. For me, the solution lies in two things. The issue is at its worst in organisations where PR itself is not valued or understood. That simply means clients can find it a struggle to justify existing spend – let alone an increase in that spend where over-service is an issue. Clients need help building the cause. So agencies could help themselves – and their clients – if we spent more time showing the value our work delivers to the brands we work for and if we could be a little prouder of the work we deliver. If we did those two things we would go in on a far firmer footing when things go awry and fault lies outside the agency’s control.

Harriet Scott, MD of Ginger Research

This research shines a light on the huge issue of overservicing by PR agencies. This is not an occasional problem - the report shows that for many agencies it is an everyday occurrence that affects client and agency relationships, staff morale and staff work/life balance. One key driver of overservicing, identified in the report, is the fact that the media landscape has shifted so substantially in recent years, and it is just much harder now - and takes much longer - to get cut through. We’ve found that ourselves - where news sell ins in the past took a 24 hours, they now can take up to a week, as the news agenda is just so manic. Managing client expectations on this front, and building this extra time into project planning and budget setting is one thing that agencies can do to help prevent overservicing.

Colin Cather, creative director, Bottle

There’s no such thing as overservicing (unless we’re going to also have underservicing, or overprofiting). It’s part of the ‘we sell our time’ mindset (which is as hard an industry-mindset to shift as measuring AVE was...but we have to constantly try). It’s often calculated by time spent / time paid for. Which basically includes any out of hours time. So maybe ‘overservicing’ is better described as ‘out of hours capacity? We do still measure our time (internally, because it’s one way - a crude one - of measuring our capacity, and managing our costs, and how efficiently we are using our resources) but we don’t sell on ‘cost-plus’. But when things take us longer - it’s a really unhelpful industry expression to simply call that overservicing - that draws a veil over a whole bunch of things (most of which we - doing our best to run an agency - are responsible for). And the term it is filled with ‘the client is taking the p*ss’ negativity.

PR pros on Twitter also had a lot to say on this hot topic:

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