Who’s making the comms tech purchasing decisions? It’s complicated

Navigating the dynamic among providers, agencies and their clients.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

The agency-brand-tech provider dynamic is a delicate dance. Providers sell their tools to both agencies and individual companies. The role of an agency is to best serve its client, and that client may have a different idea of what tools it wants to use.

According to the providers, agencies tend to be more nimble, more likely to use a range of tools and more willing to change which ones they use frequently. Brands, and in some cases smaller agencies, may not have the willingness or ability to purchase multiple platforms, and are therefore more likely to look for all-in-one solutions, or at least the most efficient tools available.

Ben Chodor, president of Intrado Digital Media, explains that these kinds of organizations tend to have an eye on understanding their brand's performance with streamlined measurement.

"Companies also tend to have a more substantial need than agencies to ensure alignment between the PR and marketing departments, which means that they need PR software that provides meaningful data that lines up with marketing metrics to support overarching business [key performance indicators]," he explains.

Executives at other product providers also notice client-side communicators working to align with marketing metrics.

"We find that companies need to monitor their overall brand health and share of voice against competitors, without too much changing on a regular basis," says John Box, CEO at Meltwater. "We definitely see a trend with brands who are looking for improved collaboration and alignment across PR and marketing functions to empower more strategic and informed decision making. It's far more about proving ROI and gaining insights than it has been historically."

An agency's objective is a little different, and their capabilities are often more robust.

"Very few brand teams are at the same level as the PR agencies when it comes to data, analytics and tools, and many are still happy digesting regular reports of vanity metrics," says Paul Quigley, cofounder and CEO of NewsWhip.

"Agencies like to stay ahead of their clients," he adds. "That means they are more hungry for testing new technologies that can give them an edge and will invest the time in learning about new entrants. Some brands are catching up, however, and want to build more data literacy at in-house comms teams."

What's driving this dynamic? Chodor says it's due to the fact that agencies work across a range of brands and industries, meaning they have to address many needs. Looking at it differently, Box argues that agencies must have the best and latest tools to prove their value and maintain relationships with clients.

"Large agencies in particular look for platforms that scale and offer unlimited data access for research and monitoring that they can use across multiple customers and in some instances, that can justify multiple-point solutions," Box says. "Smaller agencies operate more like brands in the sense that they don't want multiple-point solutions in place, and look for efficiencies."

Large agencies may also be able to get their clients to purchase a product that the firm can use on their behalf.

But who are the providers talking to? That also varies when selling to an agency or a brand, and from provider to provider. While tools are typically evaluated by a communications director, the decision maker could be "anyone from a VP of communications or marketing to the chief marketing officer," notes Chodor.

Quigley adds that the agency employees his team works with tend to have "insights," "analytics" or "technology" in their title.

"These people are empowered: they are strategic change-makers overseeing the development of their stacks and help decide which tools and data are in or out. These buyers are particularly on the lookout for providers who don't limit their products by client, or by volume of usage," he says.

On the company side, Quigley tends to work with the corporate communications teams. While some weaknesses vis a vis agencies have been established, Quigley notes that many of them have begun to develop more robust in-house functions or even in-house agencies that are staffed with teams with both comms and data expertise. This in part could be the result of former agency executives going in-house and bringing their experience, and tool preferences, with them.

There's another internal shift on the brand side that providers are seeing: more integration between the PR and marketing teams. Box notes that he sees "purchasing decisions are being made that take in requirements that will satisfy the needs of these teams who historically would have had to rely on multiple-point solutions from multiple vendors."

"Improved collaboration and alignment across PR and marketing functions empowers more strategic and informed decision-making," Box adds. "It's far more about proving ROI and gaining insights than it has been historically."

The agency perspective largely bears out that of the providers. Many agency staffers spend a considerable amount of time trying and assessing the latest products to better serve and advise their clients.

"The challenge for us is to know enough about all of these sorts of products," notes Mike Moschella, director of DKC Analytics. "I spend part of almost every week viewing tech demos, not just for DKC Analytics, but to better understand what clients are using."

He adds that clients often ask for advice, so he will set them up with their own demos and spend time exploring their client's priorities.

"This provides a good learning experience for both sides—we understand the client's thought process better and they can have a more efficient process leaning on our expertise," Moschella says.

Despite this, he argues that in many cases it may be cheaper for a young company or one with a small marketing department to lease seats on their PR agency's platforms than make their own purchases.

"Our goal as an agency partner is to provide best-in-class solutions to clients," says Bryan Pedersen, chief innovation officer at MSL. "We are constantly assessing the broader platform and technology ecosystem so we can make informed choices for both ourselves and our clients."

Pedersen notes that many of the Publicis Groupe agency's clients already have tools they've built or licensed, so MSL's job is to assess them.

"From there, we can either infuse their offering into our ways of working, offer alternative solutions we feel might be better suited or provide custom integration into our overall technology stack," he says.

Michael Brito, EVP of technology at Zeno Group, says that his firm often facilitates RFPs to vendors on behalf of their clients. However, this does not negatively impact the agency's business because their clients recognize that "75% to 80% of analytics and measurement requires a human to sift through the data, collect insights and make strategic recommendations," he says. Zeno also helps clients assess their own stack and consolidate where there may be duplicates.

Beyond assessing the full landscape of tools and those their clients may already use, agencies are responsible for making recommendations, and for quickly getting on board with tools that their clients insist on using, even if they may not be the most well-suited for the job.

Everything about a purchasing decision, from who makes it, to their motivations and what they may ultimately choose to buy, differs considerably between an agency and brand. Yet everything is in service of the client, meaning that agencies and providers are the ones that must adapt the most in order to best suit their client's needs.

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