Uncharted waters: how to be a client's first PR or comms agency

As a consultancy starting work with a new client, you may or may not rate the client’s previous agency, but at least its work provides a starting point from which to improve, replicate or overhaul – but what happens when the client has never had consultancy support before?

Working with clients who have never used a PR agency before is a journey into the unknown, writes Jonathan Lomax
Working with clients who have never used a PR agency before is a journey into the unknown, writes Jonathan Lomax

They could be in a sector experiencing new challenges – pandemic-related or otherwise – or novel forms of scrutiny. They could be the newly established local operation of an overseas business, or a company given scale-up funding.

Whatever the reason, being a company’s first agency is often a very rewarding opportunity. But it is also true that the lack of shared understanding and experience can create challenges, which means you need to learn how to deliver quickly in sometimes difficult or testing circumstances.

For a client to take the plunge for the first time, they need clarity on exactly what they stand to gain. That means no PR jargon and no vanity metrics. You need to demonstrate a track record of tangible business or organisational impact, supported by easy-to-articulate case studies.

The account win can happen very quickly. While I’d never bemoan being hired without a pitch, it can mean working to a short, high-level goal or strategic idea, rather than a well-defined brief. You then have to transition rapidly into getting down to business.

It may not be clear who you’re working for. Perhaps the chief executive hired you but hadn’t thought about what would actually happen next. There might be several people keen to manage the relationship, or someone with little communications knowledge with whom you have to quickly build trust.

It’s tempting to want to report to the most senior figure possible, but that person might quickly realise they don’t have capacity. Good consultancies will be able to help clients create an effective and realistic structure from the start.

You also have to create objectives, KPIs, reporting and other processes from scratch. Use this time, and the helpful perspective of a non-specialist client, to consider whether the way you’ve always done things is the best way of doing them (hint: they’re probably not), and cut out unnecessary bureaucracy without ditching the rigour and professionalism the work deserves.

The new client might give you quite a long leash, with a desire that you simply “get going, quickly”. This is great, in that it allows you to be proactive and innovative. But be wary of getting too comfortable – in that scenario, consultancies need to create an internal culture of challenge and excellence to ensure the highest quality delivery.

While there is no one-size-fits-all answer to dealing with such issues, it is certainly true to say that they can lead to incredibly interesting and rewarding engagements. The things you learn from working with that blank canvas may also help you breathe new life into other client relationships.

So if you find yourself working with clients who are in uncharted waters, relish the experience – but don’t take it lightly. Good luck.

Jonathan Lomax is managing director of Blakeney

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