No agency wants a reputation as a Silverware Showoff or a Moonlighting Mogul. But the harsh truth is that in-house comms chiefs tend to form such impressions of agencies, pigeonholing them by 'type', long before they even meet them.
'Comms directors generally have quite strong preconceptions about PR agencies,' says Alex Young, head of PR at client/agency matchmaker AAR.
She adds that 'this is in contrast to marketing directors', who tend not to discriminate according to such stereotypes.
Take Yo! Sushi PR manager Maya Hart, who is frequently approached by, in her words, 'Sloaneys'. She explains: 'These are typically female-owned and female-run agencies that are just too Ab Fab in everything they do.
They're Miss Well-Connected with lackeys running around after them, and often they can be rude and disrespectful.'
With such strong opinions flying about - Hart, for instance, says she would 'much rather (be pitched to) by someone who can be up-front' - there is a real business case for agencies to avoid perception pitfalls.
Young warns that agencies not only face putting potential clients off with poor first impressions, but may not make it to the pitch stage in the first place because of negative preconceptions. The latter situation can be particularly hard to stomach. 'Clients are often quite wrong,' Young says. 'The chances are that an agency has changed a great deal since a client's opinion was formed.'
Of course, not all agency 'types' are necessarily negative in the eyes of the client. Hart also categorises what she calls the 'Red Carpet agencies' - which she says are 'ideal for product launches where I know celebs will definitely turn up, and where I'll definitely get coverage in the glossies'.
For O2's UK head of PR, Nicola Green, agencies must be conscious of how they may have been portrayed, but not try too hard to prove how much they have 'changed': 'Agencies should stick to what they are good at. If they are pretending they can do everything, the client can see (the falsehood) a mile off. I would prefer that they admitted their weaknesses and let another agency or our in-house team pick up the slack.'
Green says she recognises that agencies develop and add new specialisations, and is impressed when PR firms inform her about new recruits - she likes to see examples of their work, even if they were not with the current agency at the time.
London Underground head of comms Andrew Jones - whose mantra is 'it takes confidence to have candour' - argues that by the pitch stage, agencies should be talking about what they can do for the client, rather than listing past achievements. 'Creds will get agencies to pitch stage,' he explains.
'But then I want to see how they respond to my brief.'
It is worth noting recent research by AAR, which analysed why clients use its service when reviewing their agency relationships. According to figures for 2005, 19 per cent of clients used AAR because a new marketing or comms director was overseeing agency relationships - a rise of nine per cent on 2004. In other words, if a new person is holding the purse strings, agencies must effectively resell themselves.
In this scenario, some agencies will try to dazzle clients with awards.
But this approach can lead to an impression of absent-mindedness on the part of the agency - as if the client's brief is not the priority.
'We can all spin awards,' says Hart. 'What I'm looking for is an effective and stimulating response to the brief. However, if agencies do want to talk about past achievements, case studies are better.'
Elsewhere, Virgin Atlantic director of corporate comms Paul Charles says he dislikes 'one-size-fits-all' agencies. He explains that the best agencies 'have two or three meetings with us after we have sent the brief out, talk to our customers, and ask lots of questions to ensure they really know what we want'.
One of the most-recognised types is the Moonlighting Mogul - which for the pitch parachutes in its CEO, who is never seen again. Opinion of this type is divided. Some in-house practitioners appreciate seeing the big cheese - Jones, for example, says: 'If two agencies are tied, the fact that one of them brought its CEO might swing it for me.'
For others, such practices have an air of artificiality about them, and having such a senior player involved can upset the balance of the pitch team.
One director of corporate comms says: 'Often more junior employees are so nervous in the presence of the CEO that they can't relax, and you don't get the chance to see the lighter side of the agency.'
Stuart Dyble, V-P of comms for Ford Europe, says: 'If CEOs are standing in front of you pitching, they must at least admit that they will not be on hand all week. It's not necessarily about convincing you that they won't moonlight, as we all know they have more than one client. But if you're told you'll have their full attention - even for three or four hours a week - then everyone knows where they stand.'
Charles adds: 'Perhaps it would be best to present the CEO at the early briefing stage, and then leave the team that will be working on the account on an everyday basis to handle the pitch.'
And Moonlighters should beware - in the AAR research, in-house heads of comms said they were more likely to look elsewhere (rather than rehire their PR adviser) when an agency's contract expires. With 23 per cent of reviews said to be instigated by contracts running their course - up from 17 per cent in 2004 - those not dedicated to their client accounts could be punished.
Strike a balance
So what else inspires the chagrin of clients? One bemoans the 'hocus pocus' of overly slick, obsequious pitches. Such 'over-egging' creates distance between agency and client, with the latter left wondering how it could trust - or give money to - such empty vessels. The line between confidence and arrogance, it seems, is a thin one.
'Some agencies are brilliant at pitching,' says Green. 'But afterwards you take a step back and think - that sounded great, but would it actually work?' Hart adds: 'Occasionally agencies are tactless and start telling you how to run your business. It's like being told how to bring up your child.'
The bottom line is that clients will not stand for nonsense in pitches, but are willing to have their perceptions of an agency challenged by thoughtful, honest presentations. As one entertainment comms chief says: 'Basic, down-to-earth attributes are the very things that flashy pitches can hide. Being self-critical can be extremely refreshing for clients. Don't tell them that you are great - let them be the judge of that.'
Characteristics: A stroll through their reception requires a pair of strong sunglasses, as trophies and awards dazzle from every angle.
They say: 'Making clients aware of our awards shows them that we can be winners for them too.'
Phil Parnel, CEO, Drambuie, says: 'The creds that I really want to see are case studies, with real examples of work from the actual people presenting in the room. To me this helps prove the agency can deliver as part of a strategic marketing campaign.'
Characteristics: The CEO leads the pitch and wows you with his charm and presence, but once you have signed on the dotted line it's likely you will never see him again.
They say: 'Bringing in the company heavyweights demonstrates that we are drawing from years of experience, and that the client is very important to us.'
Paul Charles, director of corporate comms, Virgin Atlantic, says: 'If the person leading the pitch is not going to work on the account, you are being given a completely misleading picture of the agency.' PR PARROTS
Characteristics: An agency that obsequiously agrees with everything you say, repeats your ideas to you, howls with laughter at the sniff of a joke and cannot stop telling you how great your brand is. These are yes-men with few ideas of their own.
They say: 'We're hardly going to argue with a potential, lucrative client at pitch stage, are we?'
Nicola Green, head of PR, O2 UK, says: 'We want someone to challenge us - that's why we have an agency - not someone who will just roll over and agree with everything.'
Characteristics: These smooth operators glide into the office and blow your mind with their fast-talking charm.
But while their presentation is second to none, the content leaves a lot to be desired.
They say: 'Clients expect agencies to be charming. And if we cannot wow clients with our communication skills, what chance will we have with journalists?' Andrew Jones, head of communications, London Underground, says: 'When agencies are too slick it feels like they are trying too hard, and their real personality - which is what you are hoping to find out about - does not show through.'