Opinion: Agencies pay the price for low esteem

Imagine walking into the offices of a top London law firm and requesting their services for half their usual fees. Or dropping into a Mercedes showroom and offering the price of a Nissan Micra for the latest convertible.

Cue hollow laughter and a quick exit as you are advised to take your custom elsewhere.

This thought occurred to me when a PR consultant told me about a prospective client who had offered his (substantial) agency the chance of a contract. ‘Of course, we don't have much budget, but we're part of a bigger group and it might lead to other opportunities,' he was told by the brand manager, who was in immediate need of a creative, high-visibility, results-driven launch campaign. The big spend would come later (via ads) but in the meantime the brand, part of a multinational group, was going to ‘use PR' - ‘use' clearly being the operative word.

But PR firms remain notorious for under-valuing their services. Even at the top level a peculiar bashfulness about money characterises many dealings.

A client I know still thinks little about paying £16,000 for a half-page colour ad, while his monthly retainer to his PR team - which regularly generates full-page news stories and diary items replete with brand references and explanations - will be less than half that amount.

Part of the problem is that what good PR provides is unmeasurable by any universally accepted standards. Evaluation systems divide almost equally into either a ludicrous under-estimation, or a crazily inflated value, of coverage.

Good PR consultants are crucibles of specialist knowledge. They hold and broker a unique set of relationships through which positive messages can be disseminated and unwanted attentions mitigated. The media with which they interact are complex; the client's demands voracious. 

This refutes the hackneyed argument that while accountants and lawyers have to undergo years of rigorous training, PROs simply waft into the business in search of a glamorous lifestyle and a party.

Fees should be set against a rigorous hourly rate - as industry-standard as possible in our diverse business. Late payment should not be tolerated and agencies should stand firm in turning away those who want to pay cut-price rates or, worse, offer future shares in an as yet untested enterprise.

Never forget: a good PR agency offers a premium service, and it should charge accordingly. And then, almost inevitably, it should continue to over-serve, overcare and overdeliver. Because that's part of what makes a really good PR adviser.

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and was formerly a senior newspaper executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun.

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