THE MISCHIEF REPORT, PART 2: ‘Sometimes clients don't trust us'

Hannah Marriott hears some leading PR agencies give their responses to this week's Mischief Report.

Phillips: clients must share authority
Phillips: clients must share authority

Have you heard the one about the married marketing manager who made advances on a young agency executive? Or the tale of the client who overloaded his agency with hours of extra work, then refused to pay for any of it?

Most PR consultancies have at least one war story of this nature and are blighted by even more common client problems on a daily basis.

After the results of the Mischief survey came in, PRWeek asked agency PROs to res­pond, and flag up a few grumbles of their own.

The most frequent complaint was in-house contacts did not understand PR and confused it with advertising.

The Remarkable Group’s PR director Chris Wotton says: ‘No matter how much PR “training” some clients have, we still get the classic “When is that art­icle going in and into which publications?” or, “Why have they used that headline?” from clients.’

Similarly, Media Jems director Jenna Gould – who specialises in features placement – says clients are often disappointed if they do not have instant results from a PR campaign, because they do not understand features usu­ally have a three-month lead-in time.

And as clients tend to think their product or service is the most interesting in the land, they often feel disappointed when journalists do not agree.

This can be tough when working on tech accounts, says EML client services director David Marsden (r): ‘There often has to be an education campaign, teaching the client about what the
media wants and how they can highlight the benefits of their products to achieve coverage.’

One of Watershed PR director Hel­oise D’Souza’s biggest problems is that clients often push for a mention in the national newspapers, whereas articles in niche interest publications actually drive sales: ‘Lots of agencies will promise them a mention in The Telegraph, but agencies should educate clients and manage their expectations.’

Changing times
Managing expectations is even more important in the digital age, according to Edelman CEO Robert Phillips: ‘Lots of clients grew up in an age of dem­and and control, when they dictated when and how their news was released. Now marketers have to share authority with consumers. Agencies must be able to advise their clients on this change.’

The crux of many of these problems seems to be a lack of trust. Clients are well within their rights to be totally clueless about PR, but they do need to listen to their agency’s advice.

‘Sometimes clients don’t trust you with their most important information. They don’t understand that it can make a huge difference to be totally informed on certain matters,’ complains Wotton.

Jessica Alexander – director at Yorkshire-based AKA PR – agrees that it can be vital for clients to ‘let us loose in the business to talk to people and dig out the stories for ourselves’.

Another issue is lack of commitment from the client. Gould remembers a client who wanted ‘the fame, the publicity and his company plastered everywhere but was unwilling to put any effort into providing me with relevant content’.

As well as being bad for the client, this can jeopardise PROs’ carefully forged relationship with journalists.

Kinross + Render CEO Sara Render (l) believes this can happen because some clients hire PR agencies ‘because they feel they have to’, without a firm idea of what they want to achieve.

‘This makes the relationship fruitless and empty, which is no fun for the agency staff and is also bad for the client,’ she contends.

Early Doors director Howard Robinson agrees: ‘Clients and agencies often don’t set tangible objectives upfront or even discuss what success would look like. You get campaigns that generate media coverage for the sake of it with little commercial direction.’

Some dilemmas are even more difficult to solve. Rainier PR co-founder and MD Stephen Waddington complains some companies are so ‘tied by the corporate umbilical cord to the US’ they cannot take any risks: ‘The biggest frustration in PR is having an amazing idea, having your client kill it through a lack of confidence and then later seeing your rivals doing the exact thing you proposed.’

Some personal problems are also impossible to solve. Buffalo Communications associate director Lucy King points out it is sometimes difficult to find common ground when a vibrant young consultancy works with an austere, old-fashioned client.

But consultants did agree with clients on many issues raised in the Mischief survey, particularly on billing. All maintained that transparency was crucial and many admitted that – instead of agreeing to work harder than is profitable to curry favour in a pitch – it is up to agencies to explain price structures at the beginning of the relationship.

Similarly, agencies swore that those who pitched for the account should indeed work on it unless illness, holidays, conflicts or departures made that impossible.

Interestingly, at least a dozen of the agencies to which PRWeek spoke claimed that they had never had any problems with clients. Either they have been unusually lucky, or they are reluctant to admit that clients could ever be wrong. Perhaps this attitude is symptomatic of the problem as a whole.

If the role of a PR agency is to provide expert counsel that will make a demonstrable difference to the client’s business, agencies need to tell the bill payers that they can be wrong.

Some clients will not like this – but surely it is better than over-promising simply to win business?

The agencies that are brave enough to challenge and educate their clients will ride the crest of the wave, and may help improve the image and standards of the industry as a whole.


Julien Speed (r), Starfish Communications joint managing partner: ‘This particular client was based in a remote location in the West Country and meetings were always held at their premises. By the time we had driven there and back and had the meeting, it was a 16-hour day. But our meetings were interminable and nothing ever got decided.

Once, we travelled there ostensibly to discuss the arrangements for a proposed press conference, but ended up spending an hour and a half debating the relative merits of different brands of Welsh bottled water to serve at lunch. We finally agreed to defer the decision to the next meeting. Press releases were drafted but never approved. That year happened to be an important anniversary for the company, so we penned a profile piece for placement in the trade press. It went back and forth at least 20 times and, by the time it was finally issued, it was no longer their anniversary and the story was spiked.

At our annual review, we had one small press cutting to present despite an over-servicing level of more than 100 per cent.

When the MD thundered that he paid us for ‘results, not effort’, the team was so demoralised at the impossibility of achieving anything that I resigned the account on the spot.

We have since inserted a clause into our standard terms of business that puts an obligation on the client to provide us with appropriate and accurate information as well as to approve all materials in a timely manner, otherwise they risk being in breach of contract.’


Joe Banks (l), Johnson King account director: ‘Some clients feel that as long as they are paying the bills they can do whatever they like and will really take liberties.
One such character was the PR and marketing manager at a small but successful business based in the Home Counties.

She was obviously used to treating her underlings badly and behaved in a ridiculously temperamental manner – nice as pie one minute and a screaming banshee the next. Managing our relationship with her became extremely difficult.

One day the account executive working on the account rang the client to discuss something fairly innocuous. I was sitting across the desk from the exec and saw her getting redder and redder in the face as the call went on. Eventually she put the phone down and burst into tears, having been subjected to an unacceptable stream of abuse.

Sometimes, having a frank exchange of views with a client is the way forward, but in this case it was personal abuse and we were not willing to put up with it.

When we gave the client her marching orders, she was completely nonplussed that we should have decided to choose the wellbeing of our staff over their monthly fee.

But agencies cannot do their best work when relations are so strained, so it’s better to cut your losses. We did so and waved goodbye to a fee of around £5,000 a month but we felt it was an impossible situation.

Yes, we could have tried putting another member of staff on the account but the client’s behaviour was outrageous and an agency is only as good as its talent. You just can’t have these kinds of disagreements preying on staff’s minds, upsetting them and distracting them from the rest of their work.’

Mitchell Kaye discusses client satisfaction and the reasons behind 'The Mischief Report'. WATCH

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