As with any client and service provider relationship, there will always be gripes. But are these genuine complaints or just the usual grumbles from people who have little understanding of how a PR agency functions?
PRWeek teamed up with consumer lifestyle shop Mischief to find out what clients think about their PR support. The results (below) were startling. More than a quarter of the respondents claimed their agency failed to deliver set objectives, and nearly 70 per cent thought agencies failed to provide transparent budgeting. More than 75 per cent complained about agencies’ lack of industry knowledge and nearly a quarter said they were not getting value for money from PR.
Personnel is another thorny issue. Many respondents grumbled about senior teams disappearing as soon as the ink on the contract was dry – only to reappear within a few weeks of the contract running out.
So, is communication breaking down between agency and client?
Part of the trouble, of course, is that there is no such thing as a ‘standard’ PR account. Different industries, companies and individuals require different approaches, and misjudging the way a client likes to be handled can be fatal.
‘It is so important to find out how clients like to be supported,’ says MS&L account director Amanda Kamin. ‘For some clients that means waiting until they come to you, and then responding immediately. For others it means checking in five times a day. Get clients to tell you what they appreciate. Otherwise you are left trying to read minds.’
Tailor your service
Simon Avis, formerly EMEA corporate comms manager for Discovery Networks and now head of PR at Entertainment Rights, agrees it is an agency’s duty to work out how its clients like to work. ‘I don’t like having to chase an agency,’ says Avis. ‘My agency should be chasing me.’
Digging a little deeper, and under the cover of anonymity, the study found plenty of in-house PROs willing to vent their frustrations. For example, there were complaints about inconsistencies in billing. One disgruntled PRO complained a monthly invoice for £7,500 contained ‘no details of what [the agency] has done for that fee’. Another simply implored agencies to ‘tell the truth!’.
Although spending more than £7,000 a month without any notion of what it is for may be an extreme example, Mischief MD Mitchell Kaye (r) points out that a lack of accountability and trust, whether perceived or imagined, is clearly something consultancies need to address.
‘Establishing trust and accountability – especially at a time when people are watching their budgets closely – is a huge challenge for all of us,’ says Kaye. ‘If an agency’s behaviour creates doubt in your client’s mind the relationship is obviously weakened.’
Louise Evans, a former media manager at British Airways and now co-founder of Loop Communications, declines to name the agency that once billed her for the use of one of its meeting rooms, but says incidents like this quickly undermine confidence and left her feeling she has to scrutinise every bill.
But is it all about providing detailed timesheets and breakdowns? At the root of the transparency issue is trust. If a client does not trust their agency, it will start to find things to question.
‘Having the right personal chemistry’ was the top requirement of agency personnel for our respondents, something Redhead PR MD Sara Tye reckons is key. ‘If it’s a supplier relationship rather than a partnership, then it doesn’t work,’ says Tye, who has held top in-house roles at The Body Shop and Yellow Pages. ‘You know when you’ve got trust and chemistry because you can feel it working. People ring up and say: “I saw your company in the news the other day”.’
Another gripe concerns industry knowledge. On a scale of one to ten (ten being ‘critically important’), the overall response to the statement: ‘Detailed knowledge of our business sector is an ingredient to a successful client/agency relationship’ was just under nine.
But the unprompted responses made calls to ‘improve business knowledge’ and ‘stay up to speed with industry news’, suggesting there are gaps that need to be plugged.
Is it unfair to expect agencies to have an in-depth knowledge of markets they do not spend their whole time working in? The Media Trust head of comms Helen Beckett (l) says when it comes to specialist markets, knowledge is vital.
‘It makes it so much easier to talk to journalists and clients if you know what ISA stands for, what a stakeholder pension is and you’re aware of the current tax rates,’ says Beckett, recalling her time in-house at a financial services firm. ‘It also means that your creative ideas are not just fluff.’
While she admits she did not appreciate it at the time, Beckett was obliged to take the same financial planning exams as financial advisers, something that stood her in ‘very good stead’.
Loop Communications’ Evans says she has seen agency PROs come into an account with no sector knowledge: ‘I spent a lot of time training those people and correcting their mistakes.’
Keep agencies informed
A good agency should know the clients’ business inside out, but too often clients can be guilty of assuming specialist knowledge and, even worse, failing to provide vital information.
‘There’s no such thing here as too much information,’ believes former eBay PR manager Charlie Coney. ‘In-house teams should do inductions, send over latest plans, company results, strategy – anything that is relevant.’
Coney, now an associate director at Golin Harris, agrees with Tye that an agency should be a partner. ‘Get the agency along to internal team meetings, make them present at company meetings, get them involved. That way they become more than a mere resource.’
No-one is saying in-house PROs cannot be demanding, but it is also important they remember what their PR agency can and cannot do.
Rachel O’Reilly (r) spent a number of years at travel shop BGB, before taking the top comms job at TUI Thomson. Now back on the agency side as director of travel and lifestyle at Siren PR, O’Reilly recalls often finding herself being forced to choose between a bigger agency that could offer brand expertise, creative consultancy and news delivery – but not a great knowledge of her sector – or a specialist agency with sector knowledge but without the ability to deliver coverage outside the travel pages.
PRCA chairman Richard Houghton agrees, pointing out a lack of clear understanding of what the customer is buying can only lead to disappointment.
‘For commercial relationships to work, it needs to be satisfactory for both sides,’ says Houghton. ‘Consultancies must not over-promise and must be open about what the client should expect.
Both sides need to have the difficult conversations at the beginning of the relationship and document them.’
Many of the issues thrown up by this research are not new, and some comments can be dismissed as in-house PROs simply having a ‘good moan’.
But that is not the point. Be it due to perfectionism, inexperience or simply a desire to keep service providers honest, clients are finding grumbles about things that can, and should, be addressed easily.
With a relatively little adjustment to working practices, it seems that agencies could make a quantum leap in improving client relationships. To not do so now, when the gripes are laid out in black and white, borders on negligence.
In our other feature on The Mischief Report we give agency PROs the chance to respond to the criticisms.