Client Loyalty: Sustaining a long and happy PR relationship - A report in the Director magazine claims that only 15 per cent of clients have had the same PR agency for five years or more, so has loyalty become an alien concept in PR?

Darwall Smith Associates is understandably pleased to come first in a table measuring client loyalty in this month’s copy of the Director magazine. The publication ranked agencies based on the percentage of their clients that had been on the books for five years or more. Small PR firms, all with a turnover under pounds 1 million, dominated the top ten places.

Darwall Smith Associates is understandably pleased to come first in

a table measuring client loyalty in this month’s copy of the Director

magazine. The publication ranked agencies based on the percentage of

their clients that had been on the books for five years or more. Small

PR firms, all with a turnover under pounds 1 million, dominated the top

ten places.



Darwall Smith, a 14-strong agency, may only have six clients but has

held onto four of them for more than five years. Its relationship with

Tampax has lasted since 1986, surviving a takeover of the brand by

Procter and Gamble, a traditional indicator of imminent divorce. Not

surprisingly, agency managing director Gill Garside believes that size

is the secret to a long and happy marriage.



Clients, she says, don’t get fobbed off with a minion once the business

has been won because they simply don’t have the staff. ’Executive

director Lucy Darwall Smith has been involved in the Tampax business

since day one and still is,’ explains Garside. ’We are very hands-on and

available at all levels. Clients appreciate that.’



David Lake, managing director of the UK’s fourth-largest PR company

Countrywide Porter Novelli, disagrees with both the Director’s method of

assessing client loyalty and idea that small agencies enjoy longer

relationships. He argues that, because Countrywide is growing so fast,

many of its clients were not on board five years ago and therefore would

not count. Its long-standing clients include ICI, Kraft Jacob Suchard

and the Danish Bacon and Meat Council.



’The faster we grow, the worse the ratio could look,’ says Lake. ’We

have 130 clients, 22 of which we have had for over five years. This

represents 17 per cent.’



So if size does not affect loyalty, what does? Of course an agency’s

contract can be cut short due to reasons beyond its control. For example

a newly-appointed communications director wanting to bring his old PR

agency with him or if the client decides to bring PR in-house. Clients

also lose out when agencies resign business to take on accounts with

their competitors. In addition, industry experts report more project

work today than five years ago.



Debenham’s head of corporate communications Alex Mackey has just parted

company with its PR agency of ten years, Phyllis Walters PR.



Often, says Mackey, clients just want fresh faces. This can be because

the client is forced to look elsewhere when key agency account staff

leave or, as with Phyllis Walters, when both sides want to move on to

something new.



Mackey insists he would only review an agency if and when it felt

necessary, rather than just as a matter of course over time. But, he

says, it is up to the PR company to make sure it is on its toes:

’agencies should review themselves’.



Imogen Bailey, corporate PR manager at Cisco Systems, says agencies

should be reviewed every six months. ’It is an opportunity to ensure

both teams are fully in sync. It is part of my duty to ensure we are

always getting a good return on our investment and the agency is

completely dedicated to what we are trying to achieve as a

business.’



Cisco has changed its European agency twice in two years and reviewed

its Polish agency twice since 1996.



Lexis Public Relations chief executive Bill Jones believes that at least

half of the time it is not the agency but the client that is to blame

when relations break down. Lexis, a medium-sized player, is proud of its

loyalty record. It still works for three of the four accounts it started

out with six years ago including London Zoo and Thorn.



Jones talks of the ’difficult client syndrome’ whereby clients demand a

supply of new, creative ideas and are then afraid to go out on a limb

and use them.



’They pick out the good creative stuff then announce they are reviewing

because you haven’t delivered any good ideas,’ argues Jones. ’They are

scared to do new things. This can lead to a deterioration of the

relationship because the client is hiring you but not trusting you.’



So has loyalty become a thing of the past between agencies and

clients?



PRCA chairman Jackie Elliot believes that instead of deteriorating,

levels of loyalty have improved over the years. ’My first job in PR

worked on a revolving door principle whereby when you got one client

through the door there was already one on the way out,’ Elliot

remembers,’ she says.



’It gave the industry a bad name but we have made strenuous efforts to

change.’



Mark Westaby, director of Portfolio Communications thinks more effort is

needed and quickly.



’Fifteen per cent is hopeless,’ he says of the Director’s findings. ’It

should be more like 50. It’s so easy for the PR industry to make

excuses.



The industry is unstable, it is not as mature as the legal and

accountancy professions but we could still do a lot better.



’Agencies should take a long, hard look at themselves and say if we had

done better with planning and evaluation then we could have kept the

client longer.’



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