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
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
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
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
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
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
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