While many are predicting the death of the agency of record (AOR) model in advertising, it remains alive, though not necessarily thriving, in our parallel universe of PR. There’s no standard benchmark on the average length of the PR agency/client relationship, but my unscientific research on Google pegs it at less than three years. That’s a very generous estimate, and it’s trending down.
When PR agency/client relationships fail, as they increasingly do, the agency typically takes the fall for poor performance. Oftentimes this is valid, and oftentimes it’s because the partnership was mismanaged.
In a climate where agencies more frequently are the party taking the heat for bad results, accountability for building a successful partnership goes both ways. After more than 20 years of counseling technology companies at various stages, here’s my advice to CEOs and their marketing teams on how to avoid pitfalls when managing an agency relationship (with some great perspective from several other industry pros).
1. Don’t block access to senior leadership. While internal marketing and communications professionals need to be deliberate about how and when to involve senior executives, an agency/client relationship will frequently fail when the agency doesn’t get consistent access to leadership. Beyond the opportunity to collaborate, build trust, and absorb evolving company narratives from top brass, these executives are also tasked with creating alignment around their company’s vision and purpose. By blocking access, you’re also blocking the inspirational x-factor senior leaders bring when telling the company story. Less access begets less inspiration and media currency.
2. Don’t covet the most important influencer relationships. It’s not uncommon for internal PR teams to manage relationships with a shortlist of their company’s most important influencers. In fact, this is good business. At the same time, when clients treat these relationships too preciously and gate-keep to the point where agencies have no access, a failed partnership is often on the horizon. Smart agencies bring unique, informed, and unbiased perspective based on their own relationships with these influencers and add helpful context that comes from having worked with them to tell myriad stories on different topics, people, and companies. Over-gatekeeping also signals a lack of trust, which is toxic to the client/agency relationship.
3. Don’t remove the agency from your true north. This one is obvious but so often overlooked. The first weeks of the partnership should be laser focused on activating your PR agency around your company’s business, marketing, and positioning goals. Great agencies will have a focused method for information sharing and discovery that arms and illuminates them with what they need to be successful. Be leery of an agency that favors a more ad hoc approach over a clear system to kickoff the partnership and measure success ongoing.
4. View the agency as a strategic partner, not an operations partner. According to my business partner, Tyler Perry, “Keeping your agency in a vacuum and having high expectations that they are going to nail your story is a recipe for disappointment.” Great agencies are great strategists and executors. If you want to own the content, story lines, and strategy, you’re better off building out an internal team that can deliver at both levels. If you hire an agency that relishes tactics without a critical eye for impactful story lines, you’ll almost always fail. At a minimum, you’ll get what you pay for.
5. Don’t put your business and marketing communications goals in silos. According to Barbara Bates, founder and CEO of Eastwick, “Too often, the CEO’s priorities are actually different from the communications or marketing lead’s goals. If an agency is supposed to keep both happy, they need to make sure they get agreement on what the goals are and what success looks like.”
6. Share your real business objectives (acquisition, IPO etc.). As an extension of the above, Joanna Kulesa, principal at Kulesa Faul, says, “It’s important for the agency to know what the company’s end game is because it may influence elements of the communications strategy. Holding business objectives too close also may signal a lack of trust in the agency partner.” Communications can impact major business outcomes; don’t be afraid to bring them in.
7. Don’t make measurement political. According to Bates, “Instead of objectively viewing measurement as a way to benchmark and measure impact, we have seen clients afraid to disclose measurement results or worse, purposely manipulate results to make their programs (and therefore themselves) look better. Measurement should be less political. Clients should be open to seeing what’s working and what’s not, and the real pros will review the results regularly and, with their agency partners, make adjustments. Do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. Great agency/client relationships talk about these things openly.”
8. Don’t bring on PR just to check a box (i.e. at the board’s request). A successful partnership and reciprocal value is also a function of why you’re hiring an agency. According to Kulesa, “If a company doesn’t truly believe in the value of PR and enthusiastically support and participate in the program, it will never get much value out of a PR program. No one wins in this scenario — the company’s brand awareness fails to grow, the agency can’t be successful, the board ends up unhappy.”
9. Don’t go rogue with the media. Many journalists prefer to have conversations with expert sources without a communications gatekeeper “controlling” the discussion or even listening in silently. While one-on-one communication with journalists leads to authentic relationships, your agency should never be left in the dark about those communications. According to Kyle Arteaga, cofounder of The Bulleit Group, “Talking to the press without informing your agency limits them from delivering the most value because they lack relevant information. Even that informal conversation you had with a journalist over drinks last Friday might impact both your coverage and our media strategy.”
10. Don’t hire a PR vendor. When a company needs legal representation to go public, it hires the very best attorney with an eye on maximizing every ounce of value and minimizing risk. According to Kathleen Shanahan, founder of BOCA Communications, “When a company hires a communications agency, it should not be for purely tactical execution, it should be for savvy, smart and sound communication counsel. When you hire a vendor, you get vendor-grade results.”
11. Talk about money. My business partner Fred Bateman says, “Money matters — period. And it’s critical in creating a fair, equitable, and mutually satisfying relationship between an agency and a client. The client needs to feel they’re being provided a fair service for a fair price and that they’re getting their money’s worth. The agency needs to believe its earning a fair value for the work being performed. This equity, however, is often not there – and both sides are equally to blame for avoiding difficult conversations about cost. Agencies can avoid this fail by always keeping the fiscal relationship front and center and having more frequent discussions about budget as opposed to less.”
Bill Bourdon is a co-owner and partner at Bateman Group, a digital communications agency for technology brands.