Having spent a good number of years as both an agency executive and a client, I've seen from both sides the good, the bad and the ugly of the agency relationship. Unfortunately, there is little guidance available to help clients work effectively with their agency. My purpose here is to provide such guidance based upon experience on both sides of these critical relationships.
Why it Matters
Before diving into the particulars, let me explain why this matters; why should you as the client care about creating effective relationships with your PR agency? (Over the years, more than one client has raised this question to me.)
The reason is this: A strong, professional relationship with your agency team will net better results. It will also allow you to maintain agency relationships longer, which also yields better results because the agency will better know your business, company culture and how to work with you successfully.
What is an Effective Client Anyway? Defining Our Terms
Being an effective client does not mean going easy on your agency or forgiving poor performance or even being liked by your agency team; although a positive relationship generally results in better performance. (It is human nature to work harder for people we like and respect. Fear is a powerful short-term motivator, but it results in psychological fatigue and ultimately failure.)
Effective clients are demanding. They set high standards and they expect results. But they are also clear, consistent, professional, fair, inclusive and accessible, and they listen to counsel. These are the six strategies for being an effective client, along with establishing a proper financial relationship. Let's discuss each strategy.
Confusion and misunderstandings are poison to any relationship. Effective clients are clear in establishing the terms of the relationship. By this I mean, the expected communications strategy (email, calling, etc.), expected team availability, how deadlines are to be handled, who is in charge of what, the type of interaction the agency is expected to have with executive management, expectations about the availability of various members of the agency team and generally how the client wants to work with the agency.
Clarity around expected results is critical. Make sure your agency understands you company's business goals and how you expect public relations to help achieve those goals. Everyday instructions should be unambiguous, keeping in mind that you know your business, company culture and strategy in much greater detail than your agency team, so instructions that may seem clear to you might be confusing to someone who does not have that depth of knowledge.
Changing the rules in the middle of the game will result in lost opportunities and wasted time. So be consistent with expectations and the terms of the relationship. If things change, as they often do, be sure to let the agency team know the rules have changed.
Treating your agency team with respect will not only get you better results, it will draw the best people at the agency to your account. A simple rule of thumb is what your mother told you: treat people the way you want to be treated.
It is worth pointing out that sometimes you as the client must operate in an unprofessional climate at your company; reflecting this on to your agency may give you an outlet for your frustration, but it will also result in failure.
If your agency team does not achieve the goals you've set, then it is important to work with them to determine why. A fair and balanced critique will ensure they improve. If it is necessary to change out team members to achieve better performance, your critique should point up why you believe this is necessary. When possible such a critique should be developed jointly, so the managers of the agency team or agency executives are involved and enrolled in the outcome of the critique. Alternatively, when your agency team achieves outstanding results, praise them.
Be Accessible & Inclusive
One of the primary reasons that agency-client relationships fail is a lack of access to the client contact and/or key stakeholders (executives, product manager, etc.) and/or not allowing the agency team access to important information, product briefings, key documents, etc. Sometimes this occurs because the client contact is insecure about his or her own relationships within their organization.
Truly partnering with your agency is the only way for them to be successful. There are, however, situations where this is not possible. When this is the case, explain this to your agency team so you can work together on an alternate strategy.
Typically when we work for a company, we've drunk the Kool-Aid. So it can be challenging to have a realistic perspective on the competitive position of our product or the newsworthiness of our announcement. This is where your agency can provide you with real value. Not by telling you your goals are impossible based upon your news/announcement/etc.
But by providing alternative strategies that may have a better chance of achieving your company's business goals. Listen to your agency's counsel; that's what you are paying them for. But be clear that in the end, it is your decision on what strategy or tactic to employ. As I used to tell my staff, we recommend; the client decides.
Agency Fees & Results
Part of being an effective client is understanding how an agency operates. When you engage an agency as a client you are paying for the time of the people who work on your account. The agency must charge for that time at a rate that covers the salary of the people working on your account, overhead for office space, phones, health insurance, etc., taxes and profit.
Generally speaking, you get what you pay for. If you are paying below market rates for your agency, then you can expect below market talent and resources. You can, through various negotiation strategies, gain access to better talent at lower rates, but eventually simple economics must come to play.
As a client it is your responsibilities to be a careful steward of your company's resources. So getting the most for your company's money should always be the goal. But be cautious about extracting too many fee concessions from your agency. Every agency must hire from the same pool of talent. If the deal seems too good to be true, it probably is, and the results you achieve will reflect this.
Bob Finlayson is principal at Impact Marketing & Communications