The perils of 'electing' an agency
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The perils of 'electing' an agency

Arun Sudhaman

Indisputably, the democratic process is something worth fighting for, yet recent events lead me to wonder whether - where agency selection is concerned - 'electing' a PR firm raises more questions than answers. From what I understand two recent pitches relied on a simple voting system to determine the result of their PR agency pitches: LG Electronics and Skype. LG Electronics wound up retaining WPP's LG-One for the third time in four years, while Skype hired Text 100 in the UK. This is not to suggest that either of these companies got those decisions wrong. Neither should it appear as if they are the only companies utilising a voting system to select agency partners; by now, the process is fairly commonplace among corporations, big and small. Instead, I'd like to consider whether this is the best way to conclude a lengthy agency review. The appeal is understandable. Typically, key figures within the communications function at a global and local level are each given a vote, along with representatives of the procurement department. The process is fair and ensures that everyone relevant receives a say. I can't help but notice some major drawbacks, though. To begin with, I do wonder what the point is in hiring a high-priced, senior head of communications, if that person is not vested with enough power to have the final say on such a crucial decision. For many companies, the PR agency works hand-in-glove with the communications department, so getting the selection right is of obvious importance. At some point, it strikes me that the buck must stop somewhere. Where better than the executive charged with overseeing an organization's public relations for a specific market or geography? Might that person have trouble remaining objective? Possibly. Does giving more people an equal say ensure greater objectivity? I'm not convinced. A local comms head may prefer their domestic PR partner while the global comms head may be hankering for a change. Neither are wrong, but one is better placed to determine the priorities that take precedence. Who that person is will depend on the agency relationship in question. A local comms head is likely to have a better idea of who should handle the local account. If it is a global relationship, then it seems logical for the global comms manager to make the final call. Even the strongest of client-agency partnerships, furthermore, is prone to relationship issues. When these crop up, it's probably important to ensure an attitude of collective responsibility on both sides of the equation. How likely is this when key client-side people may have actually voted against the agency in question? You could argue that entrusting one person to pick the PR firm may not necessarily improve ownership of the agency relationship across the communications department. I raised this with a senior industry figure who has led comms for a couple of large companies. Her response was simple and eye-opening: The head of comms should make the decision after consulting key people within her organization and department. The decision should then be explained to those key stakeholders in such a manner as to ensure collective responsibility and support for the selection. Basically, it comes down to effective leadership, of the kind that senior business executives must get right if they hope to perform successfully. Put more simply, if companies are hiring people to lead communications, they should trust those people to make the big decisions.
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