Your business is changing. You may be standing at the precipice of a new brand launch or introducing new products, or you’ve received major new funding and it’s time to put your foot on the accelerator. The time has come to hire a new PR agency, and with so much at stake, you’ve got to get this right.
I know what you’re feeling. Hiring a new agency is both exciting and daunting: Somehow, you have to squeeze this in while doing your day job, and yet this is a big opportunity with lots at stake. You also want to hire an agency that will grow with you into the future but that’s becoming increasingly difficult.
According to the Bedford Group, the average client-agency relationship tenure in 1984 was 7.2 years. That number declined by 25 percent in 1997 to 5.3 years, and today the average tenure is approximately 3 years or less. What’s going wrong?
I believe clients often hire agencies that can’t meet their ongoing needs as the relationship develops. Here’s a list of the top criteria you should consider – some of them seemingly counterintuitive – to help you find the best long-term PR agency partner:
1. Do They Get You?
This is an important factor, but it shouldn’t be driven by a requirement that they have specific experience in your business or industry. Your best PR partner will give you “signs” that they really understand your business problems and have solutions that are creative and effective. Often, experience from other categories can invigorate media coverage and sales. Is the agency inventive, or even provocative? Can they show their effectiveness in implementation and results? If you’re inspired, that’s a great indication of future success.
2. Agency Size
Don’t fall into the “big budget, big agency; small budget, small agency” trap. My many years of experience at both very large and very small agencies has taught me that big agencies bait and switch during the pitch process. Senior people pitch and sell, then junior people are left to implement (because the agency relentlessly drives down costs to optimize their margins), with lots of turnover.
Of course, if you have a large, global network of offices with important PR needs in many countries, and a large global budget to support them, it makes sense to hire a large, global PR agency with offices in all your countries. But if that’s not you, in a smaller agency, you can have the senior leadership involved with you and your own senior leadership team every week. Even if the smaller agency needs to hire people to support your program, a growing agency has a vibe that beats a larger agency with a priority of cost management.
3. Capability Alignment
While you need PR, you also need content, social media management and in some cases digital marketing to support your program. Some PR agencies have the PR experience, but fake the social media or digital marketing capabilities. Make sure the other capabilities that you’re folding into your program are supported by experienced (even inspiring) people with specific skill sets aligned with your needs. Every agency says they do everything, but a check of the entire team’s qualifications will reveal how strong they are in areas other than traditional PR.
4. Budget Alignment
As I said earlier, don’t hire an agency based on the size of your budget. “Big” and “small” are not the adjectives you should be using to select your PR partner. The size of your budget is less important than your objectives and the different capabilities you need to surpass your goals. That said, it’s a good idea to use some discipline while developing your budget, especially when it comes to the variety of capabilities needed to maximize an effective PR program in today’s digital age. To help, here’s a blog written by my colleague Mike Monahan about “How Much Should You Spend on PR.”
5. There’s No “I” in “Team”
Most agencies have a “closer” that leads their business development. It could be the head of the agency or the leader of the top accounts. If one or two senior people are fronting the agency during the pitch, you should look behind the curtain. Your best partner will bring the people who will actually be leading and working on your business. They’re the people you need to relate with.
That’s not to say the head of the agency won’t be involved (I’m strategically involved in every Tech Image client at the senior level), but the qualifications and personalities of the people you’ll work with day-to-day are all important. If the agency will be developing content, make sure you meet the person who will write it and they participate in the pitch. If you need social media and digital advertising, make sure you meet those people and they participate in the pitch. This closer is not why you should buy. The team is everything.
6. Digital Capabilities
There is no such thing as traditional PR anymore. The walls that used to separate PR, social media, digital marketing and content creation have come crashing down. The best partner for you, or any company, is one with the digital chops to magnify the impact of your earned media coverage with social and digital expertise. This includes knowing the technologies and techniques to accelerate visibility to highly targeted audiences beyond just earned media coverage.
As I said before, most PR agencies are reasonably accomplished at traditional PR, and they pretend to be experts at the digital stuff. Advertising agencies with an embedded PR capability may have the creative chops, but there’s a firewall between their PR people and the digital people that you don’t see. True integration can only come from people with different skillsets working side-by-side on every account. You’ll be able to tell by the integration of services presented during the pitch.
Isn’t this the bottom line? So make sure the agency you hire is willing to commit to a specific number of interview opportunities or media placements each month. Make them guarantee a number in their contract. If they’re not willing to commit because “PR is an awareness tool and not a sales tool,” maybe you’re talking to the wrong agencies.
In this age of accountability, metrics are most important. Can the agency promote earned media coverage through ads that link to landing pages that link to your sales pipeline? All marketing tools, including PR, can influence sales, and you need an agency that believes the same thing you do. Wouldn’t it be nice to know exactly what you were getting for your investment? This is a top selling point for your senior leadership team, and your next agency partner should deliver this in spades.
This is the soft side of the agency selection process, but it’s one that shouldn’t be ignored. I’ve heard clients say they selected an agency because of their name or their size, even though they didn’t really connect with them. I’ve learned that work is hard and if I’m going to be in the trenches with someone, I’d better like and admire them. Yes, I have a rule. I admire the team I work with, and my clients who partner with us, because of their tenacity, intelligence, creativity and commitment to results. These attributes matter, and probably contribute most to long-term, successful relationships.
If you use these criteria, tailored to your situation, you’ll likely find the best agency partner. I wish you great success in your search.