Three years. That is the average length of today's client-agency relationship. That average is less than half of what it was 20 years ago, and it continues to decline.
Clients decide to move on from a PR agency for various reasons, many of which are completely avoidable if you start your agency search off right from the very beginning.
Having led a PR and marketing agency for the past 15 years, I have seen what works and what doesn't when building an agency-client relationship. No matter the type of client, success always starts with a strong partnership built on cultural fit, clarity of roles, and strategic alignment both on goals and the measurement of success.
So, what does it mean to have a strong agency partnership? And how do you start building one?
Here are seven questions to ask when vetting and interviewing an agency—and what you should know before you even begin your search.
1. What industries do you specialize in?
A successful agency needs to have quality storytelling abilities and strong relationships with the right reporters, but it's also to your advantage when an agency has knowledge of the industry trends that are influencing, or will influence, your business.
If an agency is a direct participant in and a driver of thought leadership in your area of interest, then you can be assured that agency understands your business and can give you access and insights. Such deep industry expertise means they are on top of the trends that the media in your space care about, and so they can inject you into those stories and help you make business decisions based on market intel.
Expertise and involvement also help keep your agency's ideas fresh and innovative, allowing it to best understand all the places to build awareness outside of just earned media. The agency can suggest the right shows, speaking engagements, awards programs, LinkedIn groups, etc.
2. Great. Your industry experience fits, but how are you going to help my business?
We have a saying at our firm: Meet your clients wherever they are. Doing so is critical to success.
There is a big difference between working for a Fortune 100 tech company with a steady stream of news and expert spokespeople versus a smaller company with a disruptive technology but little name recognition. One involves strategic planning around announcing news, managing crises, and getting the most out of every campaign. The other involves creating a narrative with unknown spokespeople and figuring out how to inject it into a beat that doesn't even exist yet.
Your agency must fully understand where you are in your lifecycle in order to help you achieve your next wave.
If you are a big company, look for strong case studies managing multiple streams of content and experience with multiple stakeholders from various departments. Don't just look for a "big" agency; look for tenure and the experience of the actual account team. An agency needs to have business acumen to truly partner with a Fortune 100 brand.
If you are a smaller client, be wary of being wowed by PR agencies that boast solely big-brand client rosters. Working with huge, multinational companies with big budgets takes one kind of skill, whereas teasing out content and news from smaller companies with no established brand equity takes another. Make sure you can see case studies that are relevant to your business.
3. Do you understand PR and marketing?
The lines between marketing and PR continue to blur. Look for an agency that understands and has embraced this evolution, offering additional insights and value beyond traditional media and PR tactics.
We started as a PR agency, but we added a content marketing team when we saw our clients' goals would be better met by a mix of these converging tactics. Clients appreciate not needing to hire multiple agencies to get work done. Traditional media relations or social isn't always the answer alone; sometimes a piece of gated content targeted at a handful of potential customers stuck in your funnel can have a bigger impact.
If your agency understands PR and marketing, you know that you will get the right tactic for the best outcome for your business.
4. How do you measure success?
The PR industry is notorious for the challenges it has measuring its success. Look for an agency that is able to clearly lay out how it is going to tie the results of its programs to your business objectives.
Are the analytics and analysis your agency is going to provide meaningful and understandable to the executives and decision-makers at your company? The measurement and data your agency reports should be directed by the goals and outcomes you're expected to deliver.
Years ago, one of the first times I realized reporting and measurement needed to be a top priority for our agency, was while we were presenting our annual results to one of the top leaders at one of our biggest clients. Looking at our impressive end-of-year earned media numbers, he said, "These look great, but how did they directly contribute to our business goals?"
To seasoned PRO pros, our numbers would certainly have looked impressive, but agencies need to be able to interpret and report the data in a way that is understandable and impactful to leaders who don't work in PR.
Agency reporting needs to be more directly tied to business objectives. For example, an agency might show it can report on share of voice in the media versus the client's competitors, the SEO impact of its earned media, and so on.
5. Who will be on my team and how much turnover do you have?
Agencies have rightfully earned a reputation for the bait and switch. Agencies impress potential clients with insightful ideas and analysis pitched by senior executives—but, after they've won the business, the work is then pushed down to a junior team. That is how a lot of agencies make money: push the work down to cheaper, less-experienced employees, push the profitability up.
You should also ask about turnover. Agencies have a notoriously high turnover rate of around 30%, and the impact on your PR success can be significant. Consider independent agencies with a strong track record of client and employee retention.
6. What would your clients say you are like to work with?
Your agency should be an extension of your team. Just as you would look for cultural fit when you make a new hire, your agency should also have to clear that bar.
As in the hiring process, calling references is the best way to figure out what unique attributes your potential agency will bring and where it might still have some opportunities for improvement.
Agencies have a ton of creative resources at their disposal to wow you in their presentations, but reference checks will shake out exactly the type of results and experience you can expect in a client-agency relationship.
7. What is your business philosophy, and how do you manage your business?
Who manages the business? What kind of profitability ratios are you aiming for? How much new business do you bring in every year? If your agency is owned by a PE firm or a publicly traded holding company, what happens to my team when you need to meet numbers?
Those are all important questions for getting a feel for how an agency is run. How an agency manages its business will affect how it services your business. When an agecy is transparent about how it manages its business, that resonates with clients; it's a big driver of low client or consultant turnover rates.
There is another consideration
Asking the right questions can set you off on the right path, but you also need to know what the right answers are
Thinking through your strategic objectives and providing a clear picture of how your team can manage, support, and work with an agency is key in vetting and interviewing a new agency, and ultimately building a strong agency partnership that offers you and your business the best potential for success.
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