Looking down the barrel – hunting for a new PR agency?

Looking down the barrel – hunting for a new PR agency?

Claire Walker

Claire Walker

It’s hunting season for many agencies – not that we condone blood sports of any kind, just to be clear. It is the period, post summer holiday and pre-New Year, that companies go hunting for new agencies to head their PR roster for the next year.

The hunt is there to cull the weak and find the fastest, fittest PR animal in the isles. Even if you have a great – if not the very best – agency, aren’t you concerned that the teeniest bit of complacency has crept in or are you intrigued to see if there is a bigger and better beastie just around the corner?

So, it’s time to don the deerstalker and get down to business. But don’t underestimate your quarry. Just be wary of some of these classic pitching tactics agencies use to win business. When work starts, make sure you don’t end up stepping on a bear trap of your own making…

The PR Pitch and Switch

PR agencies are busy places and sometimes the team you want to work on a project just aren’t available to work on the big pitch. Holidays, illness, or – dare I say it – those darned clients, just keeping getting in the way.

In pursuit of success at any cost, watch out for the pitch and switch tactic. The most senior team, or the ‘hunters’, will arrive to present the ‘all-singing, all dancing’ killer pitch. You are wowed. Within weeks (or even days), the composition of the team changes to (how shall we say?) the less dazzling players.

What should you do? If you like certain people, or feel you will gel better with certain people, make sure you make a point of having them named in the contract. If team members do switch, get on board with the interview or selection procedure for a replacement. Make sure the agency picks up the cost for any changes to personnel!

Bewitched and (ultimately) bewildered

A new agency comes in and waves a magic wand. They promise they will turn grit to gold and craft press releases of polished prose. All will be well with your PR world.

Take a reality check - this is not Disneyland. Ensure from the off that the promises are realistic and tied to specific KPIs. A Statement of Work will tie an agency down to a specific list of objectives, targets and evaluation. It is up to the agency to deliver the value, impact and results they have promised.

But as the client you need to fulfil your part of the bargain too. Like a Faustian pact, it can’t all be one way. Make sure you fulfil your side of the bargain too, providing quick turnarounds, rapid response, and spokespeople when needed.

Apples and pears

How to compare one agency with another? Similar-looking agencies can propose very different approaches. You will probably err towards the people and personalities, rather than the ideas. They can be changed, unlike somebody’s persona. However, there are some very simple benchmarks that you can apply:

  • What is the hourly rate of each management level within the agency?
  • On how many clients does each person work?
  • Are you a little client in a sea of large ones?
  • Will you get headspace?
  • Does the team want to work on your business? (go on, ask them).

Useful alternatives to the PR pitch

We’ve been pitching for so long we’ve forgotten why we’re doing it this way. It must have seemed a good idea to somebody at some point. But pause a little and consider the alternatives.

  • Interview the teams

How about interviewing the team members, individually, to check the intelligence, skills, experience, contacts and motivation of each member – top to bottom. Following this, bring the team together and set a little challenge, observe them and see how they work together.

This tactic is fundamental to obtaining a clearer picture of the team chemistry and personality. It demonstrates what brings them together and, crucially, what drives them apart. Sure, they’ll be on their best behaviour, but it’s far more informative to hear, see and maybe even feel the team dynamics. You could join the challenge too and see how they cope with that. No pressure!

  • Cut to the chase

Research your agency before you meet. Five agencies is a maximum long list, which should enable you to invite two to three back at the next stage (presentations, interviews, whatever you have devised…). Anymore than this is superfluous unless you have plenty of time on your hands, and who has?

Save yourself hours in pitch meetings by restricting the amount of information you receive (5-10 pages max) and the time you have together (45 – 60 mins). That way, everyone is focused.

It’s harder for an agency to impress in five pages, than waffle on for 50 with a whole load of irrelevant, generic slides or ‘ologies of information. If the agency has been in business for a while, it is a given that they know how to do PR.

Give them a very specific challenge to address, perhaps a particular announcement or typical scenario, or a few examples and see how they approach it. Be selective in what you need to know. You’ll quickly learn who impresses you.

  • Make it real

Most business happens over the phone or email, so why not use the same format as part of the selection process? It’s more realistic than a formal presentation. If the account exec doesn’t impress you on the phone, how will they impress any influencers on your behalf? It’s the execs who do the sell-ins, after all.

Or perhaps, conduct a brainstorming exercise or pull together a real-time campaign, with the agency in the room. Observe how they work together, or perhaps work with them. How creative is the thinking? How thoroughly do they plan? How results focused are they?

A Pitch in a Day (PIAD) certainly isn’t necessarily very representative of real working life. But we do have to think fast, we do have to work together on challenging briefs, and ultimately we do have to deliver impressive results. This method will expose any cracks in the team, and test the management and leadership skills of the agency directors.

At the end of the day, it is all about competency, cost and that good old magic ingredient – chemistry – that will give you the real feel of the agency that is just the right fit for you.

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