Building a Client-Agency Partnership

Public Relations agencies can be crucial to bottom line success. PR is a business tool to ensure that the brand is always before the target group, that the brand sets up and continues the conversation with the target constituency and a constant check on the pulse of that constituency is maintained. That’s the ideal situation. Reality is a bit different. The problem is with the way PR agency and client partnerships are struck and nurtured. I think we all agree that client-agency relations should always be built on a foundation of trust, mutual sharing of ideas, information, and creativity.

I’ll repeat it here, although everyone reading this is perhaps already aware of reality:

A Bedford Group study showed that client-agency partnerships are not long lasting. In 1984, the average client-agency partnership would last 7.2 years; in 1997 that number shrank by 25% to 5.3 years; today it is less than 3 years. What’s impacting client-agency partnerships? What is missing in the partnership that makes it go sour almost overnight?

I’ll take a stab at trying to explain what is lacking in one word: mojo. In many cases, I’ve noticed a lack of magic in the partnership, lack of chemistry, and lack of camaraderie.  One of the biggest shifts I have seen in the recent past is that of strategic thinking moving more to the client side with agencies hired to do project-based, tactical work. And there’s enough fodder to kick off some self-reflection on both sides. (That said, I’d like to add that not all agencies are the same and so is the case with all clients.)

It is sad to see that some of the PR professionals arrive for meetings without a clue about how the client’s stocks are performing that morning, what the social network buzz is on the client, or even if the client has a new CEO. I am putting on my corporate communications hat – and what do I see and/or hear?  Some PR agencies provide solutions without understanding the client’s business or the industry environment.

This is not to say that clients are not to blame. They too need to take a step forward, invest time and energy is bringing the PR agency closer to them, both emotionally and in a business sense.  It is extremely critical for the client to treat their agency as a strategic partner and not just as an execution engine…

Here are the Top 3 lessons for clients that will help change their mind-set towards the agency and ensure the agency delivers more bang for the buck:

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  1. Share business goals and strategy – ensure that the agency works in harmony with business needs and not in isolation. A communication strategy must be in sync with the business strategy.P-2
  2. Bring the agency into confidence with regard to problems that impact customer, employees, competition, governance, legislation and product evolution – make them an integral part of your business.P-3.jpg
  3. Ensure that company resources make more time available to interact with the PR team – often, PR agencies complain that they haven’t managed to interact closely enough with senior stakeholders. Discussions and sharing ideas bring about better integration (and go much further than increased budgets!).

In reality, the meetings with stakeholders are the ones that will help PR narrate a great story – which is what PR is all about.

Here are the Top 3 lessons for PR agencies that can help improve these partnerships:

  1. Make people available for regular conversations – share, discuss, debate, as if both parties own the product and the brand.P-5.jpg
  2. Do the research – is there a way for you to know more than the client? I believe there is: a PR agency has its ear to the ground, to consumers and markets. Be proactive, take the initiative, and provide the client with industry insights and intelligence.P-6.jpg
  3. Discuss PR strategy and get it into a realistic plan that is issue specific – every PR problem is unique and even if it is not, treat it as unique. You will see better results.

I truly believe there are five critical elements that drive a great client/agency partnership.

  1. Commitment – Whatever the task ahead, nothing will happen until there is total commitment to succeed. With commitment, all kinds of benefits flow: energy, passion, and creativity. If both sides treat the partnership as a long-term bond, real rewards will result.P-8.jpg
  2. Communication – More client/agency partnerships dissolve over miscommunication than for any other reason. Be specific about what you need, establish clear goals, timelines, and budgets. Listen to opinions and valuable input. Without good communication, there can be no trust. Without trust, there can be no partnership.P-9.jpg
  3. Expectations – In this fiercely competitive age agencies must work harder than ever to attract, keep and develop great clients. Smart ones will help their clients to manage expectations and keep them realistic.P-10.jpg
  4. Honesty -Both the agency and the client must act with impeccable honesty and integrity. Agencies need to work in a climate of openness and be willing to commit to their point of view, even if it means challenging client perceptions. Equally, clients must be free to give input and provide tough feedback if they believe that their agency is missing the mark. Above all, it must remain constructive and be received by both teams with open minds. P-11.jpg
  5. Respect – When you hire an agency or agree to represent a client, respect them for the experts they are. The worst thing clients can do is constrain their agency by becoming the de facto expert on all things. The worst thing agencies can do is tell clients how to run their business. Respect the agency to do what it does best.

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