Bill Gates once said: “If I was down to my last dollar, I’d spend it on public relations.” And while this may be music to the ears of PR professionals, the process of choosing the best agency to spend that last dollar on can be tricky given the highly competitive market and huge variations in price and capabilities. In fact choosing the right agency has arguably grown a lot tougher, as long gone are the days of ‘press release factories’, with the best agencies now providing integrated solutions that help brands reach their target audience through a combination of traditional media, social and online methods
As such, we asked Grant King, a senior account director of iHC, who handles PR, social media and digital for some top corporate brands operating across the Gulf region and boasts over 20 years’ experience in the field, to give us ten tips for choosing the best agency for your company:
Size isn’t everything
Big brands often fall into the trap of hiring larger ‘well-known’ agencies, drawing some sort of comfort from the fact they have a recognisable name. This is almost always the source of future pain, as over recent years we have seen a shift away from the large multinational agencies, with many clients and contacts opting for small and medium sized agencies after unsatisfactory experiences with large agencies. In fact the multinational agencies have experienced regular bouts of staff redundancies and restructuring, as they adapt to changing market conditions and regain their shape for the modern market. It’s well known global PR brands have suffered worst over the last decade or so due to digital transformation trends within the industry. It takes longer to turn an oil tanker than a speedboat and the smaller, nimbler agencies have done a better job of transforming their services and tailoring their packages to suit each and every client’s needs. Also, don’t fall into the trap many multinational brands do when they choose agencies because they have ‘offices in target countries’, as this needs to be researched much further. Many agencies may share a franchise logo, but most operate on a completely different balance sheet, with no meaningful relationship between offices and only the brand in common.
The actual team
Which brings us on to number 2: what’s more important than agency size is the team that will be handling your account. The person who pitches for your business is not always the one who will be handling it, so before choosing the agency, ask the agency’s business development representative to meet the full team and search for that rapport, which will be so important from one month to the next. While the ‘closer’ you meet should be a good representation of the agency, ask who your day-to-day contact will be and who handle your account on a daily basis. If it makes you more comfortable, then specifically request the BD manager to attend monthly meetings, or any other member of the team you prefer handling your account. If there is a social media component, then ask to see some of the past work of the person responsible, or with digital advertising, ask that person to go through a few case studies of previous work and what they will actually do for your brand.
Do your due diligence – ask for a brief presentation of a case study that shows the results and work that has been done for an account with similar deliverables. Any transparent agency worth its salt should be able to easily share links to some colourful examples of similar work and talk you through how this will work for your brand. Perhaps they can share a monthly coverage report, send a few links to managed social accounts or show some video clips and images they have created. All this will help give you the peace of mind to select and proceed.
While many communications agencies are a generalist in nature, it can help if you find one with specific experience in your industry. For example, we are recognised as winning more awards in the B2B field, with several industrial/ construction/ engineering clients, which gives companies in similar industries immediate confidence in choosing us, as they know our team is well versed in the relevant media and ways of communicating that works. However, we also have long-term clients in more consumer-facing industries, so the only way to learn about specific agency experience is to ask. If you are a jewellery brand looking for an agency, it would be best asking around for a luxury and lifestyle focused agency – don’t be afraid to ask for recommendations if you don’t have enough confidence in the agency’s experience.
While it’s reasonable to expect results right away, allow a little time to gather momentum – but set targets and KPIs against your contracted deliverables, as these are as helpful for your agency as yourself. As an agency we try and exceed our client expectations on a monthly basis, but we always work better with clients who set aside time for a monthly meeting to go over the last month’s results and align the next month’s activity against the upcoming objectives and activities of the company. In fact some of our top performing accounts have taken the step of factoring in a weekly meeting to ensure delivery and communication is always on track. A results-focused agency will embrace such suggestions and there’s nothing better than aligning with sales and business targets, as lead generation and impacting upon clients’ bottom line is the ultimate positive feedback. For example, we have a leading construction services client who recently told us we are generating as many as eight new business leads per week through PR, social media and online advertising, which is exactly the type of feedback we thrive upon. Another client won an engineering project worth over $1,000,000 recently thanks to leads we generated through our integrated activity. Letting your agency know about the positive results of their work can really inspire them to greater efforts. Ask every month for more social media engagement, better optimised Google Ads leads or more media coverage – everyone likes a challenge.
Traditional PR agencies are a thing of the past and you need to ensure the agency you choose has the true in-house capability to deliver quality traditional media coverage, social media content and online advertising that will maximise your budget. For example, some newer agencies may have the PR ability and try to ‘wing’ the rest – you need to know you are truly driving brand awareness and lead generation from all the important channels. This should also form part of your due diligence during the ‘meet the team’ stage and when you receive some case studies based upon the proposed deliverables.
This is a two-way relationship and the willingness of your agency to be flexible should not be undervalued. When you are collecting proposals, it’s important to bear in mind agencies are dealing with many similar requests and there will be a cookie-cutter approach in the initial stages. Once you have a shortlist of a number of agencies, then test their flexibility and keenness to take over your account. If you particularly like an agency’s experience, then give them every chance to meet your demands. If their costs are too high or suggested delivery is too low, then tell them what you want and how much for and see what they come back to you with. Going out there with a completely vague brief and no budget will not help anyone. Try and give as much information as possible and meet them to discuss in more detail. More time and communication put in here will reap dividends in the end.
Long-term relationship potential
You should be going into this for the long run. It takes time to choose an agency well and then more time for a synergetic relationship to be developed. What’s the point in taking on an agency, learning from each other for a year and then dropping the relationship and losing all the knowledge that built up along the way. It’s a painful and expensive process switching agencies – and one that should be avoided at all costs. Select an agency that appears to be on the up and grow together with them, ensuring communication channels are always open and regular meetings maintain a strong rapport. A good PR agency should also be a valuable networking resource, so take time to ask about their other clients, potential connections that could be made, or events that may be of interest.
How well they market themselves
No one wants a dentist with bad teeth or an out of shape personal trainer, so why should you PR agency be any different. If they are not properly marketing themselves, then what does that say about how they will deliver for your brand? It’s easy to check what an agency is doing by surfing its website and social channels, plus some Google research. Just the way that your customers will research your company, which is the main task of a modern PR agency after all. Ask open-ended questions – lots of them – such as: how well connected is the company, both with traditional media and online platforms? What do they do to help SEO and drive traffic and leads for clients? What do they do differently from other agencies?
What type of person would choose the agency to portray and represent their brand based upon being the lowest priced? Answer: more than you would believe! While we never want a client that is selecting its agency purely based upon price, this is an area of regular consternation for team members in our agency. We are neither the most expensive, nor cheapest agency in any of the countries we operate in – not by a long way. However, we sometimes lose out on projects and retained accounts because the client decided to go with a cheaper option. Why is it a point of contention? Because they never came back to our agency and asked what we could do for the lower budget. It all goes back to communication, transparency and flexibility. Shortlist a few agencies and then decide from their proposals what you think is the fair price for the project or ongoing remit – then choose the best agency for you and try and work it out with them so you can go with your first choice. Inevitably agencies going in the lowest are doing so for a reason and the ones with higher quotations might be planning to throw more resources or better quality people at the tasks at hand. Go back to your preferred agency, let them know they are a bit higher than your budget and try and work out how you can make it work. For example, we work with one of the world’s biggest ergonomic furniture producers and they came back to our agency to negotiate lower contract terms. We remained open to this request and agreed on a contract within which they kitted out our entire office with their advanced furniture and technology. What a great solution for all and it brought our team closer – literally – to the products they would be promoting. We wanted to work with them, both parties showed a willingness to be flexible and we still work with them two years later – and now with a bigger overall remit.
The moral of the story is to maintain an on-going dialogue with shortlisted agencies, especially during the critical contract negotiation stage. This way you – the potential client – can secure the best contract terms possible, while developing a personal and meaningful relationship with the actual people that will be representing your company, ensuring the needs of your brand will be fully met in the future.