How to find the right agency
Finding the right agency to help develop and deliver the PR strategy is essential. But it can be a painful process. After all, you are looking for a partner with the right chemistry and the right talent – but also a group of people who share or at least understand your organisation’s culture and philosophy.
This document outlines the key considerations for the search and recommends a process to follow that will lead you to your ideal partner.
Before you begin the search, you need to know broadly what you are looking for and what you want a PR agency to do. The purpose of the pitch itself should not be to compare different kinds of agencies – it should just help us decide which agency. The groundwork therefore is important in filtering your thought process ahead of the pitch and to make the pitch as effective as possible.
Agencies have widely differing experience and skill sets. There are companies who are better with brand leaders and others who work better with ‘challenger’ brands. Some are expert in certain types of PR, others have market specialisms. You need to decide if want an agency that specialises in your market (say finance or healthcare) or whether you want one that specialises in say; consumer PR.
You also need to decide if you are after an all in one solution or willing to manage a roster of PR specialists. While most agencies will claim to be able to offer all services, the reality is often very different. It is not unusual to see companies managing two or three agencies – for example, individual specialists in consumer PR, broadcast and public affairs.
The advantage is that everyone is working to a clearly defined brief and you are paying agencies only for their specific expertise. The downside can be that you spend more time briefing and updating the various parties.
The written brief
The brief is key to the whole process – not least because the discipline of sitting down and working through a brief means that you are getting your own thoughts straight long before you approach an agency and ask them to interpret it.
But is will also determine the approach an agency will take in response. As a result, you should aim to provide an overview of the marketing and business objectives so that the context for PR is clear. You should be looking forward as well as back – are there things coming up which an agency should know about?
It is important to carefully manage the information given to agencies. You don’t need to tell them everything, but they do need an idea of budget, your overall positioning, future direction and communications needs. Be honest about what kind of services you need.
Get colleagues to review your brief and make sure the budget figures you give are realistic and signed off.
Search process communication plan
So far, so good. Two slight problems though: agency searches are highly newsworthy and often fairly drawn out processes. As a result there is potential for leaks. Therefore it is important that you have a communications strategy in place from the beginning. There are two ways to manage it:
1. Attempt to keep it secret – a strategy can be devised based on a series of sticks, carrots and NDAs to encourage the right behaviour.
2. Accept leaks are going to happen and manage the media pro-actively – this approach can be beneficial for example in helping to build excitement towards a launch. But it does also raise the level of press interrogation at a time when you could well do without it. It can also remove any element of surprise.
Either way, you should plan accordingly.
Desk research and ‘long-listing’
It is possible to gain an awful lot of information before meeting a single agency. It is likely that you will form very strong opinions about certain agencies while still in this early phase. It is important therefore that you have some form of process and evaluation to ensure you consider all options equally.
Potential ‘long-listees’ should be firms who appear to meet your broad requirements based on projects they have completed for other companies, previous contact, mail shot approaches, trade press reports or recommendations.
Even at this early stage it is possible to agree your position on some key issues and then assess potential agencies against the resulting criteria:
- Agency size: Is it more important to be a “big fish in a small pond” or the right sized fish in the right sized pond? Either way you should be aware of the role your company will play on an agency roster and ensure you pick companies who care passionately about the brief and not just about “winning” the business.
- Location – It can seem less important in the current hi-tech age but in start-up and launch phase projects, the intensity of the work load and the need to gel together as a team quickly, can mean that location is an issue. Also, where is the media based in relation to you and the agency? Again, proximity can have its rewards in building relationships with the press.
- Culture – you are starting out on a long term relationship with an agency (hopefully!) and if it is to survive it will be because of the personal chemistry between the organisations as much as the calibre of the work. There has to be a high level of mutual trust and respect between parties in any long term relationship and this is no different. You need to think carefully about the kind of relationship you are entering into.
- Clients and conflicts – Conflicts are inevitable on agency rosters – especially if there is a limited pool of PR agencies to choose from. Therefore it is more often a case of how do you manage the conflicts?
Agencies will always say they never talk between teams about clients but in practice that is rarely the case. Review the client lists in detail. If some of your big competitors are on the roster lists, you may need to understand more about the nature of the relationship before automatically deciding it is a risk. It may be the case that it is not a retained relationship, a lot of work is done on a project basis these days, but the client name still goes on the agency creds! Also, if you want an agency with a proven track record in Banking PR it is inevitable that your competitors will be on their books. Again, you need to assess the risk.
- Experience – As outlined above, experience is often the flip-side of conflict in this context. It is likely that you will benefit from someone who has experience of your sector and knows your media.
- Speciality – What are their key strengths? What do they do with a passion? What seems to be missing in the mix? Are they strategic or tactical? Is their success based on creativity or very solid relationship building with journalists?
- Reputation – What do existing clients say about them? Have they won awards? Is the agency respected by its peers? Is it growing or stagnating as a result?
It is also worth considering getting help with the search process. For example AAR (http://www.aargroup.co.uk) is a search and selection agency – an agency to find and agency if you like! They cover PR as well as advertising and media agencies and charge a fixed fee to take you through the whole process.
Short-lists, credentials and chemistry
The goal of the selection process is to end up with an agency that, in partnership with the client, is going to add significant value to the brand. The objective of short-listing is to ensure that all agencies who fulfil the basic requirements of the brief are screened and either rejected or taken forward to pitch.
Essentially, we are in a people business and therefore it is the people that really matter.
As a result the quickest way to get a feel for an agency is to meet them in their own surroundings and find out what makes them tick. The way they behave and relate to you will be genuine and it will reflect their way of doing business. An hour long meeting will tell you pretty much everything you need to know about an agency, how they work, what they have done in the past and whether they could do it for you. At this stage you do not need to disclose much more than the brand or the market sector.
In order to be fair and thorough through this process you should consider using a checklist for each meeting, based on the following criteria:
- Appropriate location, size and services
- Relevant and recent (current) experience
- Market sector knowledge
- Brand affinity
- Personal chemistry within the agency team
- Personal chemistry with client
- Could you work with them?
The objective is to confirm or deny the gut feel that put them on the long list in the first place, to see their credentials, check chemistry and look at examples of their work. The meetings should last an hour and you should aim to see no more than six agencies.
The term ‘pitch’ is used here to refer to the final stage of the process but we are going to talk about three different approaches.
It is recommended that you look to invite three agencies to pitch. The chemistry process outlined above is a very effective way of trimming your shortlist so that there is no need to ask a large number of agencies to pitch. It is a costly and time consuming exercise for them and a large number of agencies pitching can also make it harder for you to reliably compare the strengths of the relevant proposals.
Obviously there are many different ways to run a pitch but here are three possible approaches worth considering:
1. The classic ‘pitch’
This is where the agency is asked to provide a full strategic and creative pitch. This is a huge piece of work for the agency and they should really be given around four weeks to do it. It has drawbacks for you too. We are firm believers in the importance of PR strategy however, too often, agencies race through the strategic part of the pitch challenge and spend far too much time brainstorming creative treatments and tactics. It is perhaps human nature – the creative bit is more fun and the team will automatically think of numerous tactical ideas to impress you. But you need to see that they have really understood the market, understood you and applied real thinking to the strategic positioning.
An awful lot of pitches are ruined by an over emphasis on tactics which drives subjective client decisions (“I don’t like that idea”) rather than methodical thinking which tends to build consensus and trust. Any agency on your long-list could fire off twenty tactical ideas in the hope that one might just hit the mark. But what you need, more than anything, is to see which one can think their way to the solution.
2. Strategic recommendations only
As a result you could consider positioning the brief so that you focus only on strategic recommendations. Agencies find this harder to do and the one, who does it well, could well be the one for you! Once appointed, you can work with them to refine the brief and then generate the tactics – it is easier to get the tactical side right this way – and it is a more efficient use of time compared to the tactical lottery often produced by agencies from the pitch brief.
Often, average presentations are skewed by one or two amazingly sexy sounding, tactical ideas, which when you start exploring them in detail are impossible to do. A decision that was based more on the strategic ability demonstrated in the pitch is likely to generate better long term results tactically.
That is not to say creativity is not important, but the real value of creativity is often easier to judge from completed and successful projects than pitch ideas. It is only really a great idea if the agency could actually make it happen and it successfully met the client’s objectives. Plus, it is inevitable that an agency’s tactical creativity will come through somewhere in their presentation – they can’t resist it!
The other advantage of this approach is that you can cut down the time needed to prepare. Here two or three weeks would be acceptable.
3. A workshop
This is a relatively new way of conducting an agency selection and it is the more natural extension of the chemistry process outlined earlier. The traditional pitch is a fairly false scenario when you think about it and it can look one dimensional by comparison. A workshop is more akin to continuous assessment than an exam and as a result can produce more reliable results.
Typically the workshop would run for longer than the traditional pitch and be made up of different exercises such as problem solving and working together with the client on team building challenges.
A full workshop would require more preparation by yourselves and proper assessment. Alternatively you could tailor an approach that includes a presentation of their strategic recommendations. The workshop element could be designed to assess communication skills, interpersonal and social skills, decision making abilities, ethics and values and project management.
A hybrid of the strategic pitch and the workshop format ensures you get to see more than just their presentation skills and brainstorming ability.
Support during the pitch
One aspect of the pitch process that is often overlooked is the level of support you can give to agencies. If agencies want more information on the brief or to test their thinking before the pitch, it should be encouraged. Often an agency will ask if they are on the right lines midway through the work – surely it is better to help them get it right than leave them to run further off course and waste both your time and theirs.
Objective evaluation and selection
Once you are clear on who needs to be present to hear the pitch from the client side, it is worth spending time together agreeing the criteria for final selection. That way you are all looking for similar things in the presentation and not wasting time. An assessment form, with a simple system for recording evidence against the criteria, is very useful for each presentation.
It is often a good idea to run all the pitch presentations on the same day but if that is not possible, the most important thing is to review each pitch as a team as soon as possible to record opinions while still fresh. This allows you to ‘sleep’ on the final decision and return to your notes for a reminder.
It is good practice to inform agencies as soon as possible after a pitch, and certainly within a week. It is always good to take time to provide constructive feedback to the unsuccessful agencies. Not only is it good for them, but if your first choice agency does not take up the retainer for whatever reason, you may want to fall back on a second choice from the pitch.
Contracts and remuneration
The contract should be actively negotiated by both parties to ensure full understanding of the contents and the responsibilities on both sides.
As part of the contract it is important to agree the actual tasks you require the agency to perform and how much time you expect them to devote to each element per month or week. A review process should then be agreed to monitor how time is being spent and make any adjustments necessary. For example, the first formal review could be at six weeks with the next one at three months.
The agency should report back to you with an overview of their timesheet recording as well as their thoughts on how the programme is progressing. This form of active management improves performance and accountability significantly.
Establishing the relationship
Once you have appointed an agency you need to start the process of building the working relationship, creating familiarity between the teams and with your respective work practices.
You need to also agree objectives, key measures of effectiveness and reporting systems. You need to set up structured meeting and reporting processes. More than at any other point in the relationship you need to invest time in these initial weeks to help the agency get up to speed. Having structured weekly meetings and reporting is crucial in this phase.
The starting point for the PR programme itself should be feeding back on the pitch document in detail and agreeing together how to move forward.
Whether the relationship thrives and lasts will be down to the quality of the agency in part but also down to the investment you make in terms of time. But good rigour in your pitch process should ensure things get off to the best possible start.
For further information please contact Gordon or Liz on 01603 505 845 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org