Preventing “Death by A Thousand Cuts” in the Agency-Client Relationship

There’s a reason many corporations prefer hiring communications professionals who The Business Lab ending toxic Client Relationships on a positive note - representative and consultant Katherine Hennessy-resized-600have experience working on both sides of the table: as a client and for an agency.

Perspective.

If you have ever been the client, you know what great and lousy client service looks and feels like.  And if you later made the switch to the other side of the table, to a public relations or other type of agency, you then had the opportunity to serve clients with the same level of customer service excellence you expected (and perhaps actually received) from your agency when you were the customer.

Also, it pays to be familiar with the pressures and challenges of working on the inside and you can only get that from working on the inside.  Too many agency employees have an inaccurate picture of what their clients are up against because they have never walked in their shoes.  Perhaps the subject of a future post.

As for me (thanks for asking!), I’ve split my career down the middle with half of my experience as a client and the more recent half serving clients from big, medium and small agencies.  During the client years, I saw agency-client relationships disintegrate in slow increments.  Typically, it was death by a thousand cuts vs. the result of a single infraction. And sad to say, I witnessed the same phenomenon while on the agency side.

In almost every case, it was the little things that built up over time that led to divorce.

If you are currently working at an agency and have never worked on the client side, here are a few timeless tips — in addition to outstanding results, of course — that will help keep the relationship with your customers on the right path:

  • Acknowledge that you received your client’s email or text with a simple “got it” or “will touch base with you on this” or anything that sends the message you are available. A client’s imagination can run wild when their attempts to communicate with you aren’t reciprocated in a timely manner.
  • On the other hand, don’t get upset if your client doesn’t get back to your emails or calls in a timely fashion. The agency-client relationship isn’t always a two-way street and that has to be OK with you or you will make yourself crazy.  Clients spend lots of time away from their desks, confined in conference rooms for meetings that go on and on and on.  And they have their own internal clients to serve and politics to play. Cut them some slack.
  • Call your client.  Email and team conference calls are great and have their purpose. But some of the best engagements and ideas come about when the account team lead and client chat live. Clients enjoy hearing from their agency, even if it’s just a call to check in.  So pick up the phone.
  • Remember that the client hired the agency, not you.  Show leadership by encouraging all members of your account team to be heard on the weekly group client call. Clients want to hear how every member of the team is contributing.  For a client, there’s nothing more uplifting than when on one of these calls a junior person begins to “get it” and shares a brilliant idea.
  • Get the agency’s most experienced people involved with your client’s account.  Invite them to an occasional brainstorm, especially around the bigger initiatives, and then tell your client about it. Most clients recognize that agency management isn’t involved with their account on a daily basis, but many have the fair expectation that senior agency leaders are making a contribution beyond invoicing.
  • Share bad news with your client sooner rather than later.  Whether it’s a missed media opportunity, the resignation of a key team member, etc., clients have the right to hear about it as soon as possible because it impacts their business.  Too many agencies procrastinate when it comes to sharing negative developments with a client.  Most clients, however, realize that despite best efforts, not everything is always going to go as planned. Work together on solutions.
  • Encourage your client to occasionally recognize the account team’s good work. They need and most often will appreciate the heads up. And your team will do their best work for the clients who appreciate them.

PR As a Top 10 Most Stressful Job…Oh Pahlease

stress-pencil-croppedThe annual list of most stressful jobs is making the rounds and some of my public relations colleagues are carrying the fact that “public relations executive” was ranked by CareerCast as the 6th most stressful job as a of badge of honor.

Here’s the full list, beginning with most stressful job:

Enlisted military, military general,  firefighter, airline pilot,  event coordinator, public relations executive, senior corporate executive, newspaper reporter, police officer, taxi driver.

Outside of the entertainment factor, the annual listing isn’t very meaningful, really.  You can read more about the methodology CareerCast uses for its ranking here. To me, the comparisons are apples and oranges.  For example, an airline pilot charged with transporting 300 souls in a metal vessel travelling at 600 MPH and at 38,000 feet, or an urban firefighter sprinting into a burning apartment building while everyone else is running in the opposite direction, have stress level factors PR people can only imagine.

And it’s ridiculous to think that a big city police officer, who’s pre-work routine includes donning a bullet proof vest and a loaded pistol, has a job that’s less stressful than the PR guy who’s pre-work routine includes reviewing email, checking the charge on his smartphone or taking one last look in the mirror before dashing off to a meeting at Starbucks.

Not to downplay the PR profession by any means.  It’s a fantastic occupation, one that has been my bread and butter for more than 25 years and like any job where demanding, paying customers and deadlines and rejection are involved, it has its fair share of stresses. But it doesn’t belong on the same list as enlisted military, firefighters or police officers.  While we’re at it, add nurses and school teachers to the list but remove event coordinator, corporate executive and newspaper reporter (I was one early in my career and while I was almost punched out by an intoxicated town councilor, I was never put in a position to save lives like our heroic first responders are).

Let’s leave taxi driver on the top 10, though.  Cabbies put themselves in harm’s way every time a new client steps into their ride, especially when it’s an overly caffeinated PR person who just got word that his story idea was just rejected by the WSJ and his smartphone is about to die.

Agencies Make Their Internal Counterparts Better, And Vice Versa

collaborationMore corporations are taking some of the responsibilities previously handled by their public relations and advertising agencies back in-house. Regarding PR agencies, it’s no longer breaking news that many clients have taken their social media activities inside. But a recent report by The Association of National Advertisers (ANA) says that the expansion of in-house marketing and marketing communications capabilities includes bringing creative strategy in-house as well – a red flag for ad agencies.

A few highlights from the report (courtesy of Michael Lee and his Forbes.com article, “Can In-House Agencies Ever Be Great?”):

  • About 60 percent of the clients who participated in the ANA study say they are using in-house marketing capabilities vs. five years ago when 42 percent reported the same;
  • More than half of the clients polled say they have taken assignments that were traditionally the responsibility of their agencies back in-house;
  • 40 percent brought creative strategy in-house, which as Lee points out “has been a key agency capability and attraction to clients,” and
  • Almost 70 percent run their social marketing programs in-house.

For those of us experienced enough to have seen the rise and fall of in-house agencies, and now their apparent resurgence … well, it’s been an interesting ride.  During my years with once great computer manufacturer Apollo Computer, Inc. (acquired by HP in 1989), I was part of a dynamic in-house marketing communications team that had a level of enthusiasm, sense of purpose, work ethic and urgency as impressive as any agency I’ve seen since.

The team was as big as some small to mid-size agencies and included:

– Up to nine PR pros handling all corporate communications, all media and industry analysts relations and support at events and trade shows.  We didn’t call it “content development” then, but the PR team was largely responsible for developing a significant amount of the marketing content, from by-lined articles to white papers and speeches to press releases and customer success stories.

– another half-dozen or so copy writers, designers and other creative people.  All sales literature, customer brochures and product sheets, other promotions, themes for trades shows and employee conferences, etc., all done in-house. While there was an advertising agency on retainer, that agency acted as an extension of the internal team.

– a significant events team produced and set up every trade show, from negotiating trade show booth space to overseeing the unions setting up the booths on the showroom floor.

All were part of the same team and reported into the same management. It was a great model that worked at the time. Despite its great run, however, a similar model today would have more disadvantages than it does advantages.

Lee makes the point that an in-house agency works “right at the heart of a brand” vs. agency staffers who are outside looking in.  Somewhat sarcastically, he calls power, influence and control the “eternal Corporate Aphrodisiacs.”  And he’s right.  

But at the same time, in-house agencies can be at risk of becoming too internally focused. For those of us who have spent any amount of time on the client side, we know that the eternal meetings, time spent building consensus, bureaucracy and politics can chew the days and weeks away and relegate the creative process to the back burner.

One of the greatest advantages of working with an outside agency is the broader, external view and opportunity to learn from the campaigns of the agency’s other clients — best practices and also the campaigns that went bust, so what not to do.  In addition, agency people make it part of their business to know what’s coming around the next corner, marketing trends and new technology platforms that can help propel a client’s campaign.

And finally, an agency team makes the internal team stronger and vice versa.  An ambitious and competitive agency team can push an in-house team to stretch outside its comfort zone, and the best in-house teams will respond in kind.

What do you think? Do external agencies make internal teams do their best work?

5 questions startups need to ask before plunging into PR

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This blog post originally appeared on VentureBeat.com.  
November 26, 2013 9:30 PM
Linsey Fryatt, VentureVillage
To do PR yourself, or to hire an agency – that is the question. In this piece, Linsey Fryatt, Germany Managing Director of Clarity PR and former editor-in-chief of VentureVillage, gives us a teaser to her upcoming PR workshop and outlines what startups need to consider before jumping into PR.

Kevin Leu, a “PR specialist,” recently penned a piece in VentureBeat about why PR agencies are crap. Thankfully, PR pro Patrick Ward fashioned a response that was much more polite and balanced than I could ever have managed. Incidentally, Leu is also the founder charming startup that lets you rate women (or “girls”, as he prefers) based on how hot they are. On a map. So obviously his expertise on what constitutes groundbreaking branding is in absolutely no doubt.

But his piece does raise an important issue. The biggest challenge I have faced since recently donning the furry robes of PR (having previously been shod in the Hessian trousers of journalism for many years) is explaining to people what a PR firm actually does, and why — especially if you’re a new brand — it’s absolutely vital to have a PR strategy, whether that means in-house, consultancy, external agency or gorillagram.

Your marketplace is crowded and increasingly global. The media landscape is massive and fragmented. Your product is, and should be, the most important thing in your world, but why should anyone else give a sh*t about it? You need to make the world take notice, and in most cases, you’re going to need help with that.

There’s a certain amount of nervousness, especially in the startup world, in hiring a PR agency. And rightly so. Your seed or Series A money is precious, you don’t want to waste a cent on unneccessary or unquantifiable services. When you couple this with perhaps lukewarm experiences with one-size-fits-all PR firms (I assume the ones that Mr Leu might have issue with) and it’s difficult to justify any kind of spend on communication strategy.

My colleague Sami wrote a great piece on the questions you ought to ask PR companies before you hire them, but I’m going to take it one step back. Here are the starter questions that you need to ask yourself that will help you guage whether you need actually need a PR agency or not. And if you do, how to have a more fruitful relationship with them…

1. What do you actually want to achieve?

It seems obvious, but it’s easy to get swept away by the first flush of column inches. It’s not enough just to want “to get a piece in TechCrunch.” [Editor: Or VentureBeat!] Do you need to attract investors? Do you need key hires? Do you need a quick increase in user numbers?

Set you key objectives you hope to get from any exposure before you do anything else. From here it’ll be much easier to brief anyone else correctly.

2. What’s your timeline?

Getting scattergun press coverage around product launch is great, but it can be really difficult to follow up. I see many companies enjoy an initial spike of interest and then drop completely off the radar in those critical following months. Think about your product timeline, and consider how you want to knit a full communications strategy into that plan.

3. What’s your budget?

Have an idea of what you are willing to spend, considering the factors above. Whether that’s an external agency fee, human-hours within your company or a completely new hire. If you’re going with an external agency, then look for ones that don’t just offer standard retainers, but also ones that are willing to offer project-based work. That way, you can see how they perform around a single task.

Also realise that it will involve a spend to do this properly. Communications and marketing should be built into your budget and not just added as an afterthought once your product is market-ready, especially if you’re a B2C product.

4. What’s your story(ies)?

What three words describe your company values? Would all your team give the same answer? Spend half a day internally nailing down your core qualities. From there, it’s much easier to begin working on the rest of your communications.

What’s your context, what do you do differently? What voices can you add to a discussion in your market? What’s your story? And who are you telling it to?

This is where the fresh pairs of eyes at an agency can give a new perspective. Ask an agency for a handful of ideas in their pitch. At the very least it will demonstrate that they “get” what you’re doing and you can gauge their creative fit.

5. Who else is doing this well?

Which companies in your space are suceeding at this? And why? And do you have a robust angle or statement as to why you are different? Journalists like to have a product placed in context (“we’re the Airbnb for dogs”) but also the justification as to why you’re offering something different to the market.

Linsey will be hosting a workshop on How to Communicate your Brand on 11 December with VentureVillage. Click here for more details.

Read This Before Blaming Your PR Agency For Lack of Coverage

ImageOn behalf of PR agencies everywhere, thank you Amy Westervelt for your recent tell-all post on why startup companies need to stop pointing fingers at their PR firms and instead learn more about how editors and journalists do their jobs.

Amy is a freelance writer/editor/author and frequent contributor to business publications like Forbes, the WSJ, Bloomberg BusinessWeek and Fast Company among others. In her post, “Stop Complaining about Your PR Firm. Here’s How the Media Works,” Amy’s shares nine things about the media “that will hopefully help you figure out how to deal with us (and maybe your PR firm) better.”

One of the bigger challenges PR firms face in working with startups is the clients’ often unrealistic expectations when it comes to media coverage.  The combination of ego, drinking of the Kool-Aid when it comes to their offering/product, pressure by investors, over sensitivity as to what the competition is doing and general ADHD-related behavior can be toxic when it comes to building a mutually beneficial relationship between agency and startup.  Add in the factor of a client who has a fundamental misunderstanding of what compels a journalist to write an article and you have a recipe for disaster.

Any engagement with a new client should include a period of expectations setting that includes how agency and client are going to work together (roles & responsibilities) to achieve the desired results of the communications program.  It’s during an expectation setting session, which should happen in the first week of a new relationship, when the agency account team should be able to find out how much the client actually knows about how the media works.  If the client is a startup, chances are the principals have limited exposure to the media and taking them through a primer would be invaluable to the relationship.

Ms. Westervelt makes a number of great points in her post, and I encourage you (if you’re a PR pro or a client) to read it in its entirety, but for now I wanted to spotlight a handful of her points.

Editors are important.  Freelancers are your best friend. So true. Freelance journalists are more prevalent and more influential than anytime in recent memory.  Unlike a staff writer, a freelancer like Amy may write for several publications. They can make more money by repurposing one article so that it might run in multiple publications, albeit with a different angle and fresh content.

The most important PR move you can make is to build and maintain relationships, and be patient.  Another great point here. Just because your PR firm was able to set up an interview with a journalist for you doesn’t mean that journalist is going to run right back to their office and bang out an article.  “Maybe I’m waiting for a newsy hook to peg it to,” Amy says.  The worse response by the agency is to harass the journalist to find out when the story is going to run “Because his or her client is sending equally as many emails.”

Stop worshiping at the altar of print media.  I think it’s still largely true that a print article is held in higher regard than an online-only piece.  Amy, however, says clients should thank their PR people for getting them mentioned in Time.com blogs.  “You may not get a photo of yourself in TIME to frame for your office,” she says, “but chances are those blog posts will be read more and pay back more over time than that one print hit will.”  Print stories still carry a ton of weight, then again, who buys TIME anymore?

And finally …The press release is dead, please stop trying to revive it.  Like you, I’m pretty tired of reading the press release is dead stories.  They’ve been showing up for years, yet thousands upon thousands of press releases are issued everyday in the U.S. though Amy maintains that “No one in the media reads press releases. Not a single person, I promise you.”  Really, Amy?  Members of the media still look to news releases to keep current on companies and their financials, business trends and for story ideas, among other reasons, including to occasionally mock PR people.

Otherwise, I think Amy’s post is spot on and I wouldn’t hesitate to share it verbatim with any startup.  Would you?

Avoid These Four Agency Client Types at all Costs

boat for saleYou may have heard the expression popular among some boat owners:

The two best days of being a boat owner are ‘the day you buy it’ and the ‘day you sell it.’

Others use a similar expression. Like those who have purchased a vacation home they never have time to enjoy.  Or that convertible as a full-time car (if you drive in New England).  I’ve heard some hackers on the golf course say the same about their Titleist blades.

And it’s been said on many occasions in the PR agency world; on those occasions when a new client turns out to be everything the agency hoped they wouldn’t be – when the two best days are the day the agency wins the client’s business and the day the agency fires that client.

A boat.  A second home. A roadster that’s to die for.  That shiny new client. All seemed like great ideas at the time. All looked wonderful from the outside. And then the honeymoon ends…and you’re in it for real.

For better or for worse, things we learn in life are often learned through trial and error. While we may try to not repeat the same mistakes over and over (there’s a definition for this type of behavior), we sometimes do.

Unlike the regretful boat owner who is typically one and done, PR agencies have histories of chasing bad client after bad client, deluding themselves into thinking that this time things will be different because they will “control” the relationship and not let the client run roughshod over them.

What do I mean by “bad’ client?  Well they come in many shapes, sizes and disguises.

There’s the client whose initial budget is below the agency’s minimum monthly retainer but promises that the budget is going to increase after the first three months or when the next round of funding comes in.  Three months come and go … another three months come and go … etc.

There’s the know-it-all client who has never worked with a PR agency before but skimmed the Public Relations for Dummies Cheat Sheet which has a section entitled, “Convincing Editors to Print Your Press Release.”  Seriously.  This client knows just enough about PR to be dangerous but still doesn’t make the distinction between an article written by an actual journalist and a news release replayed verbatim on one of those free press release web sites.

Of course, there’s the client working at his third start-up, the first two of which had successful exits and were media darlings and who is expecting and demanding the same level of media interest for his also-ran entry into the dying market du jour.

And finally, there’s the worse client type of all: the one who hires you and then disappears expecting the PR program to run smoothly without them having to pay any attention to it now that a firm has been hired.  You know the type … they make a living of hiring and firing agencies as a job protection ploy.  They blow off weekly check-in meetings, rarely return your phone calls or email pleas for information but are fast to get in your face when their company is left out of a story.

But they are happy to take credit for any positive results the agency does manage to generate.  When that happens, it’s time to sell the boat.  Don’t you think?

Size Matters When It Comes to Picking a PR Agency

090831-SmallMediumLarge-4651Public relations agencies come in all shapes and sizes. Some are holding-company owned with offices in 50 countries or more and thousands of employees.  Others are independent and mid-sized with a handful of offices and perhaps a hundred or more workers. And of course there are scores of founder-run, single-office firms and boutique consultancies with anywhere from three to 50 staffers all working under one roof or virtually.

While all of these agency types often compete with each other for the same prized piece of business, they can be very different in their approach to new business, client service and relationship management.

For the prospect, deciding to work with a one-office firm or a large agency with an office in every major U.S. metro area can be a tricky decision as agencies have grown adept at becoming chameleon-like. For example, a smaller agency may try to present itself as bigger and more “scalable”  than they really are when pitching a potentially big client. They will bring up that they work with “partner” agencies all over the world allowing them to send your message out globally.  And a large agency may attempt to present itself as nimble and flexible (with pricing and programs) when pitching an emerging brand with limited marketing dollars.  They will bring up the fact that they have specialized teams working on smaller programs and the promise that you won’t be a small fish in a big pond.

Blah blah blah.

Ok, so perhaps there are a few instances where both the large and the small agency can get the same job done well.  But typically, this won’t be the case.  So to help you decide, here are a few guidelines to mull:

  • if yours is a global company, then hire a global agency with global branded offices. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t bring in a boutique for specialized work as well. But in my experience, the various global networks of independent PR agencies are better suited for project vs. ongoing work.  I’m sure there are exceptions, but it’s difficult for one agency (the AOR) to control and manage the quality of the work that another agency in another country is doing for a client.
  • if it’s important that agency principals pay close attention to your account, then hire a boutique. Even with many mid-size firms, you won’t see the firm principals very often once the contract is signed unless you insist on it or have a previous relationship.  In most cases, agency principals are too busy running the business to pay attention to client service until something goes wrong.
  • if you are an emerging brand with limited PR dollars to spend for the foreseeable future, hire a boutique or mid-size agency.  Big agencies are working hard to penetrate the emerging brands market, especially in tech, but until they figure out how to make money on small budgets it’s still largely a work in progress for them. Generally, if you’re an emerging brand, the sense of urgency and enthusiasm and attention you’ll get from a smaller firm will outshine that of a big agency (at least once the honeymoon is over).
  • if prestige and name recognition is important to your CEO, then hire the global agency so he/she can brag at the next cocktail party that his PR agency has offices in 75 countries even though the client only does business in three of them. Just remember, someone has to pay for all that overhead.