Having worn all three hats in my career: agency practitioner, in-house manager and now a solo practitioner, I’ve seen and experienced the various dynamics that affect the agency-client relationship. I’ve been involved in some great ones, some not-so-great ones and ones that were nothing to write home about.
Perhaps you’re considering launching an RFP. Or you’ve hired an agency and are thinking, “Now what?” Even still, perhaps you’ve been with the same agency for a long time and it’s on autopilot. Like any relationship, it needs care to flourish. Here are a few tips to maximize it.
Don’t Fall in Love with the Pitch Team
A common misperception is that the agency team is always a constant. However, the only time you’re guaranteed to get what you hire is when you contract with a solo practitioner. Even in boutique agencies, things change. People change jobs; other demands fall on their desks; your budget gets reduced and with it, the team’s composition changes. Bottom line is, don’t fall in love with the whole team in the pitch and expect that you’ll get them 24/7. Certainly there are times in which that team does stick. But generally, agencies staff according to budget and the scope of the work that you need.
Therefore, as hard as this is to convey, if the budget can’t support 20 hours of a senior VP, you won’t get 20 hours of a senior VP. There is a reason agencies structure their teams the way they do: It achieves your PR goals and it does so within the confines of an economic model that works. That senior person is often upwards of $350-400 an hour. Their time should be used for specific instances when you need counsel. Talented mid-level people are carefully chosen to give you the intellectual firepower and media prowess you need. Enjoy the senior counsel when they show up at meetings and value the input they bring via their many varied roles in the industry — from thought leader to financial manager to new business generator.
Set Expectations Up Front
Perhaps the most important step in creating a harmonious relationship between yourself, your agency team and the firm is to set expectations up front. All too often, the person in the hiring position has been without support for a long time. He or she is tired, overworked, overwhelmed and has just completed a long and laborious RFP process. Now the firm just wants to get moving and s/he feels pressured to go full throttle. At this point, it’s tempting as the in-house person to fire the pistol and say “Just go!” But don’t — not just yet.
Take the time to have a proper onboarding meeting with your agency. This meeting should not be only to discuss content or low-hanging fruit but to set expectations between the two parties as to how the relationship will be run. Share some personal details too about how you like to work and how you perform well. Are you a morning person? Do you have hobbies on the side about which you’re passionate? Young kids at home? Since agency teams are supposed to be an extension of you, treat them to same way you would someone you hired and outline your expectations so they know what you will consider a success.
The Devil Is in the Details
Oddly, I’ve seen marketing professionals (myself included) skim over the standard agency contract without paying attention to each line item. In my case, I assumed that I’d been around the block a few times and had spent a decade in agencies earlier, so it was not necessary. You should, and here’s why.
An agency hire is a big investment. Most agencies, at least those of boutique size and larger, have a standard fee they distribute across clients to offset certain activities such as newswire distribution, newsgathering services, photocopying/scanning and other office administration. It’s generally pretty low (a few percentage points), but think about what that does to your invoice. Will you even use those products and services at that level? A Fortune 100 consumer brand that comes into the agency monthly with a team of 10 (for large meetings) and has at least 20 color copies of a 20-page deck on the table, along with AV services during the meeting, is different from the midsized law firm that comes in twice a year, has a team of just three or four individuals at the agency and rarely even uses the services.
Here’s where you can really do yourself a favor: If you know you won’t be using certain amenities, try to renegotiate the standard contract. If that’s not possible, make a mental note to take advantage of the opportunities they have. Agencies are usually willing to include briefings and meet-and-greets with clients during office visits. It can’t hurt to ask for a social media or content strategy briefing, or call in their crisis expert for a case study. Agencies have a lot of great material to share, so don’t do yourself a disservice by letting it all pass by.
Let Them In
Hiring a PR firm is a significant investment of time and effort, and you should want it to succeed. What’s the best way to do that? Let them in. Let your PR agency team be part of things. Immersion helps turn out better work, period. I have never invited someone to a meeting and regretted that I did.
When I was in house, I encouraged the agency to have “office hours” at our firm spending half days in order to get a feel for the cadence of work and to sit with our team. They got to know us from a different perspective, and they had a better understanding of the firm. From an agency perspective, there’s no better way to work. We don’t want your jobs, and we don’t care about the credit. We want you — our clients — to shine. We want the partners to think you’re a rockstar. That’s why we’re here.
Meghan Gross is president and founder of Gem Strategic Communications. She has spent more than two decades assisting c-suite clients and their organizations navigate corporate reputation issues. In addition to two in-house roles at Am Law 200 firms, she has worked for several large global agencies in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. She can be reached at email@example.com.