As long as there have been PR budgets, companies have hired agencies. And as long as there have been agencies, there have been client relationships that range from good, to bad, to ugly and back again—often in the span of a week.
As someone who spent two decades in agencies before going in-house, only to return to the agency side, I’m here to share a few tips to help agency teams be better partners and help clients make the most of their agencies.
For PR agencies:
1. Make your client the smartest person in the room.
Your client didn’t hire you to tell them a bunch of stuff they already know. They hired you to be their eyes and ears to the world outside their company. They hired you to know when they have a story, and more importantly, when they don’t.
As agency partners, it’s our job to understand our client’s business and give them the tools they need to help their internal stakeholders understand the power of good communications.
Think about the meetings your client is in day to day (trust me, they are in a lot) and give them one smart thing to say. Whether it’s an insight on the industry from your daily news scan, something a competitor did or said, or even a hot tip about Clubhouse, your outside perspective will pay the retainer 10 times over.
2. Know your audience.
We talk a lot about target audiences, but too often, we forget to consider who the client is and where they came from. For example, if your client has spent any time working in an agency (and chances are they have), they’re going to know exactly what you mean when you say: “We’re aggressively following up.” Skip the sugarcoating and tell them what’s really going on.
“Reporters aren’t interested—we’re going to need to make some changes to how we’re approaching this.”
On the other hand, if your client is the head of marketing and has never set foot in a PR agency, you’re going to get a blank stare when you say “trendjacking.” They also don’t care about the number of impressions an article got unless you’re prepared to tell them how many of those led to pipeline conversions. Learn to speak their language and use that to bring them into the communications fold rather than trying to show them everything you know about PR.
3. If you find yourself “setting expectations,” stop, look and listen.
Yes, expectations are important and there are situations where every client needs a reset, but the “setting expectations” conversation should be rare and carefully considered. Instead, when you get the feeling that expectations are not based in reality, take a moment to (really) listen to what your client is saying and what their reality is.
More often than not, your client knows what is and isn’t possible. They don’t need you to tell them; they need you to put on your thinking cap and figure out how to make it happen in a way that will make them look like a rock star to their boss.
1. Your agency is a partner, not a mind reader.
When I went in house, I was shocked by how much information never made it back to our agencies—and when the time came to put together a plan, it often felt like an insurmountable task to brief them on months of internal conversations.
Clients, do yourselves a favor and establish a culture of transparency and trust with your agency from the very beginning. Give them everything you possibly can and let them filter out the information they don’t need. It doesn’t have to be pretty. The more they know, the more they can ask smart questions, learn about the business and add value.
2. Don’t ask for a “breakdown of hours.”
Trust me. Nothing good has ever come from this request. It creates a tremendous amount of anxiety and work for the agency that takes away from the work they are doing for you. Even if your intentions are good, the message you’re sending is you don’t trust them and the work they’re doing.
A good agency will be transparent with their hours and tell you when they’re overextended or need to make changes. You don’t really want or need to know how many hours the intern is spending on the coverage report. If something is wrong, bring it up. Trust your agency knows their business and what works, then partner with them to get it right.
3. Be clear about expectations, so your agency doesn’t have to set them.
A good agency partner will work with you to define what success looks like from the beginning. You will be better off if you go into every quarter and campaign with a clear sense of what your internal stakeholders want and how that translates to what your agency will deliver. Err on the side of oversharing when it comes to goals, OKRs, KPIs and every other acronym your organization uses to determine success.
Above all, listen to your agency when they come to you with requests for what they need to make something happen. If you can’t deliver, don’t expect a miracle. With the right expectations and clear communication about them, you’ll be surprised how many times those miracles happen.