Hiring a PR agency

I usually really rate what Andrew Lark has to say but I’m puzzled by some of his most recent post on start-ups wanting to spend $10,000 to find a tech PR agency. He doesn’t make it clear if he’s talking a one-off project fee to start or this is one of those Silicon Valley $10,000 a month retainers – if only we had a few more of those in Yorkshire!

Most of his points are very good (see below) but one of them jarred with me:

"3) finding an agency that understands that great ideas get funded – near impossible. They are caught in the conundrum or belief that ideas require budget prior to being generated. Bullshit. (and I am talking about real ideas, not those regurgitated from the last pitch)"

I’m sorry but if you want ideas you have to pay for them. We don’t put our best stuff in proposals. We reserve that for clients who are paying for them. If you’re spending a lot of time on a new business pitch creating a fantastic idea that will deliver results then that time is effectively being subsidised by your other clients.

Ideas are easy. Ideas that work to deliver results require a bit more work. Andrew also says that PR agencies must deliver results and ‘get your business’. Both are absolutely right. But that’s exactly why you can’t put your best creative ideas in your pitch. I want to get into the bones of a client to really understand it and come up with an idea that will deliver results. That requires time to research and think. Time is money.

When talking to potential clients I always want to discuss results. It’s what we always want to deliver. The problem is what do you mean by results? Does it mean media coverage – in print, online or blogs? Does it mean leads or visits to a website? Or does it even mean actual sales? Well no intelligent marketing person would link public relations just to sales as there are far too many other variables (product, price, place) and PR isn’t a magic bullet.

One of the main problems we find when talking to start-ups is that they don’t set realistic targets. Sometimes they don’t set any target at all, other times they set ones which are unrealistically high. Our approach is to try and help them set realistic targets. But in a pitch situation you too frequently find PR firms that will agree with targets that are too high and then fail to meet them. This leaves the client disillusioned about their PR spend. It means we don’t get the gig because they think we aren’t good enough or ambitious enough to do what they want. I prefer honesty and if I’m going to get things wrong it will be by under promising and over delivering.

Andrew’s other points are:

"1) finding a great agency is bloody hard work. They are few and far between. At any billing rate. Few CMOs I know get the value of PR or AR, let alone the value of a good agency… I accept we are part of the problem, but…"

My response is yes it is hard work and PR consultancies often don’t help themselves. One thing we struggle with is how to differentiate ourselves from other agencies. I think I know what the differences are: partner led clients (we don’t delegate everything to junior account directors/managers/execs), passion (we only work for clients we ‘like’ and believe in), honesty (we stand up to clients and tell them what we think is right – not what they want to here or what will earn us the biggest profit). The problem is that other agencies can and do say the same things but I’m not convinced they fulfil them as well as we do. But who is a client to believe? We don’t try to compete on resources or media contacts because we know others can beat us and I don’t believe either of those two things prevent us from running very successful public relations campaigns.

2) finding an agency that gets your business and has a real enthusiasm for contributing to the growth of the business – harder still

This one I find surprising and very sad if it is true. We quite simply don’t pitch for clients unless we are enthusiastic about them and believe in them. That’s why we’ve turned down opportunities to work for some clients. Not because we don’t need the work – believe me we do – but because we couldn’t be passionate about them. The ‘gets your business’ is slightly different as sometimes before you are appointed clients don’t want to let you in close enough to really ‘get them’.

Andrew concludes by saying we need a new kind of agency – one not built on billable hours. I don’t buy it. Professional time is the main expense in public relations. Yes, the time you spend has to relate to the results you get. But that’s just being professional. It’s about knowing what works and what doesn’t. I’d feel dishonest charging a client for time I haven’t spent.

During the dot-com boom I achieved massive international media coverage for a client because I had a great idea. The whole project took just one and a half days and cost the client less than £1,000. The objective was to attract the attention of about a dozen specific organisations in order to secure meetings with their senior people. Direct approaches had previously failed. The result was that eight of the 12 actually approached the client and meetings were eventually secured with all 12. Should I have charged them more just because it achieved fantastic results? Of course not, that would have been dishonest.

UPDATE: Andrew Smith at The New View From Object Towers offers another excellent insight on this issue.

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