Dorothy Crenshaw June 8, 2015 | 11:40:22

How To Run A PR Agency Search

Lou Hoffman wrote a great post on the “broken” PR agency review process. Certainly the classic client-agency dating ritual could use improvement. The process rewards many skills, from powerpoint graphics to research capabilities, and not all are equally important to a successful PR relationship. Lou’s post makes the often-overlooked point that an agency’s ability to execute shouldn’t be considered a commodity.

But how is a client to tell? How to go beyond a beauty contest to zero in on the PR team that is truly a match? Most businesses we speak to understand that an agency review is an investment of time and talent, and they’re sophisticated about the process. But even smart clients overlook simple steps in the search.

Let your goals drive the PR search process

Goals should go beyond vague criteria like “increasing visibility” or “enhancing reputation.” A new product launch is often distinct from an international expansion or defensive strategy. The current business environment, competitive climate, financial objectives, and corporate values should inform the PR brief.

Don’t pull an off-the-shelf RFP

A search for a creative services partner isn’t like a procurement bid for raw materials, and a document that reads like a procurement brief will inspire neither creativity nor strategic insights. Many agencies loathe the RFP, but in my opinion, it’s a useful and time-efficient way to ensure a level playing field at the outset. But the document should be brief, concise, and clear.

Narrow the agency field

Consider an RFI (short questionnaire) if there are size, geographic or specialist expertise parameters, and narrow the number of agencies under consideration early in the game. It will save time and anguish on both sides. Getting to know the agency teams is a critical step in a mutually productive outcome, and it’s simply impossible with a field of more than five agencies.

Respect the agency’s IP

Don’t make the agencies give away their best ideas. In my large-agency career spent in consumer PR where we routinely pitched elaborate creative concepts, I was astonished at how seldom the winning idea was actually executed. The creative idea review is more often just an intensely time-consuming chemistry test, but, again, it’s a highly imperfect one.

Get to know the finalists

It’s more time-efficient to get to know fewer agency teams better than to cast the net widely after the initial RFI stage. If you don’t have time for real conversations with prospective partners, you probably don’t have time to manage an agency team.

Allow access to decision-makers

Too often a search is managed by an inexperienced executive who lacks access to the insights that can make the difference between a boilerplate response and one that cuts through the fluff. Better information will naturally lead to more on-target recommendations.

Be transparent

The clearer and more transparent the process is, the more committed the participating agencies will be. And that’s what both parties are after in the long run.

2 thoughts on “How To Run A PR Agency Search

  1. Hi Dorothy,
    I agree with all of these suggestions.
    There’s definitely truth in the line “If you don’t have time for real conversations with prospective partners, you probably don’t have time to manage an agency team.” Some put more due diligence into the purchase of a car ($20K – $40K) than signing on a PR agency ($200+K).
    On the topic of transparency, I would add the importance of providing a budget range. Companies think this helps to secure a better “deal” when it only wastes time.

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