What Clients Really Want From A PR Agency

What do clients really want from their PR agency? A panel of communications officers from top brands tackled the question recently in a no-holds-barred session at the global meeting of PROI Worldwide. The meeting was hosted by PROI partner agency Jackson Spalding, who tapped clients from three notable companies: Scott Williamson, VP Public Affairs & Communications of Coca-Cola North America; Betsy Talton, Director of Corporate Communications, Delta Air Lines; and Amanda Hannah, Manager, External Communications, Chick-fil-A.

Here’s what these top communications execs said they want and expect from an agency relationship.

Unanticipated value. “I want my agency to offer things I didn’t know I needed.” This comment from Amanda Hannah might be my favorite insight, because it captures the essence of extraordinary client service. It’s not just about being responsive and delivering on agreed-upon outcomes. It’s also about anticipating what adds value to the individual client and her organization over the long term.

Deep knowledge of the brand. If the agency doesn’t “look like the brand and speak in the brand voice,” it won’t win the business, according to Williamson. He looks for agency deliverables that “could have been prepared in-house” as a reflection of the team’s deep familiarity with the many brands under his corporate roof.

Objectivity.  Yet, that brand familiarity must coexist with a degree of objectivity. Delta’s Talton put her finger on a critical advantage of bringing on an agency partner for most companies when she explained, “It’s the benefit of knowing the brand, but not being in the trenches.”  This insight nails the tricky line that many agency teams walk; we serve as an extension of the internal communications function, yet clients need unvarnished feedback.

A drive to win.  Coca-Cola’s Williamson places a premium on an agency’s scrappiness and drive, in both new business and day-to-day media relations. “I want an agency that hates to lose,” is how he puts it. In my book that’s a good reminder that a top agency team should put as much or more energy into helping a client win on the business battlefield as we do in trying to win the client in the first place.

Fresh contacts, skills and resources. Several panelists mentioned the desire for new services, specialized expertise, and leading-edge and resources, with Williamson citing “depth and freshness of media contacts” as a priority.

An elevated game. Even more striking was the clients’ appreciation of the less visible benefits of working with an agency team. A top PR partner can raise the game for everyone, it seems. As one put it, “A great agency team can help elevate my staff and our entire department.”

An entrepreneurial spirit. It’s interesting to me that the client from the largest brand – Coca-Cola – spoke about the importance of a “founders’ vision” at his agencies. That’s what independent agencies love to hear, but it also speaks to the independent and entrepreneurial streak that the most  successful brands learn to adopt, and their agencies should reflect, no matter what their size.

A painless collaboration. As Chick-fil-A’s Hannah summed it up, “Please don’t make more work for me.”


What Nicknames Say About Brands: Chevy, Meet The Y

A brand nickname is a little like a viral video. No matter how badly you want it, planning alone won’t make it happen. It has to come about naturally.

I’m not talking about mere abbreviations, like AmEx or P&G. I mean real nicknames…those insider-y monikers that make us feel cool because we drive a Beamer or, these days, shop at Tar-zhay. A nickname speaks of a personal relationship with a brand. (Notice how President Obama keeps calling BP “British Petroleum” in public remarks about the Gulf oil spill? It may be an attempt to mobilize U.S. nationalism, but to me it seems like a distancing tactic, like a stern father using your full name to signal you’re in big trouble.)

Brands should embrace a consumer-given street name

How a brand responds to its handle says something about its marketing savvy. When General Motors tried to dump “Chevy” in favor of “Chevrolet,” it ran straight into a brick wall of resistance. GM quickly shifted gears and blamed the brouhaha on a “poorly worded memo.” It was a clear PR blunder, though probably the most excitement that Chevy’s enjoyed since Don McLean. But how could Detroit’s marketing minds think that a once-great brand could ever outgrow the iconic nickname that’s a slice of American Pie?

Don’t they know that when a brand tag is bestowed by the public – instead of the marketer – it’s nearly always a good thing? On the other hand, I never quite understood the UPS “Brown” campaign, or RadioShack’s adoption of “the Shack.”  Because those names weren’t consumer-generated, they felt a little like trying too hard to be cool.

Marketers lucky enough to actually earn a nickname should not only accept it; they should embrace it. Federal Express may have started the trend when it officially shortened its name to FedEx a decade ago. Coca-Cola has never been shy about using Coke in its marketing. And Harley-Davidson tried to claim its classic “Hog” moniker, although the nickname was ruled too generic to be trademarked.

That’s why the YMCA was right to slim its brand this week to the “Y.” The name may have started as an abbreviation, but after 166 years, I think it’s gained full nickname status. The Y’s press release explains it as a by-product of the trend toward shorter brand names, made necessary by our 140-character culture. The most entertaining part of the story, though, may be where the Village People got into the act. Still belting out “Y-M-C-A” on tour after all these years, they put out a statement saying they won’t change the 1970’s anthem that memorialized the YMCA name in a way that the Y surely never intended.

But, for me, the Y nickname isn’t about Twitter, or IM-speak, or even breaking with the past. It’s about a brand claiming its own street name, like Bud or Mickey D’s. It epitomizes our experience and relationship with its brand. A nickname, after all, is a term of endearment. It is the Y to most of us. So, why not?

Cola Rivals Engage…With Each Other

It took me a while to get the Coke-Pepsi social media handshake thing.

I’m referring to that moment of Twitter diplomacy a couple of weeks ago.  The brand rivals agreed to make nice and follow one another, through a notably civil but tepid public exchange of  updates.  The detente was a response to a challenge by Australian marketing firm Amnesia Razorfish. It was a brilliant PR stunt on their part.

@CocaCola was the first to answer the call, tweeting a “gracious (but competitive) hello.”  Later @Pepsi responded with the slightly Zen-like musing, “Can followers and tweeps co-exist? We’re willing to find out.:)”

And that was that.  No swipes, insults, or even tortured cola puns.  No one was bubbling over, foaming at the mouth, or icy cold.  The exchange itself was sweet, cautious and a little, well, flat.
But, here’s the interesting part.  This “new” cola challenge was fueled by a cascade of retweets by Twitter users urging the brands to make nice.  And, the result was an outpouring of attention, including an AdAge profile, a Reuters piece, a hilarious Jimmy Fallon blog spoof, and countless other blog mentions.

Not exactly marketing history, and I doubt any soda was sold. But, it’s interesting from a brand engagement perspective.  And, it spurred me to look back at the heritage of the battle between the two soft drinks. Only two such iconic brands with such a legendary marketing rivalry could have the social world watching its Twitter moment. To look back over the history of the Coke-Pepsi marketing wars is to marvel at the moves and counter-moves that shaped each brand’s image over decades.  Things first heated up in the 1940s, when then-President Walter Mack made history by marketing Pepsi to African-Americans….this, while Jim Crow laws still stood.  It’s a remarkable, iconic rivalry that is precedent-setting to this day.

So, what’s next…McD’s and Burger King? Can world peace be far behind?