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.”

Amen.

Is PR The New Advertising?

Recently I participated in a roundtable discussion of PR agency owners and senior officers at large multinational firms about the evolution of public relations and its perceived value within major corporations. The conversation was serious, even a little gloomy; the consensus was that although advertising has been greatly disrupted by social media, data-driven marketing, and automated buying practices, it was coping fairly well and adapting to seismic changes. PR, on the other hand, was still mired in old-school journalism tactics and techniques and dependent on commoditized services like media placement and press releases.

Many beg to differ. A recent Forbes piece that queries PR and advertising leaders about the near future of both industries was more optimistic, at least from the PR side. Richard Edelman, CEO of the largest independent in the business, claims that PR and advertising will continue to blur until they are fully merged by the year 2020. (The single scariest thing about the piece wasn’t the predictions, but the simple fact that 2020 is only five-and-a-half years away.)

But I digress. The most convincing argument I’ve heard that PR has the potential to eat advertising’s lunch came unexpectedly last week at the meeting of our PROI partners. PROI is the leading international partnership of independent PR firms. The partners vary in size, geography, service offering and positioning, but we have one thing in common, a fierce commitment to independence and a drive to stay ahead of the curve. The PROI 2014 international conference in Hong Kong was crackling with energy and brimming with evidence of where PR is going. It’s clear that many of our sister companies who began under the PR banner but have dropped it to signal their greatly broadened service offering are doing so as more than just a branding move. Most of our partners are heavily invested in social media, market research, content creation, and many other specialized services that push the traditional boundaries of our industry.

But what brought the house down was a creative campaign produced by our Norway partner, Henning Sverdup of Slaeger, the leading independent in Oslo. Many of the attendees had seen the video Slaeger produced for its client, SOS Children’s Villages, designed to move citizens to donate warm coats to displaced children in war-ravaged Syria. “Little Boy Freezing” turns a hidden camera on the good people of Oslo (and, by association, the world) to see if, when confronted with a child in need, they will help. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth a look.

But many at the conference had seen and shared the SOS video. It’s generated more than 14 million views on YouTube alone, buckets of earned media coverage, and more than a few tears. The surprise was that this international viral sensation was produced not by an ad agency or digital marketing firm, but by a midsize PR agency.

The campaign was a stunning success because it produced outstanding results in the form of donations for SOS Children’s Villages. But it also lifted spirits in our business. The lines have blurred so much that calling PR the new advertising might be outdated. But for anyone worried about the future of PR, this campaign is downright heartwarming.

Partnership Unlimited

Spending  time at the international meeting of our sister consultancies (www.proi.org) has given me the chance to catch up with colleagues, commiserate about the economy, and share insights about trends affecting our business.

The caliber of the firms in our global partnership is extraordinarily high, and the discussions have been both passionate and eye-opening.  It also doesn’t hurt to be in Vienna, a city that’s almost magical in its beauty and evocation of history.  (It tends to put things in perspective.)

A few takeaways from our discussions that might be relevant for anyone growing a business during a time of uncertainty:

Ask yourself: What am I doing differently? Now is the time to take a risk. For us, that means on our own behalf as well as for our clients. Our partners are re-examining nearly every aspect of their businesses and in doing so, offering clients concepts and strategies that go beyond “traditional” PR thinking.

Overcommunicate to staff. That’s easy when things are good, but harder to face in a bad environment when decisions are unpopular. If you take employees for granted because the job market is tough, they could be gone when things turn around.

Think small….in the good sense of the word. Even in a large organization, an entrepreneurial spirit can be a powerful differentiator, and staff need to feel they have influence and mobility when so much is beyond our control.

Find partners. As an independent business, my firm has relied on our North America and global partners both for business development and company management issues. Think about building a network for sharing ideas or even leads with like-minded business owners in complimentary business sectors. Yesterday’s competitor is today’s ally.

Plan for the recovery. How do you want to be positioned when the recession ends? Smart businesses are planning now, and we need to do the same for our clients and our own companies.