Whether a B2B client search for an agency partner stems from a major business transition or a cyclical review of results from the incumbent firm, the process can be fraught with complications. The intricate structure of some B2Bs can create roadblocks in the decision making to identify a suitable match.
Having little to no experience with outside PR counsel is yet another obstacle for many business-facing companies that have traditionally relied on internal staff and resources to handle corporate and marketing communications.
Since many senior B2B communications executives are already gearing up for their 2013 budget discussion talks, we reached out to experienced agency seekers for their insights on the B2B agency search process. Our three seasoned veterans offered perspectives from the vantage points of marketing management consulting, external procurement and an end client.
Engagement Manager, The Bedford Group
For more than 20 years, The Bedford Group has managed agency searches across categories, disciplines and geographies in both B2B and B2C. The following are our top three tips for a B2B search:
• Build consensus from the start. Since many B2B organizations are highly matrixed enterprises with diverse product lines, involve key business unit leaders from the start of the search. The process should be a consensus-building exercise for all stakeholders who take a leadership role in guiding the communications product. Waiting until the final presentation for executive involvement can derail the search and/or create dissenting pockets within the organization going forward.
• Expand criteria beyond direct category experience. When establishing search parameters clients often place too much emphasis on direct category experience. While the considered firms ideally should have a thorough understanding of the category, more important is their intellectual bandwidth to communicate with multiple segments across complicated lines of business.
• Filter out the “fakers.” Throughout the search, plant a few “filters” to validate whether or not the agency truly grasps the target groups and “speaks their language.” With a recent financial services client, we executed this by having the candidates complete a business banking questionnaire that revealed whether or not they were using the necessary “tribal code” (e.g. using “financing” rather than “loan” when speaking to a CFO-level target).
Hiring a new public relations agency is not an easy process. But by removing the guesswork and establishing the right metrics to guide the review, you can build a foundation for a productive, long-lasting relationship.
Global Practice Leader, Marketing Practice, Procurian
Many companies who are embarking on PR agency searches are starting to work with procurement teams to help with the pitches. Particularly since the downturn in 2008, there has been increasing scrutiny on marketing and communications budgets overall. As a result, procurement has been called upon by finance leaders to “address this spend.”
Where this falls down is when PR and communications departments do not have specialized marketing procurement resources in place to help. In some cases, if there is funding, they will engage an outside search consultant, or they will limp through the process with what may be an internal generalist procurement team (particularly B2B firms that may not have large marketing budgets).
Our firm provides ongoing, specialized marketing procurement and agency management support and we frequently conduct public relations as well as ad, digital and other specialized agency searches for our customers.
It seemed four or five years ago that social media was much more of a focus for B2C clients than for B2B clients. There was also a tendency to see social media as owned by the PR agencies.
Also, listening platforms were within PR agency pass-through expenses, and community management efforts were within PR. This has all changed dramatically.
While the PR agencies play important roles, at many companies these agencies are no longer playing an overall lead role on social media programs. Ad agencies, digital agencies and social media strategy agencies are involved, and there are often resources internally that are managing social media platforms as well as handling community management. Sometimes these functions are handled by another outsourced provider beyond the PR agency.
Global Communications Leader, GE Power & Water, Water & Process Technologies
Selecting the right agency partner can make all the difference in the success of your company’s PR program. I’ve managed and helped develop several RFPs for PR and advertising agencies over the years, and found a few steps that can make the process easier:
• Examine your needs and determine exactly the type of partner you’re looking for. Do you have good in-house writing expertise, but need media relations support? Do you need solid technical writers for B2B outreach, or are you looking for an agency that can translate your complex business solutions into easy-to-understand messages for mainstream media? What’s the stretch goal for your PR program that your agency needs to help you achieve? Understanding your needs will help you develop a targeted RFP that will help you find the right agency fit for your business.
• Reach out to contacts within your network, both in and outside your industry, to get agency recommendations to include in the RFP process. Opening the first round to a large field will give you a wider range of choices and could introduce you to a final candidate that you might have otherwise overlooked.
• Ask tough questions of the candidates when you’re at the interview stage. Is this the same team that will work on your day-to-day business? Can they provide journalist references who can speak to the expertise of the agency staff? How do they handle disagreements in approach with their clients?
Think of the answers that you would have liked to have had prior to choosing your previous or current agency, and ask those questions. You want this to be a long-term relationship, so you need to get to know the agency well before you commit.
Other considerations in the agency selection process should include defining a solid retainer budget, service expectations, administrative and overhead costs, meeting and reporting rhythms, and onboarding responsibilities.
Putting in some extra time up front will pay off when you select the agency that will help you meet your PR goals. PRN
B2B Communications is written by Mary C. Buhay, VP at Gibbs & Soell Public Relations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.