How to Be a Better Client and Improve Your PR Agency Partnership


Having celebrated 10 years of being an in-house communicator, it’s official: I now have more experience as a brand communicator, or client, than as an agency partner. Starting at a worldwide PR agency gave me fundamentals I’ve needed to become the communicator and strategist that I am. My life at an agency, though, supplied the skills I needed to be a good client.

Today I oversee several marketing disciplines in addition to PR. The position I’m in calls for me to manage multiple agencies and freelancers over a wide array of communication tactics. And I’m not alone: 74% of marketers report using two or more agencies to support their business, according to the annual RSW/US survey (2016). This is a 12% jump from 2015. The survey’s authors believe communicators are employing two or more agencies for two reasons: Communicators have little trouble finding willing agencies as they receive hundreds of solicitations; and with technology changing market conditions at blazing speeds, “demands for proven ROI” and staff reductions, communicators need the help outside firms offer. It’s a mistake, though, to think this adds up to a halcyon period for agencies [see chart on page 4].

The most important thing to realize about working with agencies is that it’s about much more than merely delegating work. One of the keys to working with an agency is to think about it as building a team outside your organization to help achieve your communication and business goals.

Here’s what I have learned that helped me become a better client and build successful client-agency relationships:

1. Take Time to Pick the Right Partner

Like most things in life, putting in the hard work at the beginning pays off in the end. Picking the right partner starts well before a traditional agency review. Spend time determining what you need from an agency. Is it just media relations or do you anticipate more corporate, crisis or digital needs? Doing some self-discovery will help you determine the kind of agency you need.

Next, research agencies based on your needs. For example, if you know in-person meetings will be critical, remove out-of-state contenders. Narrow your list and send a detailed RFP outlining your specific needs, and be clear on what you expect at an in-person meeting. Involve all internal stakeholders in the agency meetings. Create an evaluation sheet for your internal team to guide an objective decision. You may love an agency’s ideas, but can’t necessarily afford them.

2. Make It Part of Your Team—Within Reason

If you’ve chosen correctly, your agency will become more than a vendor—it will be a trusted partner and in some ways an extension of your internal team.

Of course, there are always boundaries and it’s never appropriate to share all the details that you are privy to as the client. If you can be open about your short-term and long-term goals, as well as challenges, your agencies will have deeper insight into your business and offer strategic ways to help you grow.

It’s also important to take the time to get to know your agency contacts. Isn’t work always more fun when you really connect with your co-workers beyond the day-to-day work? Celebrate milestones, and not just the business ones. Noting promotions, birthdays and growing families with a simple celebration can help build a rapport that will benefit the entire business relationship.

3. Set Them Up for Success

It’s up to you to make sure your agency succeeds. Take the time to prepare its personnel before coming in for an input session. Give them all of the necessary background so they aren’t learning about the product for the first time in the meeting.

Providing information in advance allows them to research the topic and come in more knowledgeable and better prepared to ask meaningful questions.

When your agency looks good, you look good.

4. Be Reasonable

Being the client does not give you free rein to expect or demand unreasonable things. Of course there will be times that you will have big asks, but acknowledging that and setting reasonable expectations and deadlines is important. Being realistic will win you loyalty points and make your agency want to work even harder.

When you can, start projects early and establish a timeline. Allow for regular check-ins on projects. There is nothing worse than getting a deliverable that doesn’t meet expectations because there was miscommunication at the onset. Check-ins will help to avoid miscommunication and make sure that projects are on course for everyone’s success.

5. Be Honest

Nearly 100% of clients and agencies believe that a trust-based union leads to better work, according to a 2014 study from RPA and USA Today, which is the most recent data available. The study found a large disconnect regarding trust, though. Nearly 90% of brand reps said they speak frankly, yet just 36% of agency partners believe their brand collaborators did so. Another disconnect: 90% of agencies say they truly understand the business of the brands they serve, only 65% of brand reps agree.

Having hard conversations with your agency is inevitable. Don’t avoid them. Handled well, they can strengthen the partnership. If the coverage results are not what you expected, discuss it immediately and come up with a solution. If the budget is being spent faster than expected, talk about what activities can be tabled and what projects you can take back until the team is again on track.

[This content appeared originally in PR News Pro, August, 22, 2016. For subscription information, please visit:  ]