Four in ten in-house communicators dissatisfied with agencies
Helen Dunne is the editor of CorpComms Magazine, follow her tweets here @CorpCommsMag
There is a disconnect between how agencies believe they are perceived by clients and the reality of in-house communicators' views on the subject, according to CorpComms Magazine's monthly 'Both Sides of the Coin' survey.
The new survey, which has been conducted by online pulse check company QuestionONE in association with CorpComms Magazine, polled 400 in-house communicators and 1,000 managing directors and board directors of agencies in late December and early January.
While one third of managing and board directors of agencies believe that clients 'completely and utterly' value the work they do, 41 per cent of in-house directors expressed disappointment with the quality of advice that they received.
Three in ten in-house communicators also expressed dissatisfaction with the level of fees charged for agencies' services. Of these, 12 per cent complained that, while senior agency directors pitch for the business, they are left with 'junior-level service at senior-level fees'.
One in-house director described this as 'the typical structure of the industry; it is seriously flawed. The industry is ripe for some serious disruption'.
Another added: 'The major problem is aligning taut or tightening budgets to suppliers with the same fixed overheads and increasingly expecting an improved return-on-investment. Suppliers need to think differently about their business models.'
Those in-house communicators who expressed disappointment with the quality of advice cited how agencies are struggling to add value at a time when the quality of in-house expertise has dramatically improved. One added: 'Too many agencies play back what they think their client wants to hear. The quality beneath the two layers tends to drop off quite sharply.'
One third of agencies conceded that, while clients may be happy with their service, there are usually 'robust discussions' about fees. 'It is sometimes difficult to quantify the value that PR brings a business beyond better reputation,' said one managing director. many said that there was now a perception that PR should be cheaper than it is. 'Today, people want more for their money, are not afraid to ask for a discount, and want faster turnaround for the same amount and quality of work,' said one.
One agency director added: 'Most people believe they can write, be strategic, form relationships and so on, so therefore they believe they can 'do' PR. The discussions arise when the amateur 'clashes' with the professional. But, at the end of the day, as PR professionals we can only advise.'
At least one in-house communications director of a FTSE 100 company has a 'three year rule' when it comes to employing agencies; after the third year, he puts the account up for repitch on the basis that the service declines from year one - when the agency is going 'all out' to impress - to the point where it bears no resemblance to its initial promise. The cycle takes three years.
The survey reveals that 100 per cent of agencies are confident that their clients believe they have delivered on the promises that they made on appointment. Indeed, 48 per cent of agencies are 'absolutely' confident that their clients believe they have delivered.
But the reality is that just eight per cent of all in-house communication directors believe that their agencies have 'absolutely' delivered on the promises made when they were appointed. And 42 per cent are unhappy that agencies have not lived up to their promises.
'They are reactive to news stories but do not appear to be as creative at delivering positive PR as they first agreed on their appointment,' said one disappointed in-house director. Another added: 'I think that agencies need to be more proactive and push for better management from in-house operators.'
Half of all in-house communicators said they would like to think that agencies had delivered on their brief. One said: 'They have delivered a good service around key events (results, for example) but you have to push them for other things. They do respond though.' Another added: 'They have met the overall goals set out, with some alterations to the plan along the way.'
But agencies are confident that clients are happy with their service, arguing that 'they keep coming back for more' and 'if they were dissatisfied, they would either let me know or fire me!' This implies that either in-house communicators are not expressing their views robustly enough, or that agencies are not hearing what they are being told. The managing director of one agency, who expressed 'absolute confidence' that clients were happy, said: 'We only promise what we can deliver.'
But then, somewhat cryptically, he continued: 'The issue with clients is expectations where there can be a difference between actual delivery and the perception of it.'