What do clients think of their agencies? Article icon

What

I recently had the privilege of sitting on a panel of senior communications professionals from a range of UK businesses where I presented the results of the 2018 CorpComms Communicators’ Survey.  The survey shone a light on what in-house communications professionals are looking for from their corporate and financial PR agencies and the attributes they consider most important when selecting and retaining those agencies.  Throughout the discussion, and backed by the results of the study, it was clear that there is a huge opportunity for PR agencies to win and retain top clients. 

Here are three points from the discussion and research I found most interesting.

1.       Many clients aren’t wedded to their current agencies

This isn’t to say that in-house professionals don’t have a tremendous amount of love and loyalty for their current agencies – because they do – but in the research, we found that only 64% of respondents were very likely to recommend their current agency, and 12% said they would not recommend them at all. Likewise, on average, in-house communicators in our survey were familiar with 13 agencies included in the list and had worked with 6 over the course of their careers. While the panel spoke very highly of their long-term PR partners, these comms professionals also know they don’t have to look far for highly qualified alternatives should they require a different set of skills or type of support.

“[They’re] still very good but need to be aware that they can't rest on their laurels.”

The survey gave us a first look at what can get an agency ahead in this crowded space. The respondents were looking for strength and depth of team and strategic counsel, with 75 per cent and 77 per cent respectively saying these factors were very important.  The panel discussion really backed this up. As in-house teams grow their skillsets and functions, they are no longer distinguishing between different types of PR and want agencies who can be flexible, offering advisory services across a wide spectrum of issues – particularly in areas that bolster the specific skill gaps within the in-house teams.

So what does this mean for agencies and what they need to offer?

Clearly, a one-size-fits-all service will get you nowhere and a traditional approach to the agency-client relationship no longer guarantees client retention. ‘Bespoke’ really was the word of the day. The panel often repeated that ‘no two in-house comms teams are the same’, and as such, they are looking for a more engaged and flexible partnership that prioritises smart questions and solutions, grounded in a solid understanding of their needs and goals. 

2.       Clients are looking for agencies that are keen to improve relationships

Comms leaders are attracted to agencies that put in the time to create close and intuitive relationships. This confirmed our survey findings. Agency leadership scored second from bottom on our list of important reasons for choosing an agency, with only 26% considering it very important, compared to 75% for team strength and depth, showing it’s the value provided by the people they work with day in and day out that makes the difference.

While the need for close relationships to achieve a successful client-agency partnership isn’t breaking news, the panel offered some useful insights into how agencies can proactively improve that relationship.

·         Ask smart questions

While it should be a given that you need to understand your clients’ business inside and out, listening is the key to any successful relationship. The panel pointed out that it’s better to ask smart questions than assume you have all the answers, and one of the best questions is asking where the in-house team thinks their strengths and weaknesses lie. This sort of question puts you in a position to set out where you can fit within their team – what gaps you can fill and where you are a real value-add – rather than simply pitching what you can do for them.

Asking smarter questions early on shows the intention to work smarter later; it shows that you understand what they need and that you’re not going to be telling them what they already know.

·         Make their lives easy

As one member of the panel put it – remember that your client is likely ‘only thinking about their agencies five to ten per cent of the time’. If a client is thinking about you more than that it’s probably not a good thing. Part of this comes down to really taking on board insights from those smart questions you’ve been asking – if you know where you fit, your actions become seamless and intuitive.

Are you ready to prove your flexibility? As the traditional PR lines become blurred, being able to show you can adapt and balance strategy with the nitty gritty of day-to-day delivery becomes more important too.  One member of the panel chose to test this attribute in their pitching process.

‘One of the best pitch processes I ever went through – we just issued a short brief to each of the agencies, said no PowerPoint, and talked for an hour.  Amazing difference between those who thrived in that discussion and those who felt very uncomfortable with the process.’

·         Checking in and measuring success

Keeping a good relationship on track means staying on the same page. One Comms Director on the panel said, “I would love for an agency to ask ‘how do you think this is going?  What skills are we bringing that you really value?’”. The panel advocated not only for frequent check-ins, but also for agreeing targets that reflect the needs of the client rather than your own goalposts.

3.       Help set the agenda

One way to show that you understand the big picture is by demonstrating a clear business case for comms, making it easier for your clients to sell in your great ideas.

Another important and sometimes over-looked opportunity for agencies to impress clients is through helping to support and promote the comms function within clients’ companies. Set yourself apart by showing clients how you can help them move communications and corporate reputation up their company agenda, by better articulating the value that communications provides to the business.

Summary

The panel discussion and survey discussion both highlighted the vital role that PR agencies play in supporting in-house comms functions.  Comms professionals had a lot of praise for their agencies and key account teams that they’ve built vibrant relationships with.  However, they also acknowledged that the role of the PR agency is changing and that there’s always room for improving relationships – highlighting a real opportunity for those who can get it right.

This month we are running the next wave of the Communicators’ Survey on behalf of CorpComms and I look forward to the insights the next survey will bring.

NOTES:

In September 2018, Message House conducted a survey of 102 in-house communications professionals.  The respondents were drawn from a mix of UK and global businesses, including in-house communicators from 17% of the FTSE 100, and were largely industry veterans, with 68% having worked in communications for 15 years of more.