Forget the pitch: five better steps to choosing a PR agency
Lengthy pitch processes can be a waste of time and resources for both marketers and agencies, argues Jocelyn Hunter. Here she gives five steps for a different method of hiring an agency.
Pitching for new business is all part of working at an agency, from advertising, PR and digital to everything in between. It can take a huge amount of time and energy to pitch for new business which is why the issue of whether to charge prospective clients for pitching has been debated for many years.
Having run Bench PR now for six years, we’ve gone through a formal pitch process only a handful of times. This is because most of our clients come from referrals, they know the quality of work we’ve done for other companies and want to work with us and we want to work with them. Unless we know we’re only one of two or possibly three agencies that have been shortlisted for a formal pitch process or the budget actually warrants going through the process, we walk away.
And that’s the rub. You see, there are still marketing, PR and communications directors out there who think filling in a lengthy questionnaire about your agency, pulling together a proposal for their business and then a presentation to pitch to them, all usually within a pretty tight timeframe is the norm and the right way to go about choosing a PR agency. Well it isn’t, or not in the majority of cases anyway.
If you’re a large government department or perhaps a large multi-national company with a budget to match, then of course there needs to be some rigour around the processes you adopt when choosing your agency partners. And yes, I’d agree that a Request for Proposal (RFP) can be helpful to try and compare agencies on the same criteria.
However, there is a limit to what an RFP can tell you and I’d warn against anyone basing their decision on this process alone. It might give a rough idea of an agency’s past accomplishments, but you’re not hiring an agency’s past, you’re hiring its future. Whilst your company is trying to find a suitable PR agency, your competitors have already launched their campaigns and are grabbing market share. So if you’re a marketing, PR or communications manager, before you launch into a lengthy pitch process to find your PR agency, consider the following steps instead:
1. Do your research
It’s simple, but choosing a PR agency is an important decision, so you must do your research. Can you ask your contacts for a referral, an agency they might have worked with in the past? Use your LinkedIn network, social media, whichever channels you want to do your due diligence. Search the internet – if you’re looking for a PR agency, can you contact a journalist for their thoughts? Have they got experience in the field in which your company operates? As a client, if you haven’t done your research or even looked at the PR agency’s website to get an understanding of the clients they look after or their team, why would they feel you want to work with them? Having done your research, choose no more than two to three agencies to contact. Any more and you’re wasting everyone’s time.
2. Get to know each other
It’s a bit like dating. Meet each other. Is the agency you’re meeting interested in you and your business or do they spend the whole time talking about themselves? Can you introduce the PR agency to other people in your organisation? For example, it’s important for them to build relationships with the spokespeople or managing director of the business. The agency needs to be confident not only that it can deliver what you need, but that you have the people, content and motivation to help them make it happen. You get out of a PR program what you put in.
3. Give it a go
Decide on a trial period. After three months, a PR agency should be getting your company the results you both want to achieve. Choose your agency and get started. Ultimately, it’s up to both the agency and client to confirm what their expectations are from each other. So for the PR agency, they’re not going to waste time identifying media opportunities if they know they can’t get hold of a spokesperson to speak to the journalist. It’s important to set expectations right at the beginning of the relationship.
4. It’s not all about you
Yes, you’re looking for a new agency, but it’s not all about you. The agency team needs to decide whether they want to work with you. Don’t assume they do. We’ve turned down many clients over the past 12 months for various reasons. Particularly for smaller agencies, which don’t have huge staff costs to cover or shareholders to satisfy, it’s about whether they want to work with you, so you need to sell your organisation to them. Instead of having the agency spend ungodly hours developing a campaign that might never be used, how about interviewing them to find out what they believe in and what drives them to see if their approach matches yours?
5. Talk money
Let the agency know the budget straight away. If you haven’t got one, ask them for a ballpark figure. Don’t waste an agency’s time coming up with big blue sky ideas if they haven’t got a chance of being realised. And don’t ask an agency to follow a lengthy pitch process if you don’t have the budget to match.
The traditional agency search process is too slow for a PR world that functions at the speed of light, and it is too wasteful for companies – and agencies. If you’re looking for a PR agency and follow the steps above, the chances of finding the right agency for you and your organisation is much higher and your relationship with that agency will get off to a much better start.