The typical process that guides a company in evaluating PR agencies and ultimately choosing a winner is broken.
It was broken when I participated in my first new-biz meeting — wicker furniture, of all things; we did not win — in 1983.
It’s still broken today.
In the vast majority of PR agency reviews, the process puts a premium on showmanship and presentation skills — secondary traits when it comes to an Agency’s ability to execute a campaign month after month after month.
And what does completing an RFP that could double as a Ph.D. thesis really tell you about a given agency? In many agencies, the people who handle the RFP gauntlet have no relationship to the actual account team. As a result, the RFP often reveals little in predicting how an agency will do once it starts executing the program.
If I can get on my soapbox for a moment, companies should not perceive “execution” as a commodity. Every agency drawing breath is capable of handling a news event. But the list dwindles when it comes to driving results month on an ongoing basis.
I sympathize with our corporate brothers/sisters who juggle a fire hose of demands from varied stakeholders. While they intellectually recognize the importance of securing the right PR agency partner, finding the time for deep due diligence is another matter.
With this in mind, I believe that certain actions can help a prospective client gain a deeper window into an agency without consuming a ton of time.
- Twitter Feed: Is the content shaped to help communicators, marketers and the like, or does it shout “Me, me … and here’s more about me”? If an agency can’t implement thought leadership for itself, it doesn’t bode well for its clients.
- Media Coverage: This falls under the category of making sure the cobbler’s kids have shoes. PR agencies who can generate a media footprint for themselves show that they a.) command media relations expertise, and b.) believe it’s important for brand building.
- LinkedIn Profiles: It’s common to look at the LinkedIn profiles of the proposed account team members for their experience. But beyond that, it’s important to scrutinize how each account person tells his or her own story. The word “storyteller” now dominates the communications vernacular. But it’s one thing to say it and another to show it through one’s LinkedIn narrative.
- Mobile-friendly: Buyers increasingly access information on mobile devices, which impacts the development of content. Plug the URL for your short-listed agencies into the Google Developer’s tool that tests whether a website is mobile-friendly. And yes, we aced the test.
- Onsite Visit: OK, this is the one the action that does require a chunk of time, but the payoff can be huge. Feel the vibe of the agency. Check out what’s on people’s desks. See the office structure. In short, an onsite visit goes a long way toward figuring out the client-agency fit.
- Home Page Title Tag: I figured I could slip in one nerdy action. Go to the agency’s home page, access the source code and examine the title tag. Does the agency waste this valuable real estate using only its name, or is there an SEO strategy in play?
I am not saying these six actions alone will enable companies to choose the perfect PR agency.
There’s no substitute for spending time with the short-listed agencies, examining their relevant work and talking to their clients.
But I do believe that these six actions in aggregate deliver cues that will round out your perspective of a given agency.
RFPs are tough on all sides. It’s mandatory in larger companies and the procurement process is brutal on the inside too. In smaller companies, I’ve used an abbreviated process of a) answers to five questions b) selected agencies move to a 1-hour pitch call c) due diligence and decisions.
That aside, there’s two real keys from my experience on the in-house side:
1) Look closely at the team — the junior and mid-level folks that are going to do the work; beyond LinkedIn I want to see contributed content, blogs and soc ail activity — I want to know that the team I’m to hire is as passionate about marketing and PR as I am.
2) Look for the churn rate — do employees stick around? Nothing worse then clicking with an account manager, not to mention the education process, only to see them leave. LinkedIn is a great tool for checking both current and past employees and getting a sense.
Thanks Frank. Appreciate the insights and suggestions from the in-house perspective.
While RFPs often request case studies, they don’t bother pushing for a correlation between the case studies and the proposed account team.