As we close out another dynamic year in the PR and marketing universe, I’d like to offer some unsolicited advice to all the corporate and brand executives out there planning to hire an agency in 2018. The advice is based on several exasperating new-business experiences my agency encountered in 2017. These tips are meant not only to save you time, but also to make your search for the perfect agency more rewarding and productive for everyone involved. (Apologies in advance if I sound a little stern! But as you read on, I think you’ll understand.)
- Be completely honest from your very first phone call. Perhaps you’re new to the PR agency world and aren’t even sure you need one. Or maybe you have an agency on-board but are looking for a certain specialty they don’t offer. Whatever the situation, explain why you’re reaching out so that the agency can best assess whether it’s worth everyone’s time to meet in-person to continue the conversation in more depth.
- Only agree to accept and review a proposal if the agency is a serious contender for your business. I cut my teeth in this business at Burson-Marsteller, where we poured our hearts and souls into every proposal. We spent hours conducting research, brainstorming ideas, and designing an eye-catching PowerPoint in order to present the most creative and compelling proposal possible.
Even though I now run my own, smaller agency, I still go through this exact process with my team—creating unique, inventive, soup-to-nuts proposals at no cost to the prospect. Most of the time, it pays off. But this year, I had numerous prospects tell me they were serious (and I’m usually pretty good at reading people), only to find out later that they were not.
One prospect said it didn’t matter to him that we weren’t tech specialists, so we proceeded to invest valuable time and money in a comprehensive proposal. Yet in our follow-up conference call, he proceeded to grill us about our lack of tech expertise. Finally, he said he wasn’t planning to retain an agency until he had hired an internal marketing executive! So who benefited from this little charade? Not him, and certainly not us.
- If this will be a competitive bid, share that information upfront. My agency made a decision a long time ago not to compete in these new-business beauty pageants. As I mentioned, it’s a huge investment of time and money to create a customized proposal, and the chances of winning that business are greatly diminished when you’re pitted against several other firms. Plus, you’re already taking a risk that your ideas will be stolen by the prospect and then implemented in-house; the likelihood of that happening is even greater in a competitive situation.
- Provide a realistic budget estimate. I know. No one wants to be the first to throw out a number. Actually, that’s not true. I always tell prospects that our retainer fees start at $3,500 a month (increasing to $5,000 a month in 2018), but that doesn’t stop some from asking for a proposal, even though they know they don’t have the budget to handle our retainer fees. On the other side of the fence, if you have $10,000 or more a month to spend, then say so. Agencies tailor their campaign programs to suit the proposed budget. You could miss out on a really great “big idea” if you low-ball your estimate. When in doubt, at least give a range, such as $5,000 – $7,500 a month—and don’t forget to state how many months you expect the relationship to last.
Another one of my favorite examples comes from a high-end fashion-brand executive. Granted, he was new to the position and had never hired an agency before, but still, what he did was unacceptable in my humble opinion. We presented a very creative and comprehensive proposal for him (60+ slides), and his initial reaction was quite positive. He said he liked and wanted to implement a number of our ideas. So I quickly emailed him a range of estimated fees and expenses. Then he asked what we would charge to book one local TV interview for his CEO using the pay-per-play model. Really? What in our detailed proposal gave you any hint that we worked that way? In response, I emailed him our minimums, and to this day, he has never responded.
- Respond to the proposal in a timely manner. As noted in my example, we never got a response from the fashion prospect. That is a terrible business practice, and honestly, it’s just plain rude. Whether you liked their proposal or not, be professional enough to give them feedback. Feel free to tell the truth, too—they can handle it!
- Consider a cost-effective brainstorm session instead. As I said above, we provide customized proposals free of charge to prospects. (Back in the day, agencies actually got paid for these gems!) But our New Year’s resolution for 2018 is to vet prospects even more carefully than we have in the past, and therefore to decline to pitch new business in certain instances. In these situations, we will offer a four-hour brainstorm session instead in which prospects can take CurrentPR for a test drive at minimal cost.
Now that you’ve read my heartfelt tips, you might also want to check out this handy list of five “must dos” for conducting an agency search from PR News. Hopefully, you’ll see the common threads between their advice and mine.
All of this said, I want to stress one thing: we are always thrilled to take on a new client! We go into every business relationship with enthusiasm, an open mind, and a whole array of plans and ideas. And I certainly hope each new client feels the same way. My goal here is to help foster an atmosphere of respect, honesty, and communication that will make this relationship a lasting and productive one right from the start. Happy 2018!