Being Great, Not Just Good

During my 30 years in various corporate PR roles, I had always thought I was a pretty good client. If I knew then what I know now – after eight years on the agency side – I could have been a great client.

Readers of the July 5 issue of this blog had suggested a post that provided tips on being a good client after reading Kathy Cripps article, “Choosing the Right Clients.” As a result, I have been tapped for the posting honor thanks to my experience on both sides of the PR equation.

At Sears, my staff and I managed a multi-million dollar budget that was spread over more than two dozen agencies. Each brand manager and his/her PR manager selected the agency they wanted to work with for their particular product or business unit. I previously had employed the same agency management theory at Sara Lee since I believed strongly that it empowered the PR team to own responsibility for both the relationship and the work product. What I later determined is that inconsistent agency management inevitably leads to less-than-stellar results.

Eventually, it became obvious which agency and which corporate staffers would consistently deliver the best PR programs. The most successful programs carried appropriate budgets, mutual expectations, realistic deadlines, and strong teams that had access to information and decision makers. Where these qualities existed, successful programs were delivered and corporate managers got more budgets and promotions. So, in preparation for this article, I picked the brains of one of Sears’ turn-to agency executives, Kathy Baughman, President of HLB and ComBlu, as well as Jon Harris, SVP of Global Communications at Sara Lee, and Dave Samson, General Manager, Public Affairs at Chevron. Although they have been in corporate PR for most of their careers, both Jon and Dave worked for agencies during the early stages of his career.

“I’ve always believed that an agency is only as good as its client,” asserts Dave. “If the agency is treated as a full partner, allowed to earn a reasonable return on their client’s business, are able to work on rewarding projects/issues, and are given access to the information and people they need to perform, then, I have found, they deliver great value and results. As you might guess, the opposite is also true.” Calling himself agency agnostic, Dave said he’s simply interested in fielding the best team possible as a true extension of his team.

Kathy Baughman concurs and suggests that the most important element of success in an agency/corporate relationship is respect,” Kathy began. “Some clients acknowledge that you are giving good advice and steering them in the right direction, yet they ignore that advice and do the opposite or nothing.” She noted PR counselors aren’t always right 100% of the time, but they, indeed, are on target a good deal of the time. “Consistently disrespecting our role and expertise is a red flag for failed programs and relegating PR to the order-taker role.”

Kathy and other agency professionals cite the importance for clients to know that “time to think” is worth including in budgets. “Ideation, creativity, strategic thinking are not typically ‘on demand’ activities,” Kathy adds. “Great clients know this and understand that they’ll get the best if they are not constantly questioning the ‘five hours you spent on brainstorming or research.’”

Jon Harris supports this sort of corporate-agency partnership, noting that agency partners can only be as good as a client allows them to be. He cites five tips to being a good client:

1. Direction is key. The best clients are the ones who are able to effectively communicate their goals and objectives.

2. Don’t wait until it is too late. The sooner you bring in your partners into the process, the better they can shine.

3. Be realistic about measurement and timing. Every strong relationship is built on candor and honesty. Make sure that you provide your partner with enough information about expectations and measurement. And be sure to listen to their counsel.

4. Listen to the advice given. Wayne Callaway, former CEO of PepsiCo had a great line that I have used often in my career. “God gave you two ears and one mouth and they should be used in that proportion.”

5. Know your strengths and opportunities of improvement. Make sure to listen to the advice given.

I endorse each of Jon’s recommendations, and add a final one: Don’t waste the time and money of potential agency partners. During my early Sears days, I once included six agencies in a pitch. I thought I was doing them a favor since all six had expressed a desire to be included. Not only did the ensuing pitches consume too many days of our time, they inflicted major non-billable time on at least 30 people engaged in preparing for the shoot out. Today most clients acknowledge that two or three agencies will provide enough variety from which to select an agency partner. And some clients get “wow” results when they provide a modest sum to offset out-of-pocket costs associated with a pitch.

When in doubt, talk it out. Kathy, Jon, Dave and I agree that open and honest communications between corporate and agency partners nets the best possible results and a win/win for everyone involved.

9 thoughts on “Being Great, Not Just Good

  1. Ron–Outstanding article! I have distributed to all three of my offices and have asked for their POV and how do they plan on implementing the recommendations you provided! Once again, excellent article. You are the man!!!!

  2. Ron, I would add that it pays to understand and play to an agency’s strengths. Once we tried to get a PR agency to strategize, to write and to pitch … when (after an account team change) their real strength was pitching.

    We unbundled the business — brought strategy in house, sent writing to our best freelancers, and focused the agency on pitching. Ever since, results are better and all of us are happier with the work.

    1. Unbundling the business in your case sounds like an excellent approach since it let all parties play to their strengths. It also likely freed up budget so you could enlist your agency to work on more projects than otherwise might have been possible.

  3. This is spot on advice, Ron. As an agency lead, I think that I will add your response into my packet of good advice for clients. My favorite line has to be Callaway’s. I wish listening was a higher priority for many.

  4. Ron,

    You nailed it. This is a “must read” for every client and potential client.

    The only thing I would add to your post and the excellent comments is: Realize and welcome that the agency’s job is to make you (the client) look good. It’s very rare that we agency people want our clients’ jobs. Rather, we want them to succeed, so they are well regarded within their companies, get larger budgets (to spend on their favorite PR firms), etc.

  5. Thanks for a great post. As a research-based consulting firm, we encounter many of the same challenges as those encountered by agencies. Let me offer a few additional tips that apply as well to agency clients as it does to PRIME’s:
    – Make the PR program a “win/win” for both client and agency. In exchange for excellent PR work, the firm deserves to make a reasonable profit.
    – Eliminate fear: establish solid objectives and define success in advance so both parties can be confident that the PR program is on track. Even if results are lower than expected, take advantage of learning experiences to drive future improvement
    – Select the right PR firm to begin with: do the necessary evaluation, check references and, while price may be important, it shouldn’t be the only factor in selecting a public relations partner.

    Thanks for the opportunity to build upon Ron’s excellent post.


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