A view from the client side: how to be the best agency

By Sarah Dickinson, Communications Director at Canonical,

Visit any online PR resource and you’ll find advice on building great relationships between clients and agencies.

They normally include the obvious points such as building a relationship, being treated as extension to the internal team, understanding the client’s business, set clear expectations and so on.

That is all true, but it is normally a view heard from the agency side only. What if you asked in-house teams the same question? Yes, many of the above points are important but there are other, perhaps less obvious ones, that contribute to a great working relationship. Here’s a few to think about…

We talk a lot about brands being credible and honest but that extends to PR agencies too. If an agency runs a campaign or pitches an announcement and it hasn’t delivered as expected, say so. Too many times agencies can try to gloss over the reality. An acknowledgement that an activity didn’t land as hoped would be far more appreciated and lead to a healthier discussion for future learnings. Trying to pull the wool over the client’s eyes will only work so many times and not build a relationship of trust.

The above scenario may occur more when the in-house contact is not deemed a PR expert. In many companies, agencies may be managed by a marketing manager or similar. Not to taint all marketing managers, but it is fair to say they often aren’t PR experts but this does not represent in-house PRs as a whole. Give the client a chance and if they aren’t as knowledgeable as liked, use that to provide a greater consultancy role and help upskill them for both your benefits.

Thirdly, for those working in a client’s agency network – position yourselves as a team rather than compete. I’ve experienced both scenarios and any agency trying to step outside of this for their own benefit won’t win long or short term. A collaborative and self-sufficient roster of agencies is hugely appreciated as it saves the role of referee having to be played, and ensures all parties are working towards common goals.

Finally, try to understand and appreciate the environment your client works in. Agency side life is very different to in-house. Everything in an agency revolves around either clients or journalists, largely speaking. On the client side, PR is a small cog in a whole organisation regardless of the size.

Therefore, a spokesperson approving a byline or prioritising a media interview might be far less significant to them than it is to the account exec who secured the opportunity. A good in-house PR will build relationships internally to overcome such barriers and express the importance of PR but having an appreciation from the agency side is also important.

Similarly, one point which often gets overlooked is that being the in-house PR means you are the one that is ultimately accountable. An agency will often send over several ideas – however, they rarely need to select one, stand by it internally and justify whether it is a success or failure.

Depending on the client’s environment and stakeholders, this could be both a lengthy and difficult process. Don’t get frustrated if the client takes longer to come back to you than hoped or not with the response you wished for. Understand their processes, what drives their stakeholders and what is commercially important to help create plans that align.

Relationships aren’t rocket science but the softer side of things, attitude and willingness to understand a business beyond just their products is key.

Getting some of the above right is much more valuable than taking the client out for lunch once a month. If an agency wants to be treated as an extension to the in-house team, then take the time to be truly that and look beyond what you see at face value.

Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

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