To truly step into the shoes of prospective clients, you must understand one thing—picking a PR agency is a big decision, particularly for those that may have had sub-optimal experiences in the past or who have never run an agency search.
Even experienced agency shoppers can find the process challenging. Let’s face it, they are making a major investment, which will immediately and directly impact their overall marketing budget—not to mention the future of their business. With that perspective in mind, it is imperative that agencies are prepared to provide thoughtful answers to some of the most common and important questions that most prospects have.
Having participated in many RFIs, RFPs and pitches over the years, I’ve heard some pretty interesting questions from prospects: Are you good? Are you in touch with your feminine side? What was your greatest failure? Have you ever done acid (seriously)? These questions were important in their own right, however, I’ve learned that there are ten key questions that we, as agency people, should always be prepared to answer for the companies we want to represent.
1. What are your agency’s capabilities?
This is a very natural place to start and should let you know right away whether you will be able to handle all of the company’s needs, or if they will need to engage multiple agency partners. There can be value in extreme focus and specialization. However, as more falls under the umbrella of PR and marketing, including media relations, social media, video, graphic design, SEO / SEM, web design, content marketing, marketing automation and so on, there is something to be said for a one-stop shop that understands a company’s core values and messaging and seamlessly integrate them throughout the many pieces of a comprehensive program. Hopefully your prospect will never feel the need, but there is also something to be said for giving a client one throat to choke.
2. Where does your agency see the PR industry going?
This is something we as PR people should be asking ourselves on a regular basis. The answer to this question will give your prospective client an immediate sense of just how in-tune you are with your own rapidly evolving industry. The media landscape is changing daily and is almost unrecognizable from a decade ago, and social media and creative digital content are no longer options that are just nice to have. Any agency that is not plugged into industry shifts will quickly become stagnant and ineffective, and the brands and reputations of their clients will suffer as a result. Experience is important, but flexibility and a willingness to continue learning and evolving is essential for any successful, modern PR agency.
3. Who will be on our team and how often will I have access to senior leadership?
I’ve spoken to many current and prospective clients who fell victim to an agency bait and switch. Companies are increasingly weary of the agency that trots out a team of executives for the pitch, and can’t provide a clear answer as to who exactly will be on their team. Ideally, prospects want to meet their actual team, to get a real sense for the mid-level and junior team members that will be handling a significant portion of the daily legwork.
There are exceptions, but as a general rule of thumb there aren’t many agency executives who are going to be picking up the phone to speak with reporters. Increasingly, prospects want to ensure their comfort level with the team members who will actually be speaking to the press on their behalf. Even if unprompted, there is real value in having each agency team member describe their role, strengths and why they want to represent the prospect.
4. What is your financial model?
As you are likely aware, a standard financial model does not exist across PR agencies. Some prospects understand this, some do not. Either way, you should be able to clearly describe your financial model—why do you bill the way you do, and what are the advantages? It is worth noting that PR inherently ebbs and flows quite a bit from month to month. The last thing prospects want is a team that is forced to pull back during a busy month, because they have gone over their hours.
These are the times that clients are stretched the thinnest and the last thing they want is to lose support, or have to dip back into their budget to keep their agency working. This model can also distract your PR team from their core competency. When your team sets forth to get your client into the Wall Street Journal, your client would probably prefer they focus on the goal, not how long it takes to achieve it.
5. Why did you choose to work at your agency?
There are no shortages of PR agencies out there, and companies want to know that the people working on behalf of their brand are happy in their agency and career. An agency’s people are its product, and happy PR people are productive PR people—if you are fortunate enough to have happy people, you should highlight the fact. Prospective clients are also increasingly cognizant of team turnover. Companies want their PR team to develop expertise around their company, messages, and even work style—which becomes difficult with new team members constantly cycling in.
6. Do you know our brand and understand our products, services, technologies and/or value propositions?
Prospective clients certainly want to know that an agency has done its homework. This will also give a sense of your agencies experience in any given space. Additionally, companies want a team that is passionate about their brand, mission and industry—not just looking for a paycheck. At the end of the day, passion will go much farther than retainer dollars, and will perpetuate itself in the quantity and quality of PR results an agency is able to achieve.
7. Where would our organization fall within your client spectrum?
Many prospects want to get a sense of where their budget will fall within the spectrum of your existing client roster. Some agencies have a threshold for the size of account they are willing to take on, and/or are able to support, and prospective clients want to know where they fall.
Transparency is important in this way, and you should be able to tell a prospect whether they will be an average sized account, or one of the largest the agency supports. Many companies have experienced the difficulties of being a low-priority account within an agency roster, and want to ensure that they will not be forgotten. Be prepared to tell them where they fall and reassure them that this won’t happen.
8. Can you give me an example of a campaign that you’ve executed in our industry?
There is real value to a chameleon PR pro or jack of all trades, who has experiences and a track record of success across industries. Breadth of experience comes with a breadth of strategies that can be employed on behalf of a brand. That said, most companies want some degree of expertise that’s been developed through work with brands like theirs. This will also give the agency team a chance to show how they think and who they know in a prospects media and influencer space.
9. What do you need from us?
Most in-house marketing and PR people understand that working with an agency is a partnership. Your agency should be able to substantially lighten the load for any prospect. That said, it is deceptive to give the impression that you are simply going to take everything off of your prospect’s plate. The most successful agency partnerships result from strategic teamwork. Whether it is a customer roster, access to executive experts or simple face-time, most prospects understand that successful agency partnerships require collaboration. Be prepared to tell your prospects what you need from them to ensure success.
10. Why do you want to work with us?
This comes down again to passion. Your agency should be able to clearly express why you want to work with any given brand you are talking to. Do you love what they do or stand for? Do you like winning and know you could win with them? Do you like the executives? What is it about this brand that makes you want to work for them? Prospective clients want to know that you value more than just their budget. The most successful PR people love what they do and love the brands that they represent. It is much easier to tell a story if you genuinely appreciate and believe in that story. You don’t get to hand-pick every client, but if you are willing to work with, and for them, you should be able to express your desire honestly and in an appealing way.
It is a big decision picking a new PR agency, and you want your prospects to clearly understand what you can and can’t do for them. When done right, working with an agency should be a genuine partnership that positively impacts business. When done wrong, it can be quite painful for everyone involved. These questions are by no means exhaustive, but should be considered as a list that you must be prepared to speak to. There is always a perfect agency partnership to be had, and it is up to you to give yourself the best chance of finding it.
Are there any other questions that should be added to this list or that you have asked or been asked during an agency selection process?