How to reduce PR agency churn, from Hotwire global CEO Barbara Bates

I recently read an article about the state of client and agency relationships in AdWeek which naturally focused on the issue from the perspective of advertising agencies. But, this got me thinking about the state of client and agency relationships in the PR world. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are a couple of incremental changes which we could make that would bear fruit for both clients and agencies…

Shared values in the pitch process
Yes it’s cliché, but trust and respect are key to any relationship – client and agency relationships are no different. At the point clients start the pitch process, all stakeholders on the comms team should agree to elect an agency partner based on trust and respect, these values should be at the core. But, more importantly, this needs to ring true post pitch, clients need to trust and respect the agency, and its people, that they appoint. This means sharing everything with them – the good, the bad and the ugly.

Following that, clients need to trust their agency’s advice - after all isn’t that why you hired them? Both parties need to nip the “us and them” attitude in the bud the minute that atmosphere starts to arise and focus on creating a “we” partnership. If you don’t trust and respect your agency, then find one you can.

Furthermore, I’ve never understood clients that keep agencies at arm’s length from executives, content creators or other decision makers. The more access you give your agency, the better they’ll understand the nuances to the business. Without sounding too rudimentary, it makes the in-house comms role easier and makes clients look good by creating a perception of strong, confident leadership.

Pay for what you most value
Clients feedback consistently that they value strategy and creativity the most from their agency partner, but for most that’s not how they demonstrate value back. These two things rarely show up on a budget or invoice. So why not set a compensation model that reflects what you want most from your agency? If all you’re getting from an agency is tactical execution by the hour then revisit your scope of work and how you pay, with your agency. Yes it might involve some procurement conversations further down the line but it will be worth it in the long term.

If you’ve got a clear understanding of what you value, don’t demand fast, cheap and perfect – you can’t have it all. If it’s quality work and thinking, then agencies need time to do the job right. On too many occasions we’ve seen unrealistic deadlines forced on agencies, and too many times agencies agree to them. The end result is usually a burnt out team and an unhappy client.

Let’s talk about team turnover
Team turnover, the number one complaint clients have about agencies. What clients don’t appreciate is that this is a shared responsibility, clients have as much to do with team turnover as the agency. When you’re working together as a team you are fully engaged, you spend loads of time together, in some cases more than your own colleagues. If agency staff don’t feel motivated, respected, valued or challenged the chances of them sticking around on your account are slim. Worst case scenario they leave the agency altogether and go looking for an agency that proactively fosters better relationships with its clients. Both parties need to acknowledge the part they play in this and have open dialogue about it to improve the working environment for everyone.

For the most part, we’re in a better position than the ad world when it comes to relationships. But those of us who aren’t, on either side, could do a bit of soul searching in a bid to improve the day-to-day for our respective teams and ensure we all deliver a better standard of work that we can all be proud of, whilst actually enjoying working together in the process.

Written by Barbara Bates, global CEO of PR agency Hotwire