PR agencies must deliver what they promise, and prove it, says Whiteoaks’ James Kelliher

Having left their car at the garage, many drivers walk away with a sense of dread. Of course, there are plenty of honest mechanics. The risk, however, is that an unscrupulous operator will massively overcharge for what should be a simple job. Without sufficient knowledge of what has happened under the hood, the driver has no way of knowing whether the repair or service is value for money or a total rip off.

In this respect, there can be parallels with professional services companies. This is especially true of firms that spend a lot of time and energy explaining why things take so long and fail to deliver on their promises, capitalising on the fact that PR is rarely a transparent purchase. 

In a shop, you know exactly what you are buying and the price you can expect to pay for it. This transparency in the transaction enables you to make a conscious decision and instant judgement about whether or not the purchase offers good value. Yet, there is no real reason why professional services cannot be bought in the same way. As a consumer of that service, this means firms should expect complete transparency over their purchase.

In an industry renowned for its hype and hyperbole, there’s no doubt that having invested their time and money, more and more firms are growing weary of providers that don’t deliver on their promises. Although many stubborn agencies continue to reject the idea, PR firms that already work on a results-driven basis prove that it is possible to treat PR as a commodity. As such, when looking for a results-driven professional services provider, the first thing a buyer should ask is whether or not the consultancy operates on a set-fee-per-deliverable basis.

Rather than being calculated based on the time incurred by the agency, budgets should be settled on the basis of an agreed set of guaranteed outputs for all campaigns, clearly linked to business objectives. Once delivered, a good provider will measure these outputs using qualitative and qualitative metrics, including the impact of the campaign on target audiences in terms of awareness, perceptions and intended behaviours.

Just as you would expect a refund or replacement for a defective or unsatisfactory product or service, in a more commoditised professional services environment, a PR campaign is to be backed up with a formal service level agreement that provides a pro-rata fee rebate if the above targets are not achieved (i.e., 10 per cent below target = 10 per cent fee rebate, 15 per cent below target = 15 per cent fee rebate and so on).

Rather than wasting money on PR campaigns that fail to deliver the right messages to the right audience and influence behaviour, the message to buyers looking for the best returns from professional services is to demand more from the start. As a minimum, this should include guaranteed deliverables, guaranteed results and a willingness from suppliers to put their money where their mouth is.

James Kelliher, CEO of communications agency Whiteoaks

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