How PR agencies are letting clients down, and ways they can improve

If you want to make your clients happy, you need to give them what they ask for. So we asked clients what PR agencies are doing right and wrong, to find out how agencies can provide a better service.


For Claire Foster, PR manager at insurance company Direct Line Group, it’s all about the chemistry: "I consider myself very lucky that I work with some of the best PR agencies in the industry. We have very different brand personalities in Direct Line, Churchill, Privilege and Green Flag, and all of them have different needs. We make sure we use the right agency with the right skill set, and culture, to fit with the brand they are working on. That's why chemistry meetings in our pitch process work so well.

As well as chemistry, Foster says it is important to keep working at the client/agency relationship:  "I think it's important to manage expectations, on both sides, and always be transparent. Our agencies aren't afraid to push back or use their experience to suggest something better. We have very open and honest relationships, and we work together to achieve the best results for our brands."


Once the right team has been put together that suits the client, it is important that they immerse themselves in their client‘s business. As Elayne Phillips, insight and evaluation at the Prime Minister’s Office and Cabinet Office Communications, says: “When it comes to employing communications agencies, it’s vital that the agency team gets a genuine understanding of the issues facing the organisation and their needs (not just the fancy concepts, but the basic delivery needs!). This is what builds real relationships and trust – which is massively important, especially in times of crisis comms or tight time frames.

“Real value comes when the agency alerts you to something you hadn’t realised or noticed about your piece of work. When they unearth a new angle of interest or bring a creative idea to the design, it can significantly impact the overall success or failure of the project.

“Where some agencies go wrong is not checking in enough with the organisation to make sure they’re on the right track – more regular contact when something changes or activities ramp up works much better than weekly or monthly updates. But agencies have a tough job to do – they often have to steer the organisation through to the best possible outcome and they have to prove it with evidence.

“If there is one lesson here, I’d say it’s work with us closely!”


When it comes to keeping the client happy in the long-term, the magic word is always “creativity”.  Ked Mather, senior communications manager at technology company MasterCard, explains why: “For me, there is always a place for agencies to consider challenging a client with fresh thinking, new approaches, and unique tactical ideas. This may well fall outside the parameters of a set brief which may have been provided by the client, and an agency may well view this as wasting valuable resource and time. However, and merely as an example, a creative idea which might hinge on the news agenda of a given day could well be shared and sold in to the client. If bought by the client, this could then see the client challenge her/his business internally to approve and run with an idea which no one may well have conjured up had the agency not brought it to the table. A challenge from an agency to the client can therefore be the catalyst for a new way of thinking for the business and can enhance the value of the communications function if the agency thinking or idea is good and achieves some positive results. Constantly looking at ways the agency can challenge the client can bring the agency closer as a long-term partner to the business. This can only be beneficial to both parties.”

What do I want from a PR agency?

Tom Barton, UK communications director at management consulting corporation Capgemini:

“I want my agency to be an extension of our team, to fit seamlessly into our marketing and communications team – we are integrated internally, and work alongside our sales teams, so our PR agency should work in the same way. I expect the agency see themselves as communications people not PR, and not think of media coverage as our only goal.

“So our agency must have a full understanding of what we’re trying to achieve. It means immersing themselves – from talking to our people, spending time in our offices and having full access to all of our internal comms. It takes a lot of time, but our agency must make the most of the time they do spend with us.

“And this insight into us must be matched by their expertise in the media that is most relevant to us. And across all media, the conversation about us, our clients, our partners, and our market, on all major platforms. Our agency should be thinking of our challenges: managing our brand, generating sales, and recruitment. So creativity when it comes to helping us solve our problems is essential.

“Our own slogan says ‘people matter, results count’; our agency must produce results, know the value it is delivering, and be able to articulate that.

“All in all, my expectation seem quite demanding, but most important is having an agency team that wants to work with us and sticks with us. Seeing an agency invest in its people and keep them, and hopefully working hard for us, is my biggest expectation. And so my focus is doing what I can to help achieve that.”

Dee Cotgrove, executive head of media and communications at national weather service the Met Office:

“At the Met Office we generally do our own weather media management, servicing the continuous interest in our variable weather and the science that underpins this. We deliver over 350 pieces of national coverage a week and 6,000 pieces of national and regional coverage combined, peaking to 10,500 national and regional in January when some parts of the UK had snowfall. We have also recently installed a globlynx camera so we can stream broadcast interviews directly from our operations centre. So why use a PR agency?

“Most people know us for providing weather on the TV or via our app or when providing interesting stories in their daily newspaper.  It is less well known that the Met Office offers innovative commercial services to almost every sector in the UK – from retail, insurance, energy and transport. Our trade sector PR agency brings two main things to the table: bandwidth to target these trade sectors and knowledge of the micro PR landscape within these sectors. So whilst the in-house PR team may be flat out dealing with PR around a storm or a heatwave, our PR agency can be targeting a special insight report on how weather affects the retail industry or how wind affects choice of site and ongoing performance of wind farms installations.

“So what we need and value is specialist sector knowledge and tactical support in delivering campaigns into this sector. Where agencies have failed in the past is in trying to be too strategic, offering us advice on how to run our main weather business. Our advice would be to recognise client strengths and aim to identify the pinchpoints and gaps in their offering that you could especially service and plug in to.”

Paul Stafford, PR manager at self-regulatory body the British Franchise Association:
Good agencies are proactive, creative and informative. Clients are looking for a level of expertise that they don’t have in-house; any PR worth engaging is an adviser, including spotting the hooks that others can’t and telling their clients where there’s a story – and, just as importantly, where there isn’t one.

“Agencies with a list of happy, long-term, retained clients are the ones that get the PR basics right: creating and managing a strategy; agreeing ‘what success looks like’, understanding the reasons for engaging the agency in the first place; being innovative in their delivery, and transparent about what they’re doing; and reporting back on activity and outcomes against targets, using metrics that matter.

“That’s all standard stuff for a good PR team of course, which will immerse itself in a client’s business to become much more than just another outsourced service.

“But as long as there are agencies that are happy with a retainer at the end of the month in return for some press releases and PR fluff, those that take the time to understand their clients, set out a clear strategy and become a trusted part of their team are the ones that will stand out.”

Duncan Cantor, director of communications at pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim:
“The agency/in-house team partnership is a complex one. Each team will want something different from their agency (and vice versa!). However, that being said, I think that there are some rules of thumb:

  • Do treat the in-house team as equals. This shouldn’t really need to even be said, but I’ve seen time and again an agency type that seems to believe that they are better and work harder than any in-house team and the in-house team should be grateful they were allowed to hire said agency.
  • Don’t be shy about giving advice, but also don’t be hurt if it’s not taken. The in-house team will almost certainly have a multitude of different internal political/process/organisational pressure son them (most of which they won’t have explained clearly!) that mean that whilst the advice is welcome, sometimes it just can’t be done.
  • Do keep coming back with ideas, even if the last ten have been knocked back. One of the biggest benefits I see from hiring an agency is the ‘different voice’ they bring to brainstorms and concept development. That doesn’t mean that we will be able to sell internally every one of them, but the moment they stop coming, is the moment I think the agency has run out of steam or lost interest. Unfair, perhaps, but true nonetheless.
  • Don’t forget who the client is. This sits neatly alongside my first point ... We can be irrational, unpredictable and hard to deal with. Call us on our faults by all means, but sometimes we do just need an extra pair of hands to do a job however pointless it may seem!

“Of course, what clients want are good agencies, and what agencies want are good clients. And all the points above can be reversed and then become the client’s responsibility … so really, I guess what I’m saying is that clients get the agencies they deserve, and vice versa.”

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