What do clients really want from their PR agencies?

Speaking to clients across a range of industries, one key demand stands out: Creativity.

Claire Foster, media relations manager, at insurance company Direct Line Group, says: “I love to be blown away by creativity from agencies. Like the recent example of Frank PR, Green Flag and the UK’s leading Dolly Parton impressionist … With more than 360 festival goers expected to breakdown over the course of the five-day festival, 'The Bandwagon Service' offers an intimate roadside show to unlucky drivers and their passengers, who breakdown on the 25 June while en route to Glastonbury, before the real Dolly hits the Pyramid Stage. Great concept, timely, relevant and shareable.”

Foster says that coming up with good ideas isn’t enough on its own, it needs to be backed up by reliability, honesty and knowledge: “Having worked both agency and in-house, I know what I expect from an agency. Managing these expectations is paramount, and agencies shouldn't ever wait for their client to have to chase their work. It's important to do what you say you are going to do and to be honest if you don't think something will work.

“It is also fundamental for agencies to be on top of the news agenda. I’ve visited PR agencies (and in-house media teams) where they don't watch Sky News, or they don't read newspapers or monitor social media. I like proactive/reactive media relations, spotting the news hook and relating it back to the business objectives. Speed and knowledge are crucial in getting this right.”

To appreciate what clients want, it is important to put yourself in their shoes. As Amy Stevens, UK PR manager at audio and video products manufacturer Bang & Olufsen, says: “Having only recently swapped agency life for an in-house role, being an agency PRO is still a recent memory for me. I had never thought about it before, but for the PR agency, each client is one of a number of companies you look after … but for the client you are their only agency. As PROs you are taught to respond to the client immediately, even if it’s just with a holding email, and speaking from the client side this is probably the most important thing to remember in order to foster a smooth client-agency relationship. It’s hard to imagine when you’re running around dealing with different requests from every client, but each one of those clients will be sat at their screens (patiently?) awaiting your reply.”

“It’s a bit obvious to say that you need to keep to deadlines, provide regular updates and make sure you are hitting all of the targets, but where the agency can really add further value is through creativity.”

Ah, creativity again.

That word keeps cropping up, for a good reason, because that is how agencies differentiate themselves. Stevens explains: “If an agency PRO is able to come to the table with a list of ideas – however silly they may be – it shows that they are not complacent, have taken time to stretch their PR imaginations and want to do something show-stopping for their clients. It’s not just about ticking the boxes, it’s about thinking outside of them too.”

What I want from an agency:

Alistair Smith, managing director, corporate communications, group at bank Barclays:

  • Being part of the team – the ability to build strong and trusted working relationships rapidly so that the pursuit of the common objectives can be as effective as possible.
  • Collaborative working – very much linked to the above, but reflected in not trying to compete with the in-house team. The worst I ever saw was an agency which, whenever asked for any work, always copied the CEO on their response.
  • Creative thinking – not just coming up with stunts, but more importantly solving problems and thinking in novel ways about my organisation’s comms challenges. One of the most impressive pieces of work I’ve seen from an agency in the last couple of years was a really rigorous analysis of a problem and some innovative and challenging proposed solutions.
  • Delivery – actually getting results.

Andy Smith, head of media relations and employee communications at bank Santander:

  • Talented people – rather than just good agency creds. I am a firm believer that all agencies have good people – and what you want are the good people. 
  • High employee retention – I want these talented people to be motivated and like working for the agency I am giving the work to – so employee retention rates are important.
  • People who run campaigns that win awards – independent verification of work is a good indicator of the ability to think and present ideas strategically.
  • The right skills for the brief – so as a financial service brand that puts a lot attention on the money/business media – I look for people that understand finance and the media we deal with.
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