Some time ago I did a bit on the Perfect Client – based, unusually for me, on some research findings. Mostly my own research, clearly. Recently – thanks PRWeek – there was a bit of a kerfuffle around a prospective client paying for the ideas presented in a pitch by the losing agencies. (Personally, I don’t see what was strange about this – I don’t like doing it, but I’d say I’ve been paying (something) for pitches for the last decade. Why should any professional give of his/her services for free?)
Anyway, out there in the internet, the discussion raged and I came across this. It’s a nine-point plan for a client approaching an agency, aimed at making the agency selection/pitch process easier. It’s presented in a letter from a client to one of a shortlist of agencies that he’s selected. It’s great, and it’s fair – but what it fails to take into account is the nature of the agency. So, in the spirit of balance, I composed a reply.
I reproduce both texts here – but for the short of time, I’ll summarise the conclusions. Just as there isn’t the perfect client, there isn’t the perfect agency either. Agencies moan about the lack of knowledge of the client (the in-house practitioner) and the in-house practitioner moans about the agency’s lack of commitment, of creativity, of get-up-and-go.
Both have a point. The best way to forge a relationship is to make it commercial – pay for the pitch, pay for the results. Personal relationships come later. You don’t (have to) have a personal relationship with your lawyer, accountant, banker or architect – why with your PR provider?
The question we should be concerning ourselves with is not about paying for pitches, but about paying for – and by – results. No more retainers, people – payment by results. Incidentally, perhaps if you pay for the ideas in a pitch, you should be paying on a sliding scale. How much value – expressed in terms of cold, hard cash – did that idea deliver? And what percentage of that are you prepared to give to the agency? Oooh – it’s a big fat debate waiting to happen.
In the meantime – here’s the client’s letter and the response I imagined from Obfuscate, Bulshitt and Fluff:
I’m the PR manager of Les Chapelles Holidays, and I’m looking for a new PR agency. I’ve drawn up a shortlist of four agencies and you’re company is one of them. As such, I’d like to meet. This is what I’d like to propose:
1. I’ll come to you if that’s OK? I’d like to see your offices.
2. I’m only planning on meeting each agency once in the selection process, but would like a three hour meeting in the afternoon (the reasons for which will become clear a little later).
3. I’m presuming you’ll do your research, so you’ll be able find out lots about our business from our website, coverage search, social media analysis, etc etc. If you have any specific questions, however, feel free to drop me a line.
4. I’m not giving you a brief, because I’m not asking you to pitch me creative ideas and a communications strategy. I’m a forward-thinking guy, and (a) don’t believe that you’ll be able to get under our skin enough in the next fortnight to develop a decent strategy or associated tactics and (b) I respect that your strategic nouse and creativity are valuable, and I should really be paying for them.
5. When I come in, I’d like to meet the team of people that you would foresee working on the account. I think you’ll be able to assess who those people might be from your research on our business, and our budget is currently about £10k a month, so I reckon I’ll be meeting four or five people (and if there’s more than one director in the room, I’ll smell a rat). It’d be great if each of them could give me a five-minute precis of their experience, role and the piece of work of which they’re most proud. I’d also like to know their favourite band and cocktail of choice.
6. I’d like you to present comprehensive agency credentials. Agency history, client base, key areas of expertise and anything else you feel would be relevant. I’d also like to see three case studies of work you’ve done for clients that you think are relevant to our business area. I’d expect these to include the business challenge, strategy you developed, tactics you implemented and the results generated. I’d also like the people in the room to have worked on the case studies, because I might have questions.
7. I’m going to test you guys out with an exercise that will take about an hour. It’ll be challenging but fun, and will give me the chance to see how you guys work together (and with me).
8. I’d like to take contact details for three client references away with me.
9. After we’ve had the meeting, can we go to the pub for an hour or so? I’m buying.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Thanks so much for your letter – it is genuinely refreshing to come across such honesty in this vale of tears that we call spin. And as we’re being honest, it’s actually refreshing to come across such naïve honesty in this vale of etc etc etc.
We’re delighted that you’ve chosen Obfuscate, Bulshitt and Fluff to be your incumbent agency. (Hey – I know you didn’t say that, but we’re being honest, and – face it – we’re never going to read anything you send us properly and, even if we do, we’re not going to understand any of it.) I think it would be a good idea to meet up, and here’s my honest (you started it) response to your ten points. (See what I mean?)
1) By all means come to our offices. You’ll see reception, the nice white corridor lined with random coverage, and our super spangly boardroom. You won’t see the rickety stairs and poky offices, crammed with old mismatched desks and young mismatched execs, threadbare of carpet, limited of storage space and littered with the detritus of product samples past. Why would we show you that?
2) Three hour meeting in the afternoon? No worries. Although it’ll mean that some of the team don’t get down the pub at lunchtime, which might make them a little edgy.
3) You’re presuming we’ll do our research – well, I guess we’ll do a bit, thanks for the tips about the website and the coverage search. A lot of our staff spend a lot of time Twittering and getting all Facebooked up, so I’m sure they’ll be able to do some of that social media stuff as well. But, as you’d expect, we’ll also leave some glaring gaps in our knowledge, so that one of our more senior people can regale you with irrelevant stuff that is almost embarrassing in its simplicity, in an earnest and patronising way. You’ll enjoy that.
4) No brief? Excellent. That’ll save some time and effort and trips to the Nurofen cupboard by those of our staff – most of them, actually – who get a bit confused by the concept of ‘strategy’. Mind you – no problem with tactics, if you want a few. Nothing new under the sun, eh? Oh – and don’t worry about the question of paying. As George Bernard Shaw said to Oscar Wilde (probably) “You will, dear boy, you will”.
5) Ah – that old chestnut. “The team that will be working on the account.” Yes – we can do that, but bear in mind that staff turnover’s pretty high, clients come and go, first impressions aren’t always right – I think we both know that the team will change regularly. You’re right, we’ll field a team of four or five – but, again, I think we both recognise that your day-to-day will be the small one at the end of the table. Like Russian dolls, d’you see? We’ve got lots of directors by the way – easier to promote than to increase salaries, you know how it is – but, if it makes you feel better, we’ll pretend that none of us have titles. A five-minute précis of their experience? We’ll start making those up right now. Favourite band and cocktail of choice? Well – er – OK. You’re the boss.
6) Cool – agency creds. We usually find that most prospects lose the will to live during this bit – you’d be amazed how difficult it is to stab yourself to death with a ballpoint pen, but it doesn’t stop them trying – but you seem to want the whole nine yards! Bless.Let me personally guarantee you that by the time we’ve finished, the last thing you’ll want to do is ask questions.
7) Oh, goody. An exercise. Listen Mark – between you and me – you and I both know that this is a mistake. Like those tabletop crisis management exercises. All you’re going to learn from this is how it could be done better next time. What you’re not going to learn is how we work together or work with our clients. But – hey – you’re the boss.
8) Three client references? No problemo. We’ve got several in-house PR people wrapped round our little fingers (via a combination of nice lunches, hospitality, celebrity introductions, Christmas presents and their own astounding lack of knowledge and experience) – they’d be delighted to talk to you.
9) And the pub. What a splendid idea. Obviously, as we leave, we’ll be joined by another member of staff who ‘was just dying to meet you’. It won’t be clear where she fits in, but who cares, as her brief will be to hang on your every word and do a little light eyelash batting. Relax – you’ll enjoy it! And just in case you’re questioning our policy on equal opportunities, if your name happened to be ‘Marcia’, we’d find a member of staff to do a little tight t-shirt flexing.
10) Oh – yeah. There isn’t a number 10. Sorry.
Hope all this works for you – oh, and don’t worry about the whole ‘who’s buying at the pub issue’ – we charge all our clients a monthly ‘contribution’. This ostensibly pays for our office running costs, but, in reality, is more of a ‘slush fund’. Have a drink on them – it’ll be you soon!
All the best