Chris Alder was flung in at the deep end. A week before he took up
his new job as director of corporate communications with business
software company SAP, he was told its public relations agency had
decided to move on.
’I had to start casting around for a PR agency for an employer I wasn’t
yet working for,’ he says. ’The first step is to ask yourself what you
want an agency to do for you. This may seem obvious but you would be
amazed how many people don’t ask themselves that.’
For companies contemplating taking on a PR agency for the first time,
there may be a prior question: Do I need an agency? ’Free publicity’ is
a fallacy; PR is not cheap. It involves costs and management time on top
of agency fees. It should not be an impulse purchase, but one that will
meet corporate objectives.
In SAP’s case there was a clear role for PR services. But before Alder
began the search, he went through a list of questions:
Was the agency to be ’my arms and legs’ and take on the responsibilities
of an in-house press office? Alder’s answer was ’Yes’.
Would it be required to write press releases and generate media
Should the agency provide high-level strategic counselling and
Should it be a young, bright and brash agency or one which would help
project a more statesmanlike corporate personality? The latter.
Would the activity have the support of top management? Yes.
There were two final, vital questions: How much work would be
What was the budget?
Next, it was a matter of preparing a brief and going through directories
and other sources to put together and approach an initial list of about
ten agencies that were potentially qualified. Further research and
evaluation whittled this down to four.
’By the time you get to the pitch stage, there should be little doubt
that the short-listed agencies can do the job,’ Alder says. ’At this
point it becomes 90% human relationships; whether you can work
comfortably with these people.’
This is a near-textbook example of how to select a PR agency. But Alder
had the benefit, through background and industry contacts, of knowing
the PR agency scene. For companies without such experience, it can be a
daunting task to find the best fit from among some 1500 agencies in the
The industry is highly fragmented. In size, agencies range from those
with a staff of one or two to multinational groups employing thousands
across the world. Most have particular areas of experience and
expertise, and some specialise in such sectors as finance, technology
There are a number of starting points. The PR universe can be reviewed
through the directories Contact (0171 413 4086) and Hollis UK Press and
Public Relations Annual (0181 977 7711).
There are the professional bodies, the Public Relations Consultants
Association (0171 233 6026) and the Institute of Public Relations (0171
The former represents some 160 agencies, while the latter has individual
memberships of nearly 6000 PR professionals .
The PRCA yearbook profiles each member agency and its PReview database
service offers to match agencies against criteria supplied by client
The IPR also offers both general advice and its computerised Matchmaker
Also useful are word-of-mouth recommendations from counterparts in other
companies and media contacts. It is still a prime way for clients to
seek out agencies.
Conventionally, the final decision is made after short-listed agencies
have given a pitch. According to James Thelluson, chairman of the Cohn &
Wolfe agency, some new clients now eschew the set-piece presentation in
favour of a series of less formal meetings and discussions, both at the
company and the agency.
Keith Marsden, head of marketing in Coopers & Lybrand’s corporate
finance division, agrees: ’In a pitch situation, agencies are asked to
jump through hoops on the basis of poor information.’ His search for an
agency started with a list of a dozen, which he subsequently reduced to
’I had as many as 40 meetings with these, at our offices and at theirs,’
he says. ’You have to decide who has the culture and values you
Personal compatibility is often the deciding factor once other criteria
have been satisfied. According to Ken Clayton, managing director of
Michael Rines Communications: ’There has to be mutual respect between
client and the agency team. Business is tough enough without having to
work with people you don’t like. So prospective clients should always
stipulate that in the pitch they should meet the people they will be
A recent appointment was that of Jane Howard PR by Carphone Warehouse,
found through the PRCA. ’It was the first time I have had to look for a
new agency,’ says Ruth Greenwood, Carphone’s marketing manager. ’We are
a small company that has grown quickly, and it was important that we
were matched with a similar agency. With Jane Howard we have strategic
input on a day-to-day level.’
Howard comments: ’One of the considerations for the client is a big
agency versus a small one. With a large agency there is the security of
a known name and add-ons such as a European network. With smaller ones
you get the agency’s top people, with hands-on director
A final word of caution from Alder: ’Beware of agencies that want to hit
the ground running with lots of activity. The agency should want to
spend time with your management, reading itself into your business, and
finding out exactly what it is you want them to do.’