No hard and fast research is available about the average length of
time clients stick with their PR agencies, but if there were it would
make fascinating reading. It is in the nature of the business that many
PR agencies regard accounts they have held for more than two years as
long-standing pieces of business.
Many clients appear to chop and change agencies with alarming
In times of financial hardship, or when the client needs someone to
blame, it is often the PR agency that gets it in the neck first.
Yet others persevere with and nurture partnerships through many years,
developing an understanding and close working relationship that gets
better with time. Shandwick Welbeck, for example, has worked on Elida
Faberge’s Pears brand for 40 years. It devised and launched the famous
Miss Pears competition and, four decades on, handled the PR around the
decision to bring it to a close. Now it is working on the repositioning
of Pears as a more stylish and contemporary brand.
ICI has been a Shandwick Welbeck client since the late 1960s, Lever
Brothers for 16 years, Nestle Rowntree for 12. But even to an agency
with such a strong client-retention record, the capricious nature of
client/agency relationships is all too apparent. ’The cynics in the
industry would say that once you are appointed you start working out
your notice,’ says Shandwick Welbeck chief executive officer Alison
So why is it that PR relationships often fall apart quickly? Sometimes
the reasons are fairly obvious. Changes at the client, such as the
appointment of a new marketing director, bring with them a new-broom
’If the company itself is going through change the marketing people may
feel there is a need for change in their agencies too,’ says Grant
Butler Coomber director Jill Coomber.
Sometimes, though, there are more fundamental problems. One bugbear of
many clients is agencies that over-promise at pitch stage then fail to
deliver when working on the business. Another concern often leading to a
breakdown in trust between client and agency is when senior agency staff
take part in a pitch but then rarely make themselves available to the
client once the business is sewn up.
Fortunately, since most clients simply will not tolerate it, this
practice is less prevalent than in the past. Similarly, few things
frustrate clients more than account teams that change totally in the
But sometimes it is the little faults that drive clients to
’The contradiction is that clients tend to hire you on creativity but
fire you on detail,’ says Ogilvy PR Worldwide president, Europe Paul
’Clients get most irritated by ostensibly little things, such as billing
and style details on materials.’
However, it would be wrong to imply that clients only terminate agency
relationships because of minor quibbles. One agency head, who wishes to
remain nameless, says there are several high-profile PR consultancies
that give the industry as a whole a bad name because of their attitude
’Some PR companies appear to believe that some clients have a two- or
three-year life in them,’ he says. ’They put their all into the business
in year one. In year two they coast and in the third year they put very
little resource into the relationship, knowing that their contract will
eventually be terminated but that they are making plenty of money for
little effort in the meantime.’
When agency Lawson Dodd was set up in 1992 it commissioned research from
The Research Business into client/agency relationships among marketing
directors, managing directors and product managers. It found that
clients became dissatisfied with their agencies if there was a lack of
contact/feedback, creative response and account activity. Failure to
deliver what was asked for, ignoring instructions and drifting from the
brief were also sources of intense irritation.
No shame in not bonding
These problems still annoy clients today. In some instances, however, it
is fair to say that the root cause of difficulties is a lack of
’chemistry’ between the client and agency teams. These things happen,
but there is no good reason why they should sound the death knell of a
relationship when they do.
’There is no shame in a team not bonding,’ says Lawson Dodd director
Belinda Lawson. ’There is shame in not recognising it and not doing
something about it.’
Stewart-Muir Communications managing director Louise Stewart-Muir argues
that relationships sometimes go awry because agencies are slack at
giving clients their full resources - for example, by failing to
brainstorm new ideas using consultants not directly working on the
business. ’I’ll bet there are tons of consultancies out there which
never really communicate outside their own team of people,’ she says.
’The client thinks he’s getting a marketing and PR melting pot of ideas,
but what he’s actually getting is an account team of three.’
Brodeur A Plus director Jonathan Simnett says that it is not sufficient
just to produce results - clients must understand what they mean in
relation to pre-agreed objectives. Of course, PR is not as
straightforward as advertising, and many relationships have come unstuck
in the past through inadequate evaluation. This is a hot issue in the
industry at the moment.
Wooliness can cause problems
’If the work is not evaluated and there is a lot of wooliness around the
edges, that leaves an awful lot of room for debate and unhappiness,’
says Fiona Joyce, managing director of the London office of Countrywide
Porter Novelli. Countrywide has had Danish Bacon as a client for 15
’The advantages of staying with an agency long term is that it can
become part of your brand-building team,’ says Robert Phillips, managing
director of Jackie Cooper PR. ’It’s a myth that you can’t keep it fresh
creatively and strategically. The more you work with an agency, the more
they get it strategically and the more they find it creatively - if the
agency’s any good.’
Tim Dyson, worldwide ceo of high-tech PR consultancy Text 100, says that
even in fast-moving industries such as IT, loyalty to an agency can be a
prudent strategy. Changing over in the middle of a complicated sales
cycle could damage business, he cautions. Text has had Microsoft as one
of its clients for 16 years - an eternity in the computing sector.
Whitbread Beer Company, meanwhile, has used trade PR specialist Bryant
Jackson for 21 years. Its brand portfolio may have changed in that time
but its faith in the consultancy has not wavered. However, this is
backed up by hard evidence of competence - Whitbread uses external
evaluation company CARMA to measure the agency’s effectiveness, says PR
manager Mandy Macleod.
Bryant Jackson managing director Jamie Bryant adds: ’Our client is very
professional and picks us up whenever we’re not delivering. If you’ve
got trust and openness and a determination to work together to make
things happen, you don’t need to change unless there is something
fundamentally wrong with the people.’
Those agencies that are able to offer far more than campaign
implementation - such as original ideas and consistently ouseful
consultancy on brand strategy - clearly have the best chance of forging
relationships that last. It is not surprising that this consultancy role
is the holy grail of all agencies - not only does it help to lock them
in with clients for longer, it also gives them a good argument to charge
Clients want commitment
Ultimately, if PR agencies are really to keep clients happy, they must
continually demonstrate how they are meeting mutually specified PR
And although brown-nosing is not a requirement, evidence that an agency
is eager to hold on to their business most certainly is. As long as this
is true - and current evidence suggests it will become the norm -
measuring the effectiveness of PR will become a necessity, not an
Not only does this show that the agency is serious about its craft, it
also shows that it is committed to getting value for the client’s
’Every time we do a client review we treat it as a new business pitch,’
says Biss Lancaster chairman Graham Lancaster. That’s the sort of
commitment clients want to hear about.
ROYAL MAIL AND THE QUENTIN BELL ORGANISATION
The Quentin Bell Organisation has been retained by Royal Mail’s
International Division since 1989 with a brief to promote letter-writing
and parcel-sending to recipients overseas. Two years ago the account was
put out to re-pitch as part of what the client calls its ’statutory
requirement’ to ensure it is obtaining maximum value from suppliers. QBO
not only held on to the business but expanded its remit to take in a
broader consumer PR role.
’We have found over the years that the learning curve is steep with new
agencies,’ says Royal Mail (International Division) head of advertising
and promotion John Wilcox. ’There’s the benefit of avoiding the six- or
seven-month run-in with a new agency.’
But Wilcox stresses that the client/agency relationship is ’not a cosy
affair’. There is, he says, lots of constructive criticism about QBO’s
performance. As well as the statutory review process, there are
six-monthly appraisals of the contract, for which client and agency
staff fill in questionnaires on the progress of the account.
On several occasions QBO personnel have been seconded to the Royal Mail
for up to six months. Wilcox believes this has strengthened agency
understanding of the business. He also says that as the agency has been
in place for almost a decade it is well known by many marketers at the
Royal Mail and has increased the standing of PR at the organisation.
QBO is often asked to work closely with Royal Mail’s other retained
agencies, among them Bates Dorland, Grey Integrated, Ogilvy One and IMP.
Recent campaigns involving QBO have included promoting school exchanges,
town twinning and gap years of travel between school and higher
education as a way of stimulating international correspondence.
QBO managing director Trevor Morris argues that sticking with an agency
saves a client time and money, as well as ensuring consistency. He says:
’I understand that with public money there is a kind of imperative for a
re-pitch. But if a marketing director is doing a good job you don’t
suddenly say ’we must get a lot of other marketing directors in and
However, Wilcox thinks a review process keeps an agency on its toes.
TEN TIPS FOR PR SUCCESS
1 Always evaluate the agency’s performance against pre-agreed
objectives.2 Make sure the agency keeps you sufficiently updated about
3 Aim for a balance between stability and new thinking - rapid staff
turnover on an account team is a bad thing but so too is no new blood
4 Be as open and honest as possible with your agency.
5 Regular performance reviews keep agencies on their toes.
6 Be constructive with any criticism - giving an agency the chance to
put something right is often better than the hassle of appointing a
7 Remember that PR works best when you take a long-term view - it takes
time to change the attitudes of the media and other opinion-formers.
So give an agency a fair crack of the whip.
8 When hiring, satisfy yourself that the agency is not making promises
it is unable to deliver.
9 Try to treat agencies as an extension of your in-house marketing team.
10 Hold regular face-to-face meetings and brief the agency fully, giving
it access to as much data and as many people in your organisation as
3M AND HERALD COMMUNICATIONS
Herald Communications was called Mathieu Thomas when it began working
for 3M 16 years ago. Back then its job was to promote Scotch video tapes
and their lifetime guarantee.
Unfortunately, that guarantee wasn’t extended to a lifetime’s
manufacturing of the product. Two years ago 3M decided to pull out of
the blank video cassette market on a worldwide basis.
But Herald has hardly suffered. Through word of mouth recommendation it
has built up its relationship with 3M so that it now works for four of
its divisions: consumer stationery, office stationery, Scotch audio and
video accessories and visual systems, which includes such products as
’It’s a much better relationship when you have an agency that isn’t
asking you the same questions all the time,’ says 3M retail stationery
products marketing executive Kate Gladwin. She goes on to describe
Dominique Sykes, the Herald director who has headed the account for the
past six years, as a ’fountain of knowledge’ about 3M products.
Gladwin says she is impressed by the agency’s ’innovative ways’ of
presenting product to the media and the public and applauds its
willingness to go far beyond ’bunging out press releases’. The fact that
Herald works for other 3M divisions is also an advantage, she claims. As
her colleagues sit within 50 metres of her in 3M’s Bracknell offices, it
means that whenever a member of the Herald account team comes in to see
one of them they will usually pop over to see Gladwin as well - leading
to more face-to-face client/agency contact than would otherwise be the
But despite the longevity of the relationship, 3M still keeps close tabs
on the agency’s performance. It is a requirement of 3M’s purchasing
department that the account is analysed and evaluated every six
Herald’s recent work for 3M has included supporting the launch of Scotch
Tape Strips - sticky tape dispensed in pre-cut 5cm strips - and
promoting established brands such as Post-It Notes.
Sykes (standing) and Gladwin: despite the longevity and cordiality of
the relationship, 3M still evaluates Herald’s performance every six
COLGATE-PALMOLIVE AND COHN & WOLFE
Colgate-Palmolive has been a client of Cohn & Wolfe virtually from the
day the agency was formed nine years ago.
’At the start, Colgate was very traditional in its thinking and not a
great believer in PR,’ says Cohn & Wolfe managing director Martin
’But over the years that we’ve worked together they’ve become the most
adventurous marketers I’ve come across. They allow us to do all sorts of
weird and wonderful things.’ Linda Wallace, head of communications at
Colgate-Palmolive UK, thinks the relationship has been successful
because she has ’managed expectations’ of what PR can and cannot deliver
for Colgate’s brands. In this way, trust has developed to the extent
that Colgate has a relationship with the agency akin to those that fmcg
companies typically have with their ad agencies. Many client/agency
relationships disintegrate, feels Wallace, because clients give
unrealistic briefs to their PR consultancies.
’The key is trust and teamwork,’ says Wallace. ’I regard Cohn & Wolfe as
an extension of the Colgate team and they are treated accordingly.’
She adds that Cohn & Wolfe was always able to produce innovative
solutions but Colgate was not ready to listen at first. In recent years,
however, Colgate has embraced Cohn & Wolfe’s recommendations
wholeheartedly, including the Soft & Gentle sponsorship of a tour by pop
singer Louise, Colgate Platinum’s sponsorship of the Elite Model look
competition and a cause-related campaign for Total toothpaste.
In the early days, Thomas recalls, Cohn & Wolfe simply responded to
briefs that were put out by the client. Now there is much more
brainstorming and information-sharing, he says.
’The account has gone through three or four different account directors,
all of whom have done a good job,’ says Thomas. ’New people have come in
and quickly made their mark. And Colgate has thrived on it.’