One of the kindest things a client can do for her agency is to act as a reference. That five minute call helps secure the agency business and is far more compelling than anything the firm can say about itself (we’re all endlessly gifted and wondrously talented, as you know). As long as the agency has the capacity to take on the new campaign, the client loses nothing and gains loyalty from their PR team. On the whole, a bigger PR firm is more stable and can offer more services, so it makes commercial sense too.
But of course, you can’t ask your client to act as a reference all the time. These are busy people. We guard their time more jealously than our own. Understandably you don’t want to keep drawing on goodwill – it’s a stock which needs to be replenished.
And you need a range of references – matching the size of the prospect company, the international remit, the industry they’re in, the type of campaign and the target media. There’s no point offering a domestic US consumer start-up reference to a global enterprise software public company. They’re just looking for different things.
So client references, regardless of campaign performance, are a precious thing. Asking for an agency’s references is a big deal. It needs to come at the end of the agency selection process, not up front. It’s ‘meet the parents’ not ‘what’s your number?’
I say this since some PR buyers ask for references early the selection process, not as confirmation that what they think is true, actually is. It should be a final, just-to-make-sure item, not a wonder-if-they’re-any-good checkbox. It’s worth bearing in mind, since an experienced PR pro will know the value of references, and to ask too early can send the wrong signal.
Besides, it’s not as if you’ll be given bad references by the agency, just like you won’t get to meet mad Uncle Cyrus when you visit future in-laws.