The Agency-Client Maturity Matrix part 1

The relationship between a public relations agency and its clients is not always a good one. There must be a good ‘fit’ for a campaign to be successful. Ensuring the fit is right is as important for the agency as it is for the client. Neither party wants to be saddled in a disfunctional relationship, but get it right and the results can be fantastic – far beyond both sides’ expectations.

But what makes a good ‘fit’? How can you tell up-front, before either party has invested time and resources into the campaign? Why is it that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, the relationship just does not click? Why do some clients appear to just ‘get it’? Can an in-house team tell if the agency has what it takes?

I’ve been thinking about this recently and developed a concept called the Maturity Matrix. I’m borrowing from psychology and management writers such as Covey here, but I think both agencies and clients have a Maturity quotient. I don’t mean that some PR firms are facile and child-like (though undoubtedly several are), I mean there is a spectrum of sophistication through which PR firms and their clients must grow in order to become fully self-aware. This maturity isn’t a function of age per se, more a function of experience to a variety of approaches, requirements, philosophies, practices, technologies and cultures. Some agencies/clients may never evolve, others may progress rapidly, but it’s the matching in the level of Maturity which dictates the success of the relationship.

I believe there are three levels of Maturity through which both PR agencies (and de facto the teams within them) and clients must grow: Dependent, Independent and Interdependent. Only if both the agency and the client reach the most sophisticated state of Interdependence can a relationship truly work over a long term basis. Combinations of the other levels will not work optimally (though they may work to an extent).

Let me explain what I mean by looking at the Maturity levels for clients first.

Client Maturity levels

Dependent – a dependent client is one which relies completely and utterly on its agency for both strategic counsel and tactical implementation. Without the agency, the client would have no public relations campaign and no ability to deliver one itself.

A dependent client may well have a dedicated contact for the agency but it will predominantly be an administrative one. The resources with which the agency must work are limited. Internally public relations is a low priority and is only regarded as a ‘necessary evil’. The client has an agency because it’s expected to. It cannot quantify or understand what the benefits might be, so it doesn’t allocate time or resource to the campaign. Consequently the campaign cannot deliver, meaning the case for PR cannot be made, into an unending cycle.

The company may well be large but any coverage or media attention is reactive, based around ring-fenced hard events. There is no vision, personality or thought leadership communicated to any of the company’s audiences on the client’s instigation.

A dependent client may well be demanding, but doesn’t understand what to demand or why. Once it has the agency’s attention, it will ordinarily take direct advice, though on occasion refuse for no meaningful reason, other than taking advice all the time seems like a bad idea.

Independent – once a dependent client matures, it grows to an Independent level. This is the stage many companies implementing a campaign get to, but some do not pass beyond. An independent client knows what it wants, understands its own business clearly, understands public relations and predominantly wants an agency for implementation. An independent client wants an agency in the truest sense, as an agent of its own will.

An independent client may well place a lot of emphasis on PR both in terms of resources and internally in terms of senior-level buy-in. PR is important to the firm and can be measured against strategic business objectives. An independent client feels it could implement the campaign itself if it desired and if it had the resources. Some independent clients in fact take this step and bring in an in-house team, killing the agency relationship (that’s not to say every company which does it’s own PR is at this level of Maturity however).

An independent client has a mindset that the agency may have some valuable strategic input, but if so that’s a bonus. What’s mainly needed is for the agency to implement vigorously. The management style then tends to be highly involved, specific to a granular-level and results-focused. These results are the company’s just desserts and have almost been extracted from the agency and press.

An independent client will be demanding, and feel justified in being so.

Interdependent – beyond independence comes interdependence. The client company knows what it wants, understands public relations, understands the impact it can have on its business and so allocates the appropriate resources. Budgets and expectations are reasonable, achievable and measurable based on historic performance, industry norms and internal capability analysis.

What makes the interdependent client different from an independent one is its perspective on the relationship with its agency. An interdependent client understands that its success is inextricably linked to the success of the agency, and vice versa. Any results will be mutually achieved and mutually regarded as a success.

An interdependent client will take strategic counsel and also give strategic direction. It will both expect tactical implementation, as well as implementing itself. It empathizes with the agency, adjusting plans and expectations as the campaign develops. This does not mean the company is weak or changes its objectives, merely that it is aware of its own demands on the agency and respects the responsibilities it has to making the campaign work. An interdependent client does not draw strength from its ‘client’ position, since it has mutual respect for the agency. Both parties need each other and both focus on the campaign, rather than a client-supplier dynamic.

An interdependent client and its agency give each other constant performance feedback, with the intention of motivating, learning and improving, rather than chastising or berating. An interdependent client knows that it could implement the campaign itself, but understands that the results of doing so would not be equal to those achieved in combination with the agency.

An interdependent client is demanding but only as demanding as the ones it places on itself.

In the next part, I will look at the characteristics of Agency Maturity and how the combinations of each Maturity level impact the client-agency relationship.