Ten common mistakes in selecting a PR agency

Selecting a PR agency is difficult. It’s a high-involvement, low frequency purchase with multiple decision-makers and influencers. The budget can represent a significant proportion of the marketing spend, it’s a high profile appointment and getting it wrong can set the campaign back by months.

Given these dynamics it’s little wonder that the process often goes awry and the wrong agency is selected. Here are a few of the most common mistakes:

1. The review is unsanctioned – it’s surprising how many PR managers embark on an agency selection process without getting necessary sign off for the budget internally and without the buy-in of the management team. Clear the path for the new firm to come on board and the relationship will have a solid foundation. Strong agencies won’t pitch unless there is a clear remit, approved budget and senior team buy-in.

2. There is no selection process – regardless of your timeframe, you must have a selection process. This could be as simple as issuing a request for information (RFI), meeting a few agencies, asking three to pitch and making your choice. Develop a timeline, and stick to it. Most selection processes take between 6-12 weeks from start to finish. If the next steps are vague, the agencies won’t know how to respond or what you are looking for. This will either result in an underwhelming pitch or overkill. Having a clear process shows you are a serious buyer and will make a good client.

3. The selection is too involved – time is money for agencies. All agencies will be willing to invest their time in winning your business. They’ll want to show willing and to demonstrate their understanding. But don’t abuse that dynamic or you’ll lose them. The selection process is there to help you decide which agency is the best for your specific campaign, and for the agency to decide if it can successfully implement that campaign. Don’t turn it into a hoop jump. Common examples here include getting agencies to write numerous ‘dummy’ case studies, press releases and PR plans within condensed timeframes. Sure, it shows responsiveness, but good firms don’t need to repeatedly prove themselves, so be careful not to put them off.

4. The pitch is a crapshoot – don’t ask more than four, or at a maximum five agencies to personally present to your team. If you feel you need more, then you should commit additional time to your shortlist process and decide exactly what’s important to you. The reality is that your shortlisted agencies should all have the credentials to do the job, so you’re mainly looking for proof of that and cultural fit during the pitch. Again, if there are ten agencies all pitching, bear in mind that those firms will look at the odds and decide how much effort to put into the pitch. Some will withdraw based on that analysis, perhaps even your front runner. And you don’t want your senior team tied up in numerous, tepid pitches since you’ve spread the net too wide.

5. The brief is too brief – don’t underestimate how much time it will take to brief the shortlisted agencies. You’ll need at least one face to face meeting with each firm, and most of those firms will also ask to speak to the other company executives. Assume each will come back with a raft of questions, some quite involved. You’ve asked the agencies to devote time to understanding your business, and you need to reciprocate. A written brief is a must. Make sure this includes sufficient detail – not just a repaste of the web site. Disorganized companies have a one page brief and answer all requests for further info with a rather offhand ‘you have all you need’ or ‘we expect you to find out’. Again, this sends the wrong signal. The selection is the first step in getting your new firm up to speed and building a strong relationship with them – start on the right foot.

6. The pitch is too brief – allow at least an hour and a half for agencies to pitch. One hour for them to present, and half an hour for the Q&A. Trying to get it shorter than this doesn’t do you or the agency justice. Most pitches actually run to two hours, so provide run-over time in the schedule, particularly if you don’t want your agencies meeting in reception (which I quite like but others don’t).

7. The pitch is a spectacle – it’s best to limit the number of people from either side to five. I’ve been in pitches with 12 on the selection panel. This isn’t a pitch it’s a funfair sideshow. You can’t get consensus from a large selection group, and the dynamics of the session tend to be both intimidating for the PR agency, and not conducive to questions from the panel. The agencies will walk in, do their stuff and walk out with little feedback or interaction. Just introducing all the panel will take quarter of an hour. Having a large team client side also encourages the agencies to come mob-handed which means little airtime for each team member.

8. The pitch isn’t the pitch – it’s important to get the key decision makers in the room for the pitch, and the key agency team members to present. There’s no point in having the agencies present on the understanding that a decision will be made, only to find the CEO would like to meet the agencies after all, and so another round evolves. Agencies often fly team members in for international pitches, so these kinks mean the CEO might not get to meet them.

9. The pitch wasn’t a pitch – during some selection processes it becomes clear that the decision has been made and that the rest is just formality and compliance. Sure there will be faves and stronger candidates in the field, but if the decision really has been made, cut the charade and spare the agencies the work. This will save you time and protect your reputation – firms talk to each other and don’t like being cannon fodder.

10. The decision is postponed indefinitely – once all the firms have presented their plans, make sure you have pre-booked a time to bring the selection panel together to make a decision. You will learn nothing new, barring reference-checks from this point. Many selections get blocked here and the process can lose momentum. You may also lose the team which the agencies put forward since they won’t be on the bench for long. Move fast to lock down contracts with the winner and then inform the other firms. Do this live via the phone rather than email or voicemail. The agencies will all want feedback so they can improve and learn – and taking time to reward them with this will maintain a good relationship. You want that, just in case you backed the wrong horse.