The knowledge gained working for a PR agency is often described as a mile wide and an inch deep. By contrast, doing PR work in-house, in corporate communications or marcom position, tends to be the inverse: an inch wide and a mile deep.
If dynamics of clients and agencies are likened to relationships, it’s the effective integration of these two perspectives that often make a meaningful difference. To that end, there’s plenty of commentary on the characteristics of a good agency – and there are also benefits to being a good client.
Rich Young has been on both sides of the table and has the perspective of both vantage points. He’s my guest for this latest edition of the Off Script series of interviews.
1) You spent a long time at an agency and then when in-house. How would you characterize the difference in roles?
Cutting my teeth in the B2B high technology agency environment was so beneficial on many fronts.
The best way to describe the differences is that agency life affords you the on-the-job training aspect while doing your day-to-day. Whereas, being an in-house communications professional, you’re expected to simply “know” and “do.”
This can be especially challenging for more junior marketing professionals who start in the in-house environment and don’t have access to the skill sets and minds for inspiration as they would in an agency.
The frenetic pace (especially in the early 2000s during the dot-com boom) of the agency was all I ever knew. Even as a junior account executive, you were expected to “just keep up” (or ship out).
Perhaps it was not that draconian, but I learned early on how to manage clients, watch the news, use new tools, network at industry seminars and address last minute requests from vice-presidents. Essentially, I turned multitasking into an art form which has served me well during my in-house roles.
Exposure to so many aspects of client and partner relations – and general business motions, at an early point in my career, gave me the tools to build from as I moved into more senior roles in-house.
2) Having been on both sides of the table, what do you think corporate communications could do to get more out of their agencies?
Being a good client, in my opinion, is just as critical to ensuring the long-term success of the program as is being a good agency partner.
It’s my experience that in-house marketers and corporate communicators who manage agencies must adhere to certain rules if they want the outcomes to be successful.
Set realistic expectations for the project or contract. The best in-house marketers will then socialize those expectations with internal stakeholders to prevent any future questioning. Sadly, this approach isn’t the norm.
Be respectful of an agency’s time and be prepared. Let’s face it, time is money – literally – in the agency world. Good clients get more out of their agency by not demanding six account team members, including the VP, on a press release or display ad review call.
Also, when an agency team sends a draft of an eBook to review several hours prior to the call, strong in-house marketers review it, make notes, and come prepared. If you review it two minutes before the call, you are wasting your time, and the agency’s time, because you were ill-prepared.
When I worked in the agency world, it always seemed a bit taboo to mention other clients. You certainly do not want to say, “Sorry Client X, I can’t get that to you today, I’m working on a plan for Client Y.”
I kind of get that, right, and it is just common sense? But clients who get annoyed at the thought that their agency team is servicing other clients throughout the day are problematic.
Good clients see the immeasurable value in the fact their agency team is working on a range of clients, in diverse industries, with unique PR and digital programs. You will delight your agency if you take the time to hear how another client’s campaign was a success and how some of those programs and tactics might be applied to your current campaign.
It’s also important to know your agency team cannot read your mind. Or your CEO’s mind. They can’t – it’s impossible. So, if you haven’t told your agency team, how will they know?
Delightful agency teams ask good questions, want to always dig into your business and objectives, understand your sales and marketing challenges, and have a view into your product roadmap. But they, too, are respectful of your time, so be proactive with them and share. Always share.
And when you know of a new product coming to market next quarter, bring your agency team in the loop today. Doing so delights them and, more importantly, results in better preparation, more creative ideas, and spot-on messaging. Help them read your mind – by telling them.
Inspect what you expect. Clients don’t have time to micromanage an agency (and if it ever came to that, the relationship is already doomed). That said, if the client is not sufficiently engaged throughout the process of a project, by the time that first milestone comes around, there’s added potential for missed expectations. A client can delight an agency partner by offering timely and even unprompted feedback. This shows not only that you’re interested in the final product but interested in supporting your agency team along the way to ensure success.
Keeping these simple things in mind, your agency partner will go the extra mile for you each and every time. Guaranteed.
3) What can agencies do to get more out of corporate communications?
Over communicate – not just with the client contact or contacts but push and manage the contact or contact to then over-communicate with his or her superiors.
Plan appropriately and in close collaboration with the client. On a few occasions in my agency days, the PR plans we developed for certain clients served as a simple box-checking exercise.
The reason was that the client contact didn’t really care, just wanted “a document” to share with executives when requested. As you can imagine, it wasn’t pretty when questions were asked, the client contact didn’t have the answers and then a fire drill would ensue.
The point here is that agencies need to approach planning as one of the more integral phases of the relationship, hold the client contact accountable and ultimately get their buy-in and approval.
Even if you have one of those clients – who don’t care about the sausage being made and only wants the results – you still need a detailed plan and timeline to hold both your team and the client accountable.
Agencies who are realistic and transparent at the start of a campaign and upfront and solution oriented when things don’t go as planned in the middle of the campaign get the most out of me.
Lastly, in my world, nothing else matters than implementing marketing programs to generate top line revenue. Period.
Agencies need to understand that effort is awesome but results are more awesome. So, partnering and figuring out creative ways to get the most results that make my executives happy will keep that agency or agencies around me for quite some time.
4) In the digital age, do you think PR is becoming more or less important in the grander mix?
There are so many different definitions of PR these days and answers to “what does a PR professional do?”
I keep it pretty simple – it’s the PR professional’s job to create an “aware party” of the good or service. It’s then Marketing’s role to convert the “aware party” into an “interested party.” And, finally, Sales swoops in to ensure a “closed party.”
So back to the question, I think PR is integral to the grander mix. That function within the overall Marcom group is typically best at telling stories and how to frame them so that the company benefits in the all-important earned media area.
See these related interviews:
Network Latency and Jargon Free Corp Comm; Off Script #17: Wendy Zajack
Over-reliance on Marketing Automation Depreciates Leads; Off Script #16: Ted Seward
Marketing Principles Remain the Same; Off Script #15: Jeff Beale
5) What are some things that define the difference between success and failure in PR?
The biggest one is expectations of a) what you say you’ll do, b) what the client thinks is being done and c) the final outcome. Back to my previous point about planning, if the front-page Wall Street Journal piece is deemed a success in the agency’s mind but the client takes issue with some of the article’s positioning, that’s a problem. However, with proper expectation setting in this example, some of the blowback would’ve been prevented.
6) Fill in the blank:
- One company you with marketing you admire is: Farmer’s Only.com. I admire the simplicity and homespun feel of the spots. I’m no farmer, but I’d imagine these are pretty effective to the audience.
- Your favorite marketing campaign of all time is: Life cereal “Mikey likes it!” because it always reminded me and my brothers – they gave me anything and I would eat it! It really hit home at a young age…and now my two boys eat Life most mornings!
- One person you recommend following on Twitter is: @HistoryInPix.
- One publication or blog you read regularly is: MarketingProfs.
- If you weren’t doing what you do now you’d be: on a Caribbean beach or golf course.
* * *
- 4 Ways to Delight Your PR / Marketing Agency
- What Marketing Wants from Inside Sales
- Honest Questions about Content Marketing
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The Pressure for Clicks; Off Script #14: Erik Sherman, Freelance Journalist