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Truths, Challenges and Lessons: Insights from the Client Side of Life

I tried to tell the agency’s SVP about the issues several of us had with the lead account executive. She crafted strategies that didn’t align with our business, constructed poorly written materials and had deadline challenges. The SVP just wouldn’t listen to the feedback. Instead, she made excuses for the account executive and literally refused to take any meaningful action. The SVP’s inaction led to an even bigger loss for the account executive, the SVP and the agency. The agency relationship was terminated.

Most of my PR agency relationships have been mutually beneficial, tremendously helpful and some of the best relationships I have ever had. I have had the wonderful privilege of working with some of the most talented people in the PR profession. In fact, I have learned some invaluable lessons from my countless agency relationships over the years. I’d like to share a few of those lessons with you:

The Truth: The client needs to know for a fact you are putting your best foot forward. This means polished, thoughtful strategies, creative pitches, fresh ideas and well-written materials. Have you tried your client’s products and services? Have you visited their stores, stayed in their hotels, tasted their food? If you’re not digging into the brand with a hands-on approach, how can you live, breathe and build strategies for my brand? It always blew my mind when I worked with account executives who crafted strategies from a distance. When I pressed them, what I discovered was they knew very little about my company’s products and services. The Lesson: The best PR people in the business embrace all there is to know about their client’s brand.

The Truth: Lying by omission is still lying. It is a treasure to manage PR strategies for a popular, lucrative brand. A smart agency protects that relationship, nurtures it and doesn’t let anything block the opportunity to build a lasting, trusting relationship with that client. While an agency can and usually will leverage a popular brand to secure new business, the danger is the temptation to go after any and all business—including business that potentially conflicts with the non-compete agreement. On several occasions, I accidently found out that agencies we had exclusive relationships with were doing business with competing interests. When confronted, these agencies pretended they didn’t realize there were conflicts and then offered to build a fire wall. The Lesson: Your sins will find you out. You will lose the business and your credibility.

The Truth: I want the best, most talented people on my account. Not perfect people but smart people who know what they’re doing—people I can learn from and share insights with about the business. It is always helpful to have various levels of experience working on an account. The team members learn from each other and help get the work done using their various levels of expertise. However, too many times, I had to rewrite materials, redo strategies and scrap plans because the junior people on the account managed the work without oversight. This approach is opposite to the Cookerly PR model, which is to have a visible, experienced, hands-on senior leader preside over every account. Lesson: The professional leading the account should always walk alongside the account executive, checking his work before it is shared with the client. It is how the juniors build their skills, learn from mistakes and mature as PR people.

The Truth: It is helpful to hear from the agency’s senior leaders periodically—before there is a problem. Unfortunately, here’s what typically happened more often than not: The CEO and other senior leaders of the agency were hands on to secure the business. They were all present for the agency pitch. After they landed the account, they all scattered. I usually didn’t see senior leaders again until there was an issue.Thankfully, this scenario was not always the case. Some agencies got it right. They viewed periodic meetings as mutually valuable. For the agencies, keeping in touch was an opportunity to check in, introduce new agency competencies and learn about any upcoming initiatives. For me, conducting an annual agency review was a pulse check for us all. Some agency senior leaders attended these meetings, some didn’t. The Lesson: If you show up only when there is an issue, usually it is already too late.

The Truth: All clients have a budget. No matter how big or popular the brand, the client always has spending limits beyond agency fees or a retainer. Always exercise prudence when managing expenses on behalf of your client. While the value of the agency relationship is the portfolio of talents, skills and management strategies, it is also important for the agency to manage all aspects of the account with care so that a small issue doesn’t become a big one. It is expected for agencies to incur expenses on behalf of the client and bill them accordingly. However, the appearance of lavish spending on unnecessary expenses such as alcohol, expensive restaurants and excessive travel expenses—all give the impression you are not watching your client’s bottom line. The Lesson: All clients have a bottom line. Don’t let careless spending give you a bad reputation. It is too small of an issue to turn into a big one.

The Truth: I am thankful most of my agency relationships were highly beneficial and led to countless successful efforts for the business. Most agencies were willing to go above and beyond to stay on top of my rapidly changing business needs.

Final Lesson: Your attention to the clients’ evolving needs and willingness to go above and beyond while managing with integrity, will help build long-lasting relationships that pay off long-term. Whether agency or client, we keep the foundation of our profession rock solid by operating with ethical business principles, a commitment to professional development, treating people with respect and an unending focus on excellence.


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