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Linking Arms for Mutual Success

Posted: March 31, 2015, 3:01 p.m.
by Sarah Parker.

Carefully considering prospective clients is critical for the long-term success of any PR agency. When an agency is diligent in assessing clients, it can form lasting, mutually beneficial relationships that produce extraordinary results. But sometimes that doesn’t happen, and the agency is left investing time, energy and resources in an unfruitful relationship.

So what does it take to develop a truly great PR agency/client relationship? The most successful PR/agency relationships come from a thorough understanding of client needs, goals and expectations, and a spirit of partnership and trust. When clients have clearly defined expectations and the client trusts the agency to do what it takes to meet those goals, PR agencies have the permission and freedom to exceed expectations.

Thorough understanding of client needs, goals and expectations

one of London's public relations firms May 9, 2008

PR agencies exist to help their clients achieve specific business goals. Before committing to work with a client, it’s important for agencies to evaluate client needs and expectations to determine if their capabilities and expertise are sufficient to accomplish objectives.

Jerry Olszewski, senior partner and chief client officer at Ketchum, said that before agreeing to work with a client, senior leaders ask, “Can we help the client achieve the business success that they expect from hiring us?”

To determine this, Olszewski said Ketchum approaches prospective clients from the outside in.

“We start our thinking in the client’s world — in their position — and ask what is the need or opportunity that the client has,” Olszewski said. “We immerse ourselves in that to understand their business, and understand what success looks like for them.”

Olszewski then said that Ketchum evaluates how well its capabilities align with the needs of the client by assessing the agency’s “deep, vertical expertise” in that sector. Olszewski said they want to be sure they have specific and extensive expertise, so they can confidently go to the client and say “we can do this, we got this.”

“When a client states their business need or problem, we need to be able to go deeply into their business,” Olszewski said. “Clients expect that of us; they expect that we are going to come with deep expertise, not as a generalist.”

Above everything, Olszewski said focusing on achieving client business goals is the most important ingredient to a fruitful agency/client relationship.

“We stay focused on the client’s business success and keep that as the top priority. It’s not about Ketchum winning awards; it’s about the client being successful in their business. That’s why it’s essential that success is defined and measurable, and that we agree with each other on those metrics,” Olszewski said.

“When you have that [focus] right, it’s a powerful thing because it keeps everyone aligned. It ensures that we’re spending time and money on the things we have all agreed matter most,” Olszewski said. “When [expectations] are the least bit fuzzy at the beginning, we end up being inefficient and no one can afford that.”

Olszewski added that when agencies and their clients have determined specific, reasonable business goals, it allows firms to work within that framework and aim to exceed those expectations.

Kristin Golliher, owner and CEO of WildRock Public Relations and Marketing, said that when considering new business opportunities it’s important to only take on clients whose business goals they can reasonably achieve. She acknowledged that it’s really hard to say no to clients, but doing so gives firms the flexibility and availability to work with clients that make sense.

“If they aren’t a good fit and don’t align [with our values], it’s going to be more expensive in the long run,” Golliher said. “If they aren’t putting a priority on their needs, they aren’t going to put a priority on us.”

Greg Matusky, president of Gregory FCA, emphasized the importance of making sure a client makes sense financially. To ensure his agency only engages in smart relationships, the firm has a very specific system in place.

“Internally, we have an on-boarding committee, and that committee is by a vote. It includes the ownership, whoever is working on the account, and you have to fill out an on-boarding form for the account, which identifies the risk profile of the client, who the client is what their problem is, what the business is, what the credit ranking is, their ability to pay, their expectations and the team that will be working with them,” Matusky said.

Matusky highlighted the risk that can come in a client/agency relationship, and how important it is to manage that risk by knowing going in that the client is fully committed and able to contribute the time and resources necessary.

“We want clients to make sense financially. If they can’t pay and you do that work, you’re at a disadvantage,” Matusky said. “Some clients are abusive, and they will wear down the staff and then the staff becomes demoralized.”

Partnership and trust

16845971715_23a88da268_oWhen agencies and clients establish clear and measurable goals, both parties are able to commit and invest in a lasting partnership. Agencies don’t want to be in transactional relationships with their clients. Ideally, they should work together to help one another succeed.

Golliher said being open to collaboration is a key characteristic she looks for in prospective clients.

“Collaboration is important. We don’t want clients to just want to work in a vacuum and don’t want to work with our team or make introductions with their team,” Golliher said. “We want to work together, and link arms for mutual success, so if they are holding information back and not collaborating, it makes things difficult.”

Golliher said another major characteristic of a successful relationship is honest communication, and “being able to be human.”

“That means that they are going to have good days and bad days, and we are too — it means knowing that everyone has the best of intentions all the time,” Golliher said. “They know that we have their best interests at heart and we know they have our best interests at heart.”

Matusky described a particularly strong client relationship Gregory FCA has with a one-year-old major software company based in Israel. They had recently fired their old firm, so during the initial courting process, Matusky said they had concerns about the client’s expectations and aggressive vetting process. In spite of those concerns, the client ended up being a great partner with a great story to tell and realistic expectations.

“[The client is] affirmative and positive to work with; they want us to do good, and they work closely with us toward their goals. They are incredibly responsive — they are in Israel, but if we need something, they are there and they respond quickly . . . They are respectful to the process and realistic in expectations,” Matusky said.

For Olszewski, part of the “spirit of partnership” is working with clients who will give candid feedback and know that feedback is welcome — whether good, critical or neutral.

“We want to be great at fearless listening. We ask clients often and in various ways to tell us how they think we’re doing,” Olszewski said. “Of course we want to know if we’re meeting expectations initially, but we’re really pushing to exceed expectations. We want candid feedback about that so we can deliver an outstanding experience.”

Olszewski highlighted Ketchum’s relationship with Wendy’s as just one example of a great, enduring client relationship. The two companies have been partners for more than 20 years — one of the 31 partnerships Ketchum has had lasting more than 10 years — and during that time, Olszewski said Wendy’s and Ketchum have reinvented their communications strategy multiple times.

“Great storytelling remains at the core, but compared to 20+ years ago, just look at the amazing differences in terms of engaging the consumer with shareable, digital content across so many channels — earned, paid, shared and owned. To succeed together for so many years means we’re constantly evolving what we do and how we do it,” Olszewski said.

“You can see a great example in the Wendy’s Pretzel Bacon Cheeseburger Love Songs launch. Consumers tweeted to express their love for this amazing sandwich, and many were then put to music by Nick Lachey and featured on YouTube. Later in the campaign, Boys II Men recorded a soul-stirring ballad from another wave of tweets. Best of all — it was a sales success for Wendy’s and a cool proof point for the power of integrated marketing,” Olszewski said.

“The evolution of a relationship like that [comes] over decades of time together. People have changed on both sides, the expectations have changed, and the environment in which they sell their product has changed,” Olszewski said.

That inevitable change should encourage agencies to thoughtfully invest in client relationships founded on clear expectations, trust and a commitment to mutual success. By doing so, clients and agencies can link arms to meet and exceed business goals, and form relationships that transcend the shifting and evolving communications world.

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