We let the facts do the talking.

The Honeymooners – First 100 Days of Marriage between Client and PR Agency

Whirlwind Romance

The client/agency relationship. It has drama, romance, suspense, action and sometimes even mystery. It can be a stormy affair or a contented partnership, because this relationship is very much like marriage.

It all starts with the invitation. They heard about you, liked what they heard and invite you over to chat. They like what they see, so you get the invitation to pitch. And the courtship begins. You woo them with gifts of strategy, creative solutions and dynamic ideas. You get to the shortlist, the heady excitement builds as you realise your dreams are on the verge of coming true. Then it happens…they accept your proposal, and you both say your ‘I dos’ and the papers are signed by the happy new couple.

But the moment the joyful union takes place, is the moment it is in danger of being lost. After all, 50% of marriages end in divorce, right? The fact is, the moment you win an account is the moment you start losing it. The honeymoon is fleeting and the second-guessing, blame shifting, miscommunication, stony silences and questioning loyalty begin. The client wonders if it was right to enter into this relationship in the first place and maybe this agency wasn’t everything it appeared to be. The agency suddenly finds it lacks the right kind of support, but says nothing for fear of disturbing the young relationship – better to suffer in silence than to have the hard, honest talks. Conflict avoidance takes roots, but avoiding conflict also means taking a detour around progress.

Like a marriage, all the habits and practices that are established early in the relationship can influence the entire direction and nature of that relationship. So, today I wanted to look at the importance of that honeymoon period in the client/agency relationship, those first 100 days of corporate matrimony.

These first 100 days are crucial. It is essential that the right team be assembled at this time. Not random bodies and minds, but personnel with the appropriate experience, skills and attitude. Teams should be tailor-made, because it makes no sense appointing an expert in banking to a FMCG brand. Instead, select personnel with the requisite knowledge and who are passionate about the field or product. Then the brand must be assessed and a clear action plan determined. Targets have to be ascertained and the goals of agency and client aligned – you have got to be on the same page. Too often agency and client are writing completely different books altogether.

Alignment of goals can’t be overemphasised, without it all previous progress is nullified and eroded. There must be a clear, definite point in time at which client and agency have declared and agreed upon the direction, method and strategy of the business – in detail, and in writing. A great many things must be determined and prepared from crisis management, development of key messages, press kits, and much more. But alignment is really accomplished as each of the smaller steps is carried out. If you are thinking that all this will take up precious time, you are right, and that is exactly what is needed. Time is the far too often neglected resource of the marketing world, and if we spent more time on these vital activities, we would spend less money on them – or at least allocate funds with more prudence and get more value as a result. Yes, it will take time and patience, but the rewards are great.

Mars or Venus?

The truth is, the client has the right to expect the agency to prove its worth, to deliver the goods and show it deserves its affections. And any delay or absence of results, or performance below expectation is a blow to the relationship. But like any relationship it is all about communication and making your needs known clearly and accurately. There are two types of clients out there, the Veteran and the Virgin, and some variations thereof. The Veteran is established in the market and known by the media, but may be looking for a shift in strategy, a brand refresh, or a complete overhaul. The Virgin is new to the market, untouched by the media and needs to win the attention of those who matter, and establish relationships and a reputation. Each one has a unique set of needs that demands a completely different approach, and even then, the approach is affected by the client’s self-perception. Do they understand their own status in the marketplace?

So what does it take to have a happy marriage? Well, sometimes we focus too much on the results and not enough on all the behind-the-scenes groundwork that really produces the desired results. And even then, there needs to be a shift in what ‘results’ actually means.

In PR, clients often use the volume of media coverage to measure success. More coverage, more success. But if there is not a system in place to maximise that coverage, or staff properly trained in media etiquette, that coverage could be wasted, or turn into your worst nightmare. The issue is building a foundation for the long term. Beyond the ‘business’ partners need to build chemistry, synergy, understanding. Again, this takes time, because without mastering the basics, coverage is the least of your worries. But even after nailing the basics, the next essential is consistency. A strong consistent message with a fresh interesting slant will attract the editors and writers. Marcom is not magic, it is strategy, and the likelihood of success increases the better your foundations are built. ‘If you build it they will come’, the saying goes.

Success in PR is not just about attention, it is also about the depth of the expertise being trained into client staff, establishing healthy relationships with key media personnel (and others in industries relevant to client image), determining essential content, establishing key corporate messages, acquiring the proper media training and so much more. Even when good external relationships have been established, the internal dynamic needs to be developed, because great PR is thorough and far reaching, and there are a great many stakeholders involved from the end customer to the marketing manager, the editor, reporter and industry partners, to name a few.

But ‘it takes two to tango’, so all fault does not lie with the client alone. Agencies often fail to educate the client, conduct shallow or inadequate research, provide vague timelines, misplace priorities and over-promise and under deliver. We have to own our shortcomings and work toward best practice, have the hard uncomfortable talks, hash out the differences and make the compromises.

Happily ever after

Like any successful marriage, communication needs to be open, constant and two-way, without that, the relationship is either doomed to end, or be a long painful experience for all involved. But we hope for and believe in better. Any relationship we enter is done so with the view to ‘happily ever after’. But that only comes by looking beyond the fairytale fiction and at real world facts, practical methodology, genuine humility and healthy doses of trust. The principles here are not necessarily new revelations, but they are undervalued and sometimes cast aside in the panic that can often arise in the race for profit, deadlines, quotas or to simply stay afloat.

Make no mistake; there really are no quick fixes in good relationship management, and ‘quick’ only means delaying the pain. If there’s anything you should take away from this post it is the importance of time. Great success simply doesn’t happen overnight. Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his book, Outliers, that it takes 10,000 hours of practice for an individual to become an expert in his field of endeavour, why shouldn’t that apply to our industry? Too often we focus on the 10,001st hour (when success is attained) and forget all those that came before. Time is vital to do the necessary groundwork, to gain knowledge and forge alliances. If there’s no quality time, there’s no happily ever after.

Can you relate to any of these issues whatever side of the relationship you may be on? What are your pet peeves in the agency/client relationship? More importantly, what has worked for you in building solid relationships and establishing best practice?