Advancing the Profession and the Professional

The Top 10 Reasons Client/Agency Relationships Fail – Part One: The Clients’ Perspective

david_mcculloch_headshotBy David McCulloch, Director, Corporate Communications at Cisco

Given the stress that changing PR agencies causes on both sides of the client/agency equation, you’d think we would spend a lot of time figuring out how to stop relationships disintegrating, right?

As it happens, I’m presenting on this topic at the upcoming PRSA Conference in Philadelphia. In a bid to fast-track my research for the presentation, I polled in-house PR team leaders who attended the May PRSA Silicon Valley Leadership Dinner on the subject.   I asked our group, which included leaders from VMware, Symantec, Workday, Salesforce, NetApp, SolarCity, SanDisk, NVIDIA, Wells Fargo, Google, Jive, and SAP what they thought most commonly led to the decline of a client/agency relationship. 

This is the top 10 list of fatal mistakes they shared:

  • Unclear goal setting – I recently asked my team at Cisco: what is the one metric by which your work can best be evaluated? I have nine direct reports and received eight different answers.  If agencies find themselves in the similar position of being unclear about which goals matters most, their odds of success are probably not good from the start. Silicon Valley’s PR leaders agreed: set clear goals at the outset of the relationship, and revisit them regularly. 
  • Unreasonable expectations – When is a goal not a goal? When it’s an unreasonable goal. Local PR leaders conceded that clients occasionally expect the earth (shocker!), but they argued that agencies bear equal responsibility for ensuring clients set reasonable goals. Speaking of which… 
  • Letting Clients Get Away with Murder – While the money in the agency/relationship may all flow in one direction, accountability is definitely a two-way street according to Bay Area PR leaders.  Agencies that don’t push back when their clients are getting a little wacky do themselves no favors whatsoever, said the PR leaders. There was unanimous agreement that a good agency is one that is just as comfortable saying “no” as it is saying “yes”. 
  • A Lack of information sharing – “We want you to be a seamless extension of our team.” That’s what every client says, right? Well, the clients also conceded that they don’t always give their agencies the tools to get the job done. At Cisco we have struggled for years to balance our company’s strong information security policies with the need to get our agency staff “inside the firewall”. At our May PRSA dinner, several client-side executives acknowledged similar issues, yet reminded each other of the importance of “setting aside time to teach, and time to learn”. 
  • Marketing people not understanding the agency’s audience – It’s true: some clients just don’t understand how PR works. Are you surprised? Maybe you shouldn’t be. Does every PR agency staffer truly understand how demand generation campaigns operate, or how Web sites are built? Our value as communicators is usually enhanced by the degree to which we specialize, and yet, clients rarely have that luxury, especially in smaller organizations.  What to do? Acknowledge the issue, be a good partner, and invest in some bi-lateral education. 
  • Not seeing the agency as a true partner – What does it mean to be a ‘true’ partner, exactly? It means the agency’s success is actually a metric that shows up on the client’s annual performance appraisal. How many clients sign up for that? Probably not enough, our dinner group concluded.
  • Measuring What the Agency Did, Versus What Matters – Meetings attended, reports sent, calls made and messages left don’t matter to clients. Frankly, share of voice, volume of coverage, or social shares may not matter either. Find out what drives your client’s business, and focus on that, versus how the agency’s staff fill each billable hour. 
  • Just wanting “Arms and legs” – When I moved ‘in-house’ after thirteen years agency-side, I was the first to recognize that so-called ‘arms and legs’ work really matters. There’s no shame at all in doing the important, but not necessarily glamorous work, day-in, day-out for your client. That said, the leaders around our dinner table got it: if firms only get involved in the arms and legs work, agency staff might not get their hearts and brains engaged, and that’s a waste of what an agency can deliver. It isn’t likely to keep the best talent on the client’s account either. 
  • Agency Staff Who Don’t Challenge – “We did everything the client asked, and achieved every goal we set together, but still got fired.” OK, if that was really the case, then the agency in question was pretty unlucky, but the point here is that Silicon Valley’s PR leaders want their agencies to push them; to come up with ideas they haven’t asked for; to aim higher than they themselves have aimed. Keep doing that, and familiarity should never breed contempt. 
  • A Breakdown of Trust – If you can’t meet a deadline, say so. If a key member of staff is leaving, say so, and do it as soon as you can. If a member of the client’s staff is behaving obnoxiously, say so too. The leaders around our table in May were unanimous on this topic: when trust breaks down in a relationship, it’s over. So don’t hide anything that could come back to be a surprise. Open, direct communication is crucial. Without it, the foundations of any client/agency relationship are brittle.

So there you have it…the pitfalls to avoid in order to ensure the everlasting client/agency relationship!

Well, not so fast. In part two, we’ll hear the agency’s perspective on why things go wrong. Perhaps when we put the two halves together, we’ll have all the answers.

Join me at the PRSA Conference to find out!


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