The key considerations for choosing a PR agency

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

Robert Da Costa is agency owner and a coach helping clients get the most out of agencies. Before business owners can get the most value out of an agency, Rob says they must first take a step back, and ask themselves, “Why am I hiring an agency in the first place?” Businesses think they can outsource their problems to an agency, and they think once they’ve got the agency on board, that’s the end of the problem and they can move on to the next thing. However, those relationships fail, because the agency will fail to live up to their expectations, and the business owner will get frustrated and ultimately decide this isn’t working.

If you’re thinking about hiring an agency, you need to think about what you’re trying to achieve by hiring that agency and how you’re going to measure success of the engagement with the agency. Rob always tells agency owners that the business needs to make sure they can tie back the work that the agency is doing to the bigger business goals. Without a way of measuring that, then they are heading towards an unhappy or failed relationship. For some businesses, that looks like lurching from one agency to another without actually looking at themselves and realising that they’re not managing the agency very well. They don’t realise that they need to change the way they’re behaving, managing the agency, and how they’re communicating with them. When hiring an agency or any kind of external partner, you need to build a good partner-partner relationship, not an imbalanced customer-supplier relationship, because it won’t work out in the end. 

The kind of agency you want

In terms of picking the right agency, Rob suggests finding an agency that’s a specialist in the sector, so they not only are able to do the discipline of whatever the agency is, whether it’s PR, web design, SEO, or whatever it is, but they also have a really good understanding of the sector. Then, find someone that you’re going to get on well with, an agency that you feel you can build good empathy with, an agency that understands your values at the cultural level as well as at the commercial level, and an agency that is a good listener. It’s amazing how sometimes agencies don’t ask questions and don’t listen to their customer. They just tell them how great they are and what they’re going to do, but there’s no opportunity for them to build any empathy, because they’re not listening. So first, find an agency that is in a niche you work in and one that you feel you’re going to have a good working relationship with.

Next, find an agency that can demonstrate their ROI. Find one that’s going to ask you the questions about what your business goals are and then work with you to put a set of metrics and KPIs in place that can tie back the work they’re doing into the results that you’re trying to achieve for your business. Another fundamental factor is communication. You are going to work with closely this agency, so you need to be communicating informally with them very regularly, but formally sitting down with them monthly and quarterly and reviewing your plans and reviewing their strategy to deliver your goals and working with them to change things. If there’s one thing the coronavirus situation has taught people, it’s the need to be nimble as business owners. Instead of setting plans in concrete and trying to deliver them by hook or by crook, be willing to pivot and change based on what’s going on in the world.

Many times, the agency puts together a proposal with remarkably little information about the client, which can be a source of miscommunication at the very beginning, so Rob advises against doing this. If the agency can’t get the necessary information they need from the client, then walk away. If you’re a web development agency and you’re going to do a pitch, if part of that pitch is providing the client with mockups, it would be unwise to agree to that, because you will have a process which gets under the skin of the client and understands what they need before you start doing that. Again, the business needs to be willing to work in partnership for the client to realise that they actually have to dedicate time and resources and give access to information in order for the agency to come up with a solution that’s really going to deliver the results the client wants for the business.

Always ask questions

One of the selection criteria Rob advises a business on is understanding what that brings in processes. This involves asking questions around, “How did you learn about our business? What’s your process that you will take us through, so that you can get a look under the bonnet and really understand the inner workings to make the best recommendations that are going to help us deliver the results that we want to achieve?” This sounds as though there’s a fundamental change in mindset required by companies that are procuring or engaging agencies. It is usually a procurement function, but it sounds that to be effective, clients really need to look at the agency as a strategic partner. It might be a pyramid function from the recruitment department, but the people that are going to be managing that agency on a day-to-day basis absolutely have to see them as a strategic partner and recognse that the business has to make an investment of time to work with and manage the agency, and to give access to information.

There have been instances where you are taken on to do media relations for a client, and in the pitching and breeding process, you’ve talked about some of the things that you’re going to need, and some of the access to people that you’re going to need in order to create the stores and hoping to achieve, and then they’re just too busy. They don’t give you the case studies, they don’t give you the customers, they don’t make their senior staff available to you as spokespeople, and then they get upset, because you’re not delivering results to the point where you’re trying to justify why you’re not delivering results, which is because of that lack of access. It just sounds like excuses, so this stresses the importance of developing clear communication and trust in the early stages of that relationship, that the agency is very clear about their process, and the business gives them access to that. Ask an agency about their briefing, their fact-finding, their immersion process. If an agency can give you a very clear, methodical approach to that, then they’re going to be a solid agency who has experience onboarding businesses like yours.

An agency is a purchase of trust as much as anything else. Due diligence could be asking three, four, or five agencies to pitch, but it also involves obvious things like asking for samples of work or previous campaigns. Another suggestion of Rob’s is to talk to the business’ customers. When clients are taking Rob on board, they normally ask him for two or three clients to talk to. They want to pick up the phone and have a chat with these people, because they don’t just want to get the canned, written response testimonial. Rob believes that if an agency isn’t willing to give you that, then that could be a warning sign. Have a look at their website, their LinkedIn profiles, and the past work they’ve done before. You want to see the process the agency took the clients through to deliver these end results and also speak with some of their customers, not just one customer but maybe two or three, to get that honest approach.

Another issue for clients is often about the cost. When a client says, “Can you write a proposal?,” and the agency says, “Can you give me a budget?,” and they say, “No,” the agency then is completely stabbing in the dark. If they haven’t got a line item on their P&L and they haven’t allocated a budget towards whatever this is for, then it may be better to just walk away, because there’s a good chance that the client isn’t serious enough. The first thing is that the company has to have set a budget, which can either be based on previous experience, or they can go and get some advice on what the costs are. When it comes to picking an agency, clients need to base it on all these other considerations already before they base it purely on price. If you just pick the cheapest agency, you may not necessarily get the best results. If you understand what the bigger business results will be from this intervention, then you’re going to be more willing to spend money on it. Whereas if you’re thinking about a very tactical thing like, “I need to get five pieces of coverage in the media every month,” then, well, how do you measure that? If you’re measuring it in terms of outcomes for the business, then you’re going to be able to apply a bigger budget to it. It is a bit tricky to get the budgeting right, because obviously, the company doesn’t always know what they should be spending. But in that case, if you really don’t know, every business has got a peer network, and every business has got people that they are connected with that they can go and ask these questions to get a sense of what their budget should be. They also need to listen to the agency and be willing to hear from them what they think the cost should be. 

There are companies like R3 in Singapore and America that help businesses select agencies. In terms of agency facilitator companies, Rob doesn’t know of anybody that’s gone through that process before, so he doesn’t know whether that is a totally objective service or whether you pay to be part of their business, and therefore they put you forward. Once a company has made a decision about which agency to use, to make the most out of that, the key thing is regular communication, the right reporting, and tying back the work to the business goals. A lot of agencies report to a marketing manager, and that person might have certain goals in mind, like a number of new leads generated or the amount of coverage they’ve gotten. but then other people that they report to, the managing director or the finance director, might have different goals. So, it’s really important that the agency has these honest conversations early on with the client about how to measure the success of the campaign, and that they keep using those metrics and revising those metrics regularly with a client, so that the marketing manager can report back to their colleagues about how the campaign is going.

As an agency, make sure that you constantly review the strategy put into place at least on a quarterly basis to reflect the changing environment for the business. If things change for the business, like with the coronavirus, not only is there a plan, but the team is prepared to execute it as well. That involves sitting down with the client and saying, “Let’s look at where you’re at a business. Let’s look at your priorities over the next quarter. Let’s make sure the campaign we’re delivering is driving towards those business goals.”

The last piece of advice Rob had is to make sure that if you have a really good partner relationship with the business and the agency, then you can also have an honest relationship. An honest relationship means that the agency can hold their hands up and admit if their strategy is not working and suggest changes on both ends to make their strategy work. With an honest relationship, there’s a much better chance that the agency and the business are going to stay aligned and be happy with the work.

Moving onto legal matters, whether companies should have a retainer, a project, or a hybrid model with an agency, the retainer model is changing a lot. Most people don’t like that word anymore, because it sounds like clients are paying you a fixed amount of money every month but you’re not entirely sure what you’re getting for it. So in a way, the word ‘retainer’ doesn’t help much. Nowadays, people are focusing more on the hybrid model. It’s where they put, say, a six-month campaign in place. And then in the fifth or sixth month, you discuss whether or not to proceed with the next six-month campaign. In effect, it is a retainer, but the outcomes and the focus are much clearer. Obviously, from an agency’s perspective, having a retainer is a desired thing, because it means you can do your budgeting, you know how much revenue you’ve got coming in each month. On the flip side of that, a project-based campaign means that they can be much clearer about what’s included in that project and what isn’t included, because agencies may sometimes get asked to do more work.

When Rob started his agency back in ’92, they were using Excel spreadsheets for time recording internally, they were using Word documents to produce reports, they were sending faxes to their clients, and all that Since then, the world has changed a lot in terms of technological advancements and how they use it for work. There are a lot of great collaboration tools Rob uses like Google Drive, so his clients have got access to the shared documents together, they can see plans that they’re working on, they can update it themselves, and they can see when Rob’s updated them. There are also great project management tools on Monday, Dropbox, Asana, etc. that you can use both internally in the agency, but also collaboratively with a client. When selecting an agency, understand the tools being used to create the collaboration, because without them, again, that’s a bit of an amber warning light. Whereas if they have a really clear engagement process with the client that not only talks about how they’re going to communicate physically with each other, but how they’re going to communicate virtually, then that will give you more confidence in that agency.

If you’re a business owner looking to hire an agency, hopefully this has given you some clarity on how to pick the right agency for you and what you would then need to do on your end to make sure that you have a meaningful relationship with that agency. If you would like to learn more about Rob and what he does, you can visit his website. He has lots of great free content on there, including his new book called Self-Running Agency. You can also reach him at

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo from Design Rush

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