It?s no good asking a PR agency whether it?s better to use in-house skills or to outsource your PR and marketing ? you know what it?ll say. But whether the agency is right for you depends on the size of your business and its existing market profile, your expectations of what you want to achieve and the size of the budget you have available.
An agency may cost the same as in-house PR, but you might get better skills for your money. You also get greater flexibility and control. Although you may be required to sign a contract, it is easier to fire an agency than sack an individual.
Consequently, the relationship between client and agency frequently has the air of being driven by insecurity. This can make agencies a better bet: they are hungrier, aware that their livelihood depends on giving you what you want, and will concentrate more fully on delivering the sort of publicity you are after. In-house PRs may be doing a similar job, but on their own and with the relative complacency of staffers.
As John Allsopp, self-styled information saviour from The Media Crystal, points out: ?An agency can provide a ready-made team of people who are proven and experienced at certain specialist roles. If you use someone in-house you will be getting someone who is good at some things but poor at others.?
This economy of scale is appealing: a single fee to an agency can net you a broad range of skills. However, it is balanced by the rationale that no one can know a company, its objectives and what it is up to better than someone within the organisation itself. For this reason, many claim the best solution is a compromise ? to have someone in-house working closely with an agency.
Martin Sexton, European marketing director at Unisys, says using an agency does not mean you can wash your hands of the PR and marketing activity. ?The agency is extremely useful and it performs a valuable function, but it is still up to you to decide your objectives and develop the PR plan,? he says. ?Don?t forget that PR is just one element of the marketing mix, and using a PR agency is just solving one aspect of the marketing challenge.?
Of course, some agencies provide a complete marketing package, including advertising and direct mail, but they are often only as good as the individual with whom you find yourself working. Mark Andrews of networking company BTN says marketing should always be managed and supervised in-house, whereas the more specialised nature of PR means agencies often have much to offer. ?Your in-house personnel are going to be much closer to your market and your niche within that market,? he says.
?They will have a far better feel for what customers want and how to appeal to those people. If you are launching a new product, the internal staff will have a more intimate knowledge of the competition and market conditions, which no agency can grasp, however long you spend briefing them. But agencies still have a role to play in liaising with the press and sending out material.?
A common complaint is that although clients may see senior executives when the agency comes to pitch for the business, once the contract is signed and they are ensconced, you suddenly find yourself dealing with a graduate who has no real experience. While all agencies freely admit this goes on, they still claim they wouldn?t dream of doing it.
Chris Lewis of Lewis Communications says this particular problem can be overcome if the client is clear at the outset about who it wants to handle the account. ?Of course, no one can prevent a member of the agency?s team leaving, but it is possible to specify that the replacement is someone with a minimum amount of experience, otherwise the contract becomes void,? he says.
The agency versus in-house decision, says Lewis, should be easy: ?Unless you have someone in-house who has agency experience, you need an agency.?
It is different, adds Lewis, for a company like Microsoft, which is well-established and gets in the news anyway. ?They will still use an agency, but for logistical things like sending out press releases or organising events. The strategic planning will be done by in-house experts, who in a company Microsoft?s size will have as much experience as the agency staff, if not more.?
For smaller companies, he believes, an agency can bring a lot of fresh ideas and energy. ?Agencies work by having a group of people sitting around working on ideas. They are often young people with lots of enthusiasm, which can be harnessed to come up with innovative and fresh campaigns.?
Yet it is exactly this enthusiasm which many journalists, who find themselves the primary targets of PR campaigns, complain about. While the bulk of in-house and agency PR executives are sensible, calm and professional, far too many, they say, are insincere, crass and downright irritating.
Wendy Haylock, an independent PR and marketing consultant, says clients often ask the journalists whether their agency is any good. She says: ?Most agencies have a better understanding of the media than an in-house PR person and they often know most of the journalists personally because they have more regular contact than an in-house person can possibly have. This can work both ways, and journalists know which of the agencies and individuals are good and which to avoid.?
Haylock agrees with Allsopp that PR should be part of a properly planned overall campaign: ?Even if you use an agency, you still need to invest time and effort in thinking through what you want to achieve and the best way to get it. Undoubtedly, an agency will have wider expertise and more ideas. The issue for the client is the management of the agency.?
A good agency relationship, says Haylock, depends on the client insisting on regular meetings at which the agency is well briefed about what is going on and called to task if necessary. ?The client has to make sure that the agency delivers all that it promises, but it is also up to the client to make sure the agency is fully aware of all the potential stories.?
Pamela Small, UK marketing communications manager at Smallworld, a software house which produces GIS software, says: ?We use Citigate but we still need a person in-house charged with the responsibility of managing them. Having an agency does not absolve you of any PR or marketing responsibility ? you can?t just hand everything over to an agency.?
Sometimes, says Small, using an agency can remove you from direct contact with your customers, which can be a dangerous thing. ?An agency might take over responsibility for producing case studies, for example, and will arrange for a journalist to interview a customer, and the client may not be involved at all. It is important for the client to be constantly aware of what the agency is doing.? In Small?s case, she always attends interviews between the press and her customers, and is involved in the writing of case studies.
Another issue can be a conflict of interest within the agency. Some IT PR agencies work almost exclusively in IT so it is inevitable that some of their clients are from the same areas of the market, even direct competitors. Some agencies deal with this by constructing Chinese walls ? they claim the internal departments work in utter isolation and there is no risk of the executive on one conferring with an executive on another. Lewis says: ?You can?t trust that never to happen. Chinese walls are notorious for being paper thin. It is difficult to work for two clients who are direct competitors.?
At Lewis Communications, any possible conflict is referred to the incumbent, but it also has a relationship with another agency which can help solve the problem. Some agencies have splinter divisions with different identities, but it is important to check that they are completely separate and not disguised Chinese walls.
Anna Fraser, a senior account executive with Buffalo who has worked in-house with ICL and now handles the ICL account for the agency, says there is huge pressure on agency PR executives: ?We have targets and are measured on a month by month basis, but when you are in-house everything is more cosy and, in a way, less real.?
But the real advantage of being in-house, says Fraser, is that you are more aware of what is going on within the organisation. ?I find that when I telephone a client I have to explain who I am and confirm that I am working for them. Sometimes executives think we are the press. It can be hard getting the stories out of clients and then they blame us when they don?t get the coverage. Getting approval for press releases and case studies can be problematic too, and there?s always the risk that the agency will get the blame when stories miss a deadline.?
Andrews feels the dilemma can be best resolved by appointing an in-house PR and marketing manager, who is dedicated to the company and will maintain close links with the agency. An in-house PR executive will not have the same front-end experience as a talented agency which has established links with key industry journalists. If the agency is given firm but fair support from its client the two can work well together. ?At the end of the day you reap what you sow,? he says. ?Unless you manage the agency you will not get as much out of them as you would if you are open with them but still demanding. That?s the key.?
Don?t take anything on spec: Bill Penn
Bill Penn, chairman of Spec Communications, says plenty of marketing managers in IT companies have plunged into relationships with PR agencies only to be disappointed. ?After a couple of months, they realise the executives don?t really understand the technology and may not even know the target media or relevant journalists as well as they claimed,? he says. ?Some PRs cannot write a press release and have no news sense. Even if they speak to the right journalists, they don?t know what to say to them.?
Big agencies regard a small company with disdain: a monthly fee of #2,000 may seem a lot to you but it is chickenfeed to them. ?You can find yourself being treated like a second-string client,? Penn says. Freelances can be a good solution because they service a few clients very well and have no ambitions to take on staff, but the good ones have more than enough work and are difficult to find. A small agency of two or three people can be very good value, but again, if they are any good they will want to take on more clients and you may find yourself sidelined.
Minimise the risk, says Penn, by remembering that the agency is far less important than the team of individuals you?ll be working with. Interview them as though they are actually joining your staff and insist that the contract includes their names. You can state that no member of the team can be changed without your approval. ?This happens in management consultancies,? says Penn, ?so why not in PR??
Find out about staff morale: if there is a high turnover, look elsewhere. It is also worth comparing their rates and hidden costs, says Penn: ?It can take months to get a good working relationship with an agency and you don?t want to invest time and effort only to find they are no good. Ask the journalists what they think, and when you have made a choice, treat the agency like an extension of your business. PR agencies have to be kept informed and clients have to listen to their advice. It?s the only way.?
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