Our new research report, The Impact of the Agency Selection Process on Public Relations Programs & Outcomes, provides insights into how Fortune 1000 companies and large not-for-profit associations search for and hire agencies, and underscores opportunities to improve search outcomes for both client organizations and the agencies they engage.
The report, authored by myself, Robert Udowitz and Steve Drake of RFP Associates, is based research supported by Researchscape and the Institute for Public Relations. The research findings have been featured in the IPR Blog, Holmes Report, O'Dwyers, CommPro.biz, Bulldog Reporter, Agency Leadership and Capitol Communicator.
The report highlights the significant gap between search practices used to hire mid- or senior-level employees and the process for hiring agencies – for which the budget may be the equivalent of multiple employees. When communications leaders search for agencies, the research shows them relying on industry experience and word-of-mouth recommendations to identify 2-5 agency candidates for their initial search.
“We found there’s a stark contrast between the process used to search for experienced employees and that for finding agencies,” notes RFP Associates' Steve Drake. “Few organizations use a comprehensive search process or search tools and consultants for agencies, which would be standard practice for individual hires.”
The research shows that although two-thirds of those surveyed use RFPs in the search process, these are often incomplete and do not provide all the information agencies need to respond. More than half (54%) of the research respondents said their RFPs do not include a budget – a critical requirement for agencies.
The report also reveals that, in many cases, clients believe agencies are falling short in key areas. For RFPs, agencies are cited by client organizations as delivering boilerplate responses, upselling, and delivering off-base proposals. “Despite high ‘overall’ satisfaction with agencies, clients were only moderately or less satisfied with agencies in critical areas including meeting objectives, proactivity, account management, staff turnover, and budgeting,” adds Robert Udowitz. “As a result, it perhaps should not be a surprise that only three-in-ten of the primary agency relationships among those surveyed were reported to be four years or longer in length.”
Highlighting clear opportunities for improvements in the search process and where agency-client relationships are not optimal, the report identifies how a more thorough search process offers a path to stronger and longer relationships.
The research data demonstrates that client expectations of agencies are more likely to be met if an RFP process precedes the hiring of an agency. And, that overall satisfaction with agencies was highest when RFPs and other key components of a thorough search process had been employed. The research also shows satisfaction is directly connected to agency longevity -- the longer the relationship, the higher the levels of client satisfaction.
There are opportunities on both the client and agency side to improve the hiring process. The report recognizes the time challenges faced by CCOs, C-suite and agency leaders, contributing to “good enough” search processes that many recognize are less than optimal.
In addition to relying on experience and word-of-mouth, the recommendations for client organizations include leveraging search tools and/or consultants to cast the net wide at the beginning of a search, and to use a comprehensive, time-efficient RFQ and RFP process to evaluate and select agencies for interviews.
For agencies, the research reflects the importance of taking the time in the RFP process to provide differentiated, rather than boilerplate, responses and ensure that responses are consistent with what clients are looking for. Furthermore, it is essential for agencies to focus on key drivers of satisfaction including proactivity, managing within budgets, and avoiding staff turnover. While this may seem obvious, the research results show opportunities to do better.
With $15 billion-a-year in billings at stake for PR agencies, there’s a major incentive to maximize the opportunity for productive agency-client relationships and reduce agency turnover.
As we outline in the research report, while there are many factors to consider, a better search process offers a path to more productive agency search outcomes and longer relationships.
CommunicationsMatch is an agency search, hiring, and services platform with more than 5,000 agency and individual profiles, with hiring tools and resources that help companies find and engage agencies that match needs.
RFP Associates, LLC is a communications agency search firm that has developed a specialized search and selection methodology that improves the process of identifying, evaluating, and hiring agencies.
Researchscape International is an agile market research consultancy delivering high-quality custom and omnibus surveys, automated reporting tools, as well as other research-related services, to marketers and agencies.