You’re the VP of Communications or Marketing Manager for an established auto supplier … or the CEO of a mid-stage mobility tech company. Things are cruising along.
Then suddenly, you hit a trigger event: your current firm treats you badly, you have a new product to launch, you’re tackling a new market or you’re taking a new strategic direction … and you need some PR help.
The problem is you don’t know where to turn.
You’re not alone. According to Mercer Island Group, one of the country’s top search consultants for advertising, PR and marketing agencies, most clients don’t know many agencies. And they don’t care about agencies … until they need one.
That’s when the challenge begins.
There are lots of PR agencies out there. Data suggests there are some 40,000 PR agencies and more than 120,000 marketing communications agencies in the U.S. And many of them claim to be experts in the automotive and mobility space. So how do you know which ones would be the best fit for you?
Many companies decide to employ a Request for Information (RFI) or a Request for Proposal (RFP) process to conduct their search. In theory, both of these processes are designed to ensure that the PR agency search is comprehensive, fair and effective.
But often, the searches don’t work out that way … and the client winds up with no acceptable winner or, worse yet, hiring the wrong agency, because of misguided intentions or inadvertent mistakes.
Over the years, we’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly among client searches for a PR firm. Here are some of the top mistakes to avoid:
Inviting the wrong PR agencies to bid. Clients sometimes delegate the creation of the bid list to junior communicators or purchasing people who know little about their PR needs, and the bid list consists of the first 10 PR firms that show up in a Google search.
This is perhaps the most important step in the search process, because if you don’t do the research now, you run the risk of excluding the very PR firms that would be the best fit for you, your budget, your needs and your market.
For most automotive suppliers, the global mega-agencies are not going to be cost-effective or provide the senior counselor attention you may want. Smaller, less well-known, but more focused PR firms might be better. So ask your colleagues, your industry peers and the journalists who cover your sector for recommendations, and do an exhaustive search online on key databases (such as O’Dwyer’s Directory of PR Firms, PRWeek’s Contact directory and the Public Relations Society of America’s directory) for automotive supplier PR firms as the basis for your initial list.
Inviting too many agencies to pitch. Overall, more isn’t better. Inviting 50 firms to bid not only wastes time for many of the agencies, it will waste your time, too, because you will have to review all the responses.
Once you have a list of firms that you have vetted as potential fits, whittle it down to eight or 10 firms that best match your specific needs. These will be firms that have experience in your category … who know the media, trends and issues that you and your customers deal with … who know the right media … who attend the important industry events … and who have worked with clients that faced challenges like yours.
Keeping the budget and other essential info secret. To determine if they’re a good fit, and to develop an effective proposal, the PR firms need your budget (or budget range), objectives, scope or other important information.
You don’t want them proposing a champagne reception if you only have a beer budget, or even worse, proposing a beer bash if you want and are willing to spend for a champagne reception. Be open and honest with the necessary information.
When clients don’t share the budget figure, PR firms see this as a red flag that the client is just fishing for ideas, does not intend to hire an agency and/or has no approved PR budget. And the better firms will decline to participate.
Not disclosing why the PR agency search is being conducted. Are you without a firm? Are you unhappy with your current firm? Or are you happy with your current PR agency but because of corporate policy, you’re required to get some competitive bids every three years?
If you want to attract the best partners, you should treat the candidates with the same kind of honesty and respect you seek as a client. The lack of honesty and transparency make up another red flag for agencies.
Recently, a large global supplier invited us to bid on their PR contract. They laid out budget, deliverables and even answered many of our detailed questions about their level of service from their incumbent agency. But things were not adding up. Finally, I asked if the incumbent agency was in the running. They said yes. So I asked if they were unhappy with the incumbent’s service. The client said no. Then I asked why they were conducting a search. And the purchasing agent said: “Because it’s RFP season.”
At that point, I knew this was just a purchasing exercise, a waste of time and that they had no intention of changing firms. I politely declined to bid. And the client missed an opportunity to find a firm that would be more productive and more cost-effective.
Not allowing a reasonable amount of time for the PR agencies to respond. In their rush to speed the process and get the agency working right away, some clients set unreasonable deadlines for responding to the RFI or RFP. If you give recipients only 10 business days to respond to your 25-page RFP, you will likely eliminate some of the better contenders.
For many PR firms, an unreasonable deadline from the get-go is another red flag that the client does not respect its partners, has unrealistic expectations and will be difficult to work with.
Not being transparent about the steps, timing and ground rules for the RFP process. If the client is not demonstrating the integrity and thoroughness of the process, many agency owners will be wary of spending the time and effort to mount their best possible pitch. When agencies see that your process will be fair, objective, organized and on-schedule, they are more likely to participate … and you are more likely to have better agencies to choose from.
Not using professional help from an agency search firm. Can’t afford a search firm? Actually, the cost of hiring an experienced firm to manage your search or RFP process is dwarfed by the cost of choosing the wrong agency, when you consider all the time and effort you will waste – time and effort that will keep you from doing your best at your regular job every day.
Many clients who try to manage their own searches go through months of research, interviews, meetings and pitches, only to find that none of the agencies they invited were acceptable. And so they end up back at square one, with the only result being a monumental waste of time … and even more intense pressure to find the right partner sooner.
A good search requires a solid framework, a proven methodology, a thorough knowledge of the agency world, and lots of experience finding and vetting the right agencies, and the right search firm can bring you all those things, ultimately save you time and money, and help you confidently choose the perfect PR partner. There are a number of these search firms around, but one that we have been most impressed with is the Mercer Island Group. You can check them out here.