Yesterday, my phone rang.
It was somebody I’d not spoken to properly for a good while – a former client, who we worked with for many years.
“Please tell me you’re on a comically large yacht,” I answered, happy but surprised to see his name pop up.
It betrays no confidence to say that this founder, and their online marketplace, has been very successful. They’ve spent the time since working together going through an exciting and lucrative deal to sell the business.
They are almost at the end of their earn-out and, in the least surprising news to anybody that’s ever worked with this kind of entrepreneur, they’re already thinking about their next, big, exciting move.
I can’t tell you what a satisfying feeling it is for people to come back to us. It’s testament, I think, to more than just results.
“The yacht can wait, Rich!” he said.
It got me thinking about new business, in the new year.
And, after a topsy-turvy few post-Covid years, I thought I could provide some useful thoughts to anybody considering taking a PR agency on in 2024.
Having been working in public relations for 16 years as of this very week (darts phenom Luke Littler had only just been born, to give some terrifying context), and running this here agency for the majority of that time, I’ve worked with hundreds of clients at this point.
From boot-strapped startups to famous global brands. From plucky first-time founders to some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world.
I thought: if you’re a business or individual considering using a PR agency, either for the first time or to dip your feet back in after a tumultuous economic time, where brands understandably tied Scout knots in their purse strings, perhaps I could be of some small use to those in that consideration phase.
Here’s a quick guide, then!
How to choose a PR Agency in 2024 when there are SO many to choose from? Six tips!
Freelancers. Small agencies. Specialists. Mid-sized shops. Industry behemoths.
There are thousands to choose from, and all come with various pros and cons.
And, just like a certain Mr Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, I and we will cheerfully point people that approach us in a different direction if we can see a better fit.
With that in mind, here’s a quick distillation of my experience, to help you, dear marketing director/founder/person in charge of the process, when it comes to navigating the minefield of finding a PR agency partner.
1. Expertise (and excitement!)
Seek PR support with a proven track record in your specific industry, or at least an adjacent one.
This expertise suggests they will already have the right contacts, won’t have to spend the first couple of months learning about your business, and will understand the unique challenges and opportunities you face. They’ll have done – and continue to do, as PR is ever-evolving – the hard work of learning what success looks like in your space.
Also, experience in and AROUND communications is important here. Will you need or want social media support, now or down the line? Ask the question. Examples of crisis management, creative campaigns and more at this early stage can help ease mid-to-long term thoughts you might not even have yet.
Oh, and listen to that voice that says: ‘hang on, they get our space and seem genuinely excited by it’. These tend to be the most fun agency-client relationships.
Pro tip: Ask up top for examples of work in your space – or better still, ask to speak to current and/or former clients.
If you love an agency in every other way but they fall short here – consider your goals, and ask them for evidence of achieving similar goals. For instance – if you want to make noise about a recent investment raise to build credibility and excite future potential investors, that’s quite a specific PR goal, and your industry will play only a small part in it.
Related to the above, but not quite the same thing.
‘I had 50 boxing fights’ is not the same as ‘I had 50 fights – and won them all’, or even ‘I won half of my fights’. Results matter.
Assuming that we are all NDAd* up to the eyeballs, we’re probably not going to be able to talk in absolute and specific commercial terms. That said, agen
cies can generally give a good indication about the outcomes of our work. We can share press coverage, or whose linked to our clients, sure – that’s our bread and butter. But we want to show you what that coverage DID.
What was the outcome, or were the outcomes, of our PR work? Traffic? Sign-ups? Downloads? Sales? Increased and engaged followings? Improved search rankings? Brand recall and trust scores?
Many agencies share these results, where able, in case studies. This, of course, isn’t all of our case studies – but we do.
Pro tip: If you’re sent press clippings, links or even agency award wins as evidence of success, ask what the campaign did for the client. Agencies tend to welcome being given the chance to show off!
*NDAs – Non Disclosure Agreements
3. Does size matter?
Well, as it goes: bigger isn’t always, ahem, better.
The biggest agencies might offer more in the way of ancillary services, and their pitch deck might be that bit shinier as a result of having dedicated designers, but will you see that guy with those nice shoes you saw at the pitch ever again? Can you spend enough to ensure you’re not a minnow swimming beside whales? If so – there’s a reason those at the top stay at the top.
Smaller agencies and freelancers, by their very nature, provide a more personal approach. You’ll doubtless enjoy your calls. But will they have the capacity to grow with you? As your business changes, and you build out across the marketing mix – can they be a boon and still work alongside other suppliers, or will you want to one-roof things, internally or with another agency, to save on the number of people reporting into you?
Or are you after something more… in the middle, which is where we sit? Very often, the answer to the size question comes down to one thing – and that’s… budget. Before we get onto that, though, here’s our:
Pro tip: beyond a certain size of smaller agency/freelancer, you tend to have the same number of people working on your account, anyway, and that team will be chosen for you for a reason. Size matters – to an extent.
‘You show me yours and I’ll show you mine’ is, frustratingly, the order of the day here, very often.
You might not know for sure what you want to spend, or you’re keen to squeeze the agency for whatever internal reasons you might have. But you certainly know what you don’t want to spend past, each month or project, I know that the second we start talking.
Quick rules of thumb, fee-wise – if you’re thinking that you don’t want to spend more than £1k a month (~$1,500), you’ll be in the realm of freelancers and, potentially, a very small agency. You’ll find these through personal recommendations from social media, most likely. Or again, get in touch, and I’ll happily point you in the right direction.
If you have tens of thousands a month or more, to spend across PR tactics – and that could be for high level counsel, crisis planning and management, noisy creative campaigns and stunts, media relations, events, lobbying, influencer spend and more – you can afford to be talking to the bigger agencies. You won’t necessarily go with them, and might plump for a great-fit mid-sized agency.
If you have, let’s say, £3,000-£15,000 a month (before VAT), I’d go to small-to-medium agencies you like the look of and, in your brief, ask to see a gold, silver, bronze menu of what those agencies can do for you.
On that note, we’ve handily written this guide to help you write the best PR agency client brief. It’ll help both you and the agencies you speak to enormously.
Pro tip: be honest with yourselves about the amount you won’t spend beyond, and don’t be afraid to say it. It won’t make us think less of you/your business, it just means we can be actually consultative on whether a) we’re the right agency for you and b) what we can both do and achieve.
5. Cultural fit:
Make no mistake, you’ll be in a relationship with your agency.
And like any relationship, there’ll be non-negotiables on each side. Some of that comes down to you – and being the best client you can be. Again, hopefully handily, I wrote about exactly that – how to have the best relationship and get the best results from your PR agency – here, a few years ago.
You don’t need to be best friends with your agency team, but you’ll be celebrating wins and learning from losses together, I can tell you that now, and if you’re all-in on your choice, we can and will feel like an extension of your own team. It’s only ever been motivating for me and my team to feel the freedom to advise.
If you’re one foot out, and this typically happens when we’re being ‘trialled’ for a very short period of time, and we are easy scapegoats, it can feel like being on the defensive constantly, and that’s not fun for either of us. It impacts creative decision-making, slows approvals down, becomes a box ticking exercise and ultimately rarely ends well.
If you and your company are especially corporate and formal in the way you do business, agencies like mine might not be for you. Which is why I’ve always found that we work best with fast-paced on and offline consumer brands, and punchy entrepreneurs.
Communication styles also need to match up, and be spoken about up top, preferably in the pitching process.
Prefer Slack? Emails? WhatsApp? Want as-it-happens updates, daily digests, weekly calls, monthly meetings or quarterly all-hands get-togethers? Iron that all out early doors.
Pro tip: Read agency social media accounts. Look at their employees’ accounts. Read case studies (we’ve plenty), and again, ask to speak to current and former clients.
6. Location, location, location
Finally, location matters.
Not as much as it once did, granted, but if you’re, say, an Australian brand looking to launch your range of products in Germany, we, as a UK-based PR agency, and at the risk of again putting potential clients off, probably aren’t the agency for you.
If you have a regionally specific need and want a campaign targeting a particular group of people, location can matter.
If you want monthly in-person meetings, location matters. I’d probably avoid appointing an agency in a vastly different time zone.
However, it can matter less when it comes to agency capabilities and your goals.
For instance, at one point, and at the height of digital PR client link-hungriness, I’d say 40% of our clients were US-based. But, that’s because they wanted us to earn them high authority, relevant links, and where we are in the world doesn’t really matter when it comes to link building through editorial results.
If those same clients wanted us on the ground manning a big creative stunt, we’d probably point them in another direction or partner with somebody there.
Pro tip: Only you’ll know if location is really going to be a blocker.
This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, but hopefully a starter for ten.