Here’s why we don’t worry about letting clients peek behind the curtain

PR agency - secret formula

I was talking to a new client yesterday.

They are in the process of reading my book (Myths of PR), and mentioned that they were surprised I was so readily giving a decade’s worth of experience ‘away’.

We talked quite openly about strategy and the various tactics that can help us reach their goals. I told them that our aim is always to impart enough knowledge as we work with clients that they not only understand what we do, but why we do it. As they touched on, that could have a potential downside. ‘Don’t you worry about potential clients, or clients you’ve been with for a long period of time, passing over you entirely and doing it themselves?’.

Here’s why I don’t.

1. A PR agency should be an extension of the client’s team

When I think about the type of agency I want to continue to build, I keep coming back to this mantra I’ve had in my head since starting two and a half years ago:

Great people doing great work with great clients

The ‘with’ there is intentional.

It could easily be ‘for’, but that’s not what I and my team are in this for. We want to work with great clients.

That means being part of their business. It means understanding their goals, and knowing that in some circumstances, a well-covered creative campaign doesn’t always cut it if there are structural issues to first tackle. It means having a relationship not based on acting simply as a promotional arm of their personal or professional brand, but having a client that understands that they’ve entered into a relationship where we can be honest with each other and only good can come from that.

2. What we do isn’t rocket science. We should all stop pretending like it is

Before I worked in PR, I worked as a personal trainer. Just as I do now with anything remotely relevant to marketing (I’d recommend this recent Holmes Report podcast with Omnicom PR group president David Gallagher), I read, listened to and watched everything I could get my hands on. It’s how I learn best.

I slowly became disillusioned with the guarded and often needlessly faux-scientific articulations of self-professed fitness industry ‘gurus’. I came to realise that the ‘secrets’ they alluded to were more likely an insecure effort to maintain enough mystique to dupe the public into feeling they couldn’t possibly understand how to lose weight or build muscle without subscribing to whatever it was these buzzword-spaffing charlatans were selling. It’s classic snake oilsmanship.

I also realised that, in order to warrant a new feature, book, DVD or TV programme, you have to say or do something different to those that came before you. Sure, there are incremental improvements to be made in our combined knowledge, especially as technology develops, but as and when everything sensible and necessary has already been said, we end up with Gillian McKeith rooting around in toilet bowls.

The marketing industry is much the same.

Stop overselling it. When writing my book, I made a concerted effort to avoid theory-laden proclamations. I kept it simple; tackling misconceptions and misunderstandings I felt I could talk about in as natural a way as possible, and that appears to have gone down well.

Be secure enough in your ability and experience to know that a peek behind the curtain won’t have potential clients doing away with your agency (or others) altogether.

3. You can’t teach creativity (overnight)

I’ve worked in PR for 10 years next January, and worked on hundreds and hundreds of (what I’d define as) creative campaigns. These have ranged from campaigns with six figure budgets to, my preferred option; no-to-low budget campaigns, where we’re not faffing with external supplier costs and low-margin, turnover-stroking overheads but headline-grabbing, relevant and results-orientated efforts.

For 5 of those years I’ve written for, a blog I founded, dedicated to the best PR stunts and campaigns (dubbed the UK’s #1 PR blog by Vuelio). As I’ve watched other similar sites come and go, we’ve built a compendium of more than 2,000 PR stunts and campaigns – 99% of which I’ve read.

If a client comes along with more creative experience and a broader base of knowledge than me, I’m listening to them.

More than being concerned about potential clients nicking ideas, we’re concerned when, after a bit of time working together, they’re not suggesting them based on internal data, what’s worked and those ideas they’ve always thought about but never said out loud.

4. Clients are unlikely to have the time to put to doing PR well

PR agency results
An actual client message sent to me at the weekend.


I love an involved PR agency client. Hopefully that’s already come across. We talk endlessly to clients (using WhatsApp Groups, which have all-but done away with email and formalities for us, and instead help us build a better personal relationship). But that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate that their time is best spent running their business, and not on the day-to-day realities of PR.

The clients we get our best results with appreciate the role of public relations, but would be unlikely to have the time to spend doing it. That goes for in-house brand and marketing directors we work with, too. They work with an agency because they want somebody else to handle it day-to-day from a resource perspective, or want additional support and input at all levels. If they can or want to do it themselves, they don’t hire a PR agency. It’s that simple.

We’re open with clients about our work because we want them to know it’s all in-hand. They can relax knowing an agreed-upon timeline is being executed properly. I’m not concerned that clients will invoke contract notice periods on the basis of us handing them some secret formula, because it doesn’t work like that. If a client wants to build an in-house team of comparable experience, they’ll likely end up spending much more than our retained rate, and it won’t be because they have squeezed us of our knowledge, but a wish to have greater control, perhaps.

5. And finally, talking about something isn’t the same as doing it

I’ve read everything Schwarzenegger’s ever written. I haven’t (yet) been crowned Mr Universe.

By being humble, accessible and open with our accrued knowledge and experience, we’re inviting people to trust us.

We’ve tripled revenue (and increased what was already a high profit margin) sticking to this way of working in the last six months. Openness with clients – and potential clients – is absolutely here to stay.