The relationship between a client and its agency isn’t always necessarily smooth – but why do some brands out-source some of the PR function when it has an in-house comms team? Mumbrella’s Miranda Ward spoke to in-house communications professionals to find out what an agency partner offers a brand.
Agencies of every description like to tell their client partners that they want to understand their business as well as they do, that they consider themselves to be an extension of their business. Essentially, in-house teams and their agency partners are attempting to play happy families – but how does that relationship play out in reality?
“Ideally you wouldn’t out-source anything but you kind of have to,” Emma Rugge-Price, GE Australia and New Zealand VP communications, told Mumbrella.
Rugge-Price: ‘Managing agencies is a whole other job skill’
With the reality being that most companies do out-source much of their communications requirements, it can leave in-house communications professionals as agency managers, Rugge-Price warns.
“Managing agencies is a whole other job skill. It’s a different level of management, delegation and partnership.
“Part of what you’re developing in an in-house comms team is an ability to manage an agency and do it with respect, integrity and fairness. That’s why you treat your agency the way you would do a team member,” she says.
“You treat them like they’re part of your team, you’re honest with them and give them frank feedback. And when you get a budget cut, they get a budget cut.
“I tell my team you only get out as much as you put in with an agency. You need to bring them with you and they need to have as much information as you do to be as effective as they can be in supporting the communications strategy.”
For Andrew Giles, head of communications and PR at Canon Australia, says an agency partner offers the business a “broad view”.
“You want to draw on the expertise that an agency has in having a broad view. An agency offers a great resource,” he says.
“If they’re the right partner and they really understand your business, they can bring a wonderful perspective to your business.”
Giles: ‘If they’re the right partner they can bring a wonderful perspective’
For Giles this means the need for the in-house team and the agency team to work together cohesively is “critical”.
“I’m an expert on my business and my business changes every day, so my role in captaining the team is making sure everyone is coming on the journey with us,” he says.
“That’s sharing the vision and updating them on where we’re going. Then the other parts of the team are bringing in things like what’s happening in other parts of the world, what’s happening in other categories – things you can learn from.”
Shiva Kumar, LinkedIn’s head of communications across Australia and New Zealand, said a PR agency partner can help drive integrated campaigns across the entire brand.
“Agencies bring in that fresh outside perspective which is important to keep our programs honest, in a way,” he says.
Ogilvy PR handle Canon’s PR account
“It helps drive integrated thinking because PR is not just media relations anymore; it’s how you drive programs across social and marketing.”
Kumar said the role of the agency can also be to bridge the in-house public relations/communications and marketing functions, drawing on his experience at working for the likes of Edelman, Howorth Communications and Weber Shandwick.
“When I was in agencies I noticed that some companies still had marketing and PR working in silos, so sometimes the role we played as an agency was to bring them together and drive an integrated campaign,” he says.
Canon’s Giles did admit the relationship between an in-house communications team and its agency partner is just “like any relationship” and has “its ups and downs”.
“The secret to that is having great trust and communicating,” he says.
“You’ll have your ups and downs but as long as you’re both listening and the feedback is two-way and you’re working together with positive intent and it’s a caring relationship, you’ll head in the right direction.”
When it comes to assessing the skills an in-house comms team needs their agency partner to have, GE’s Rugge-Price describes it as a “double-edged sword”.
“You do want your PR agency to be quite deep in PR and media relations. You want them to know the media and be able to identify stories that are going to advance your business, but at the same time they need to understand your business deeply in order to do that,” she says.
“That’s why I treat my agencies as partners and as part of my team. I give all my agencies the same level of information about our strategy and our direction and what our priorities are and basically leave it to them to work out what ideas they come up with and they don’t have to stay in their frame.
“I’d happily take a PR idea from my advertising agency or vice versa,” Rugge-Price adds.
“Communication is changing so much in terms of digital so you need a really strong digital/social expertise,” she says.
“A lot of what you’re looking at from an agency now is strategy around that because you may not have the capacity to do that in-house.
“It’s always a bit of a trade-off where you chose to focus your internal team and where you outsource.”
And with smaller in-house teams, the pressure is mounting on agencies to deliver more, Rugge-Price says.
“That can be a wide range of activities beyond PR. That can be a real opportunity for PR agencies – to get more into digital, to get into events and into marketing communications.”
In terms of what clients are looking for from an agency, Canon’s Giles is after senior leadership and strong fundamentals, including an ability to clearly interpret the business problem.
“Senior leadership is something I look at first in an agency partner because the culture and philosophy of an agency is created and maintained at the top, and that’s what you’re buying into,” he says.
“Successful PR comes down to strong fundamentals, which means an ability to clearly interpret the business problem and put the consumer at the heart of the solution in a way that ties back to your brand or product.
“PR people are used to putting the audience first because we have always had to demonstrate audience value to get published, but if there’s a disconnect between the execution and business problem then that’s not going to lead to a good outcome.”
Edelman is both GE’s and LinkedIn’s PR agency of record
At GE, the agency partner (currently Edelman) “works on a mix of background briefing, message prep and media relations,” says Rugge-Price.
“We pitch stories and interviews internally, in the main. You want the relationships to managed in-house,” she adds.
However at Canon, it is the PR agency, Ogilvy PR, which pitches the stories.
“We are a tight team and there is crossover but, broadly speaking, our agency fields media enquiries, pitches our stories, administers the product review program and responds to the project briefs,” Giles said.
“I set the strategy for the communications and public relations program in line with our business direction and manage total program delivery. I personally handle internal communications, issues management, corporate positioning and briefing projects,” he explained.
“My team also has an internal manager of product PR who oversees our product review activity, influencer program and product integration across programs.”
For GE Rugge-Price prefers to not pitch unless the company needs an agency change.
“The pitching process is an interesting exercise and challenge for agencies,” she says.
“It’s also really good for you as an in-house team that hopefully you are getting the best and it challenges your agencies to step away from the day-to-day work and think strategically these are the things we’re not doing for this client because we’re stuck in the day-to-day.
“It’s often a very valuable exercise,” she adds.
Kumar: ‘In-house professionals need to brief agencies and make sure they’re giving them the right information’
For LinkedIn’s Kumar, the pitch process is about ensuring both the chemistry and the ideas are there.
“It’s important to understand what ideas they’re bringing and what they’re thinking is and how passionate about the brand they are,” he says.
“You’re working with people so it is important to get the right chemistry in place.
“As a pitch process you’re looking for both because one can’t work without the other; you need good chemistry to execute the ideas and you need good ideas so you can work on exciting stuff.”
For Kumar it is key for the client to see the agency as a “true partner”.
“Don’t just get the agency to do the leg work – leverage them so their hearts and brains are engaged as well,” he says.
“It’s important to communicate and share information from a professional point of view. If you want an agency to be a seamless extension of your in-house team then you have to invest in getting them to understand where your business is going and share information frequently so they can act on it.
Kumar suggests for in-house teams to see clear expectations around the value that an agency partner can bring to the table and to set clear goals that need to be achieved.
“In-house professionals need to brief agencies and make sure they’re giving them the right information,” he says.
“While agencies have to be proactive and ask for information, in-house professionals have to have a responsibility to share information and keep them constantly updated so they can be proactive.”
LinkedIn’s Shiva Kumar will be joined by a panel of other in-house communications professionals to discuss how in-house PR teams can make the most of their agency partnerships at this month’s CommsCon conference. For more information on the program and how to buy tickets click the banner below.
Keep up to date with CommsCon