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Dream partnerships: How PR agencies and brands can achieve more in the face of mounting pressures

Every public relations agency has had a nightmare client. They want everything, right now, for less money and with minimal effort. "Why aren't we on the front page? The lead story on the news? Shouldn't Oprah be giving our product away on her yearly special?" But there is such thing as a dream client, who works with the agency for mutual benefit. Abigail Dawson speaks to the industry to discover what it takes to form the dream team.

It’s 2017. Clients are being pushed to do braver work. Public relations agencies are often expected to deliver more services more quickly, more frequently and with more cut through. So how can these two competing pressures line up to form a dream partnership? Is there such a thing?  What does it really take for a PR agency and a client to come together and get the best results?

Managing director of Magnum & Co, Aaron Crowther says “dream partnerships are forged in honesty” and the ability to be transparent and discuss the ideas which failed.

Crowther is the managing director at Magnum & Co

“Transparency is critical, especially when it comes to explaining when things haven’t hit the mark.

“[Partnerships] don’t work if you don’t share what you want or need, or if you’re not realistic about where the challenges lie.

“Encourage creativity and fight for the most exciting ideas because they’re the right ideas, even when they’re scary, and treat the agency as an extension of [the client’s] team,” Crowther says.

Emma-Jane Granleese, managing partner of History Will Be Kind couldn’t agree more, listing collaboration, transparency and respect as the trifecta in an ideal partnership. It may seem obvious, she says, but these three pillars truly drive the best outcomes for both agency and client.

Emma-Jane Granleese is the managing partner at History Will Be Kind

“An ideal client is happy to take some risks, is open to change, embraces integrated campaign planning, and is willing to talk openly about their internal pressures.

“A dream partnership is founded on mutual understanding. Getting to know a client on a personal level, and learning their business, inside and out, means you understand all aspects of the business dynamic.

“This creates a stronger sense of cohesion and unity which ultimately helps both parties. When we win, we win together,” Granleese says.

FleishmanHillard and Eleven PR’s managing director, Roberto Pace, acknowledges that although trust is imperative “the one thing PR-led creative typically doesn’t have is time” and therefore a dream partnership “is the one you keep working at”.

“It’s in a constant state of beta. I like beta. It means we’re all committed to things being better, and there’s enough trust and respect between all parties to want more, without that seeming disrespectful to the work the agency does, or unnecessarily challenging the client.

“I think most partnerships are about perfection, or promising perfection. But that’s impossible. And it’s a little dull when everyone’s on their best behaviour,” Pace continues.

Pace cites Krispy Kreme, Virgin Mobile and M.J. Bale as brave clients he has worked with – clients the agency asked to “take a chance”.

Roberto Pace is the managing director at TBWA’s Eleven PR and FleishmanHillard

“Agencies need to stick to their guns. I think we can back out of something we believe in too quickly. None of our best work was agreed to in the first presentation. Sometimes it’s 10 rounds of pitching over as many months.

“During this time, there’s ways to test things to show how it does (or doesn’t) work, change it, make it better. But fundamentally, it’s about not giving up on an idea if you truly believe there’s merit in it.

“It is the things that make us uncomfortable that are often the start of something exceptional,” he says.

History Will Be Kind’s Granleese concurred arguing “challenging at the right time” is key and agencies shouldn’t be afraid “to pivot when [they] need to” and should not settle.

The bad dreams

Finding an ideal client is obviously on agencies’ wishlists, but it won’t work out every time. So, if you have a client who isn’t ticking the boxes, what do you need to do to turn it around?

Mangnum & Co’s Crowther says: “Bad clients are like bad agencies, they don’t listen and they are too comfortable.

“It’s important to continue testing assumptions and then chasing big ideas,” he says.

FleishmanHillard and Eleven’s Pace brings it back to culture, saying “culture is everything” and any agency or client who believes they’re right all the time will make for an extremely difficult relationship.

“Partnerships need both parties to listen, challenge, change, adapt and do it all over again with the next brief,” he says.

To make a relationship better, Pace says you need to just “call it” – work through the discrepancies and difference, and then move on.

“Little things become big things if they’re not managed. Good partnerships are about riding through the good and the bad together. How well you fare when things are tough is a true indicator of whether the client-agency combo is a good one.

“Be more human. I don’t think getting to know people is necessarily a skill, it should just be something we’re interested in as human beings. When we stop thinking of each other as two sides of the same coin – agency and client – and rather, just a couple of people who want to do good stuff, then great things can happen.

“None of our best work was agreed to in the first presentation. Sometimes it’s 10 rounds of pitching over as many months.”

“It sounds really simplistic, and perhaps it is, but showing who we really are – and upfront – is often the best way to build trust,” he says.

“I’m a firm believer in just having an open conversation to find a way forward,” Granleese adds.

Many of these problems can be circumvented though if agencies only get involved with clients in the first place when they know they can add something, the two companies have aligned values and it is the right fit.

Crowther agrees that if problematic clients are dealt with in the early stages of the partnership – by thinking about intentions and ultimate outcomes – then many roadblocks can be avoided.

“We are in the people business. That is all marketing has ever been about – understanding people. To be effective at bringing brands closer to their audience, we have to work hard on our relationships with clients. That takes time. We work at it – as in any good relationship. It’s never set and forget,” he says.

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