Published On: 17/07/20194.6 min read

By Derek Lowe, CEO of Storm Communications


A good while ago, but I like this metaphor, it was said about a big London PR agency, (best left nameless), that ‘they promised you God but delivered the vicar’. Now whilst in this case it was common knowledge that this agency was known to make clients salivate as they foolishly anticipated PR heaven on earth, the fact is in our world that there is often a mismatch between client expectations and agency promise, and that this can cause a loss of mutual faith generally between clients and agencies.

It’s a feature of our sector for three main reasons. Firstly, the outcomes of what we do are not as specifically guaranteed as in, say our friends in advertising or promotions; we have creative and strategic plans for clients but we cannot be fully held to account for how they play out or how successful they are. Often campaigns exceed expectations, normally they at least meet them, but sometimes they just don’t quite work out as planned. This uncertainty is an inherent aspect within the dynamics of the platforms we work in, traditional and social media.

Secondly, the pitch process for winning client business is inherently fraught with potential disappointment when it comes to the ultimate consummation of the relationship. Pitching for business is a speed-dating, beauty parade-like process where the agency wants to flaunt to win and may ‘big up’ what is achievable, and the client looks optimistically to basking in the afterglow of a golden era of PR excellence.

And in this love-in, the ‘chemistry’ at a pitch is usually a key element in why agencies win, and again here there can be problems when the journey starts. Clients often want to be assured that the senior clergy on the pitch team will be heavily involved and they’ll see a lot of them. But with tight budgets and many other clients’ earthly egos to stroke, this isn’t always possible in practice, and they get upset when their day-to-day contact is with the choirboy and not the bishop ( I know, I have to be careful with this analogy).

Equally, from the agency side it’s only after the honeymoon of the pitch that we sometimes realise that our new client is needy/high maintenance/obsessive-compulsive/anally-retentive/aggressive/incompetent, and that’s just the good ones! But seriously, it is when the day-to-day mundane housework of living together sets in that can cause clients on the one hand, to be disappointed and unfulfilled, and agencies, on the other, to feel frustrated and unappreciated, precisely because the mutual expectations were not clarified.

Thirdly, we are just not paid enough for what we do, PR budgets are generally poor. In the last thirty years we have seen not just a real (inflation indexed) but an actual decline in typical retainer budgets. One problem is that poor quality agencies and freelancers force price expectations down. When clients have had bad or mediocre PR experiences they will inevitably perceive prices to be lower. And the trend towards project activity means each project ‘peak; is seen as delivering value, but each ‘trough’ a reason to question costs and future plans, whereas retainers even things out.

Then there is the fact that in the PR world we broadly provide two types of service often in one overall package. One is professional counsel about communications strategy and reputation management, and the other the more functional and commoditised media relations or social media activity. The latter is perceived as cheaper than the former, but clients often expect both all-inclusive for the lower price.

But on a positive note this tale of woe really is not the whole picture, most client expectations are managed well, otherwise we wouldn’t have a business. And clearly when things are going well both sides have to be happily married, and that happiness is based on honesty.

It’s very important for the agency to be honest upfront and throughout, and manage expectations at the outset of a campaign. You’ve agreed to get hitched, so it can save a lot of later heartache if you make sure your vows are specific and accountable, by taking the time with the client to agree what the measurables are and what success would look like. It boils down to specifying in detail things like the quality and quantity of media coverage, social media metrics, or reputational shift over an agreed period. Anything left vague could be an issue when a lover’s spat erupts.

And you know you’re then on the same hymn-sheet when clients also really understand what PR is and can achieve, how an agency’s time is best spent, and are good at managing the agency relationship efficiently.

And from a budget perspective, at the outset it’s important to try and make clients understand that whilst they think they are buying outcomes, they are not paying by results but paying for our professionalism and time, so that on the one hand the agency is not dragged into over-servicing, and on the other the client learns not to ask the agency to do anything and everything that falls on their desk because they think they have an open ended resource.

At the end of the day a client with managed expectations that are met is going to be happy. One that from day one was expecting the celestial host was never going to do cartwheels when presented with the curate’s egg.