There are more PRs in the UK than bricklayers, or bar managers. The global communications industry continues to grow and B2B marketers have to be sure-footed when commissioning an agency.
So how do you pick a PR?
I spoke to some trusted industry figures and put together some tips for choosing a B2B PR agency.
Understand how you’ll reach your audience (before you engage PRs)
You should be thinking about the channels that are important to your customers well before you meet face-to-face with an agency. This will help you shortlist PRs with the right experience and it will vastly speed up your selection process.
Chris Hides, Global Managing Director of M&C Saatchi PR, says: “Think carefully about how your target audiences consume media – are they reading print titles, watching videos, or engaging with physical events? Once you’ve identified the best way to reach your audience then you can develop and refine your message to suit that channel.”
Hides continues, “If you have a clear understanding of the channels you want to use, then finding an agency that can support these activities becomes a much simpler prospect.”
Choose local PR for local audiences
Many B2B marketers target very specific geographic markets. If that’s you, it pays to look for and invest in local PR expertise. You should ask for evidence of well-developed regional media contacts and an agency’s ability to pitch something nuanced and newsworthy at a local level.
Pete Davies, managing director of Sugar PR in Manchester, recently worked on a local campaign with PayByPhone, the car parking app: “I’m a big believer in using regional PR agencies if you are a marketer for a brand with international reach. PayByPhone is a global business but it makes use, sensibly, of regional and local agencies who have a better understanding of local media agendas and also better contacts on the ground to make things happen in a country or region.“
If you’re thinking about expanding to new territories in future, ask if your agency can link you up with a local partner to help deliver.
Louisa Papachristou, Director of London-based Halo PR, says: “PR is about building and maintaining relationships and nothing beats being in situ, understanding a market and getting to know its media. While I’m happy to help get clients up and running in other territories with a PR strategy for example, I would always recommend they find a local partner for ongoing support.”
Don’t say no to social
For some B2B organisations with a small or non-existent social presence, it’s easy to be cynical about agency promises to build influence and reach. But social can provide a direct route to customers and influencers, to share the content generated by your campaigns at low cost.
Chris Hides, again: “Allowing your organisation to carefully control its message while targeting the audiences that will be most receptive to it, [social] offers a hugely effective avenue for business development support and pipeline generation.”
Success comes down to two factors, Hides says, “firstly, choosing the social channels that will best engage your audience, and secondly, having a clear view on your organisation’s desired outcomes.”
Be focused and use some simple, low volume metrics to track success; conversations started and lead generation, for example.
Expect your agency to be a customer
Ready to invite a handful of the right agencies to pitch? You should expect all of them to appear in your sales pipeline before they turn up with their presentations. Every agency should be trying to understand your customer journey by getting involved themselves and even purchasing your product.
Chris Hides makes it clear what you should expect from any agency worth their salt: “When it comes to ‘understanding’ your business – the first clear indicator is the involvement and effort an agency has gone to during the pitch. Have they spoken to customers? Gone through the user journey themselves?”
“From a B2B perspective, PR often represents a support arm to the sales function. Therefore, any prospective agency must have a clear understanding of how your organisation makes money – what are the revenue streams, what are the sales channels and where are your present and future opportunities?”
Get the strategy right…
You’re calling in an agency because you need advice on comms strategy, but you should be ready to check that their advice aligns with the wider business need. What are the key outcomes you need to see, and how will you report on them as part of your wider marketing mix?
For a handy marketing model to think about your strategy, see Ashley Friedlein’s Modern Marketing Model (M3).
You’re likely to be committing a sizeable chunk of your annual budget so it’s important you don’t get carried away with creative ideas during the pitch. Many forget to think about this beforehand and that can slow progress or, worse, catch you out if you don’t see the results you expect.
…then you can trust your gut
“Spotting good creativity is an entirely subjective exercise,” says Chris Hides. But if you’ve done your homework and you’re sat in a boardroom watching a pitch for your investment, it helps to have some framework to make a judgment.
Hides adds: ”The best way to test a creative strategy is by its power to persuade you – is it able to tackle your organisation’s problem? Does it convince you that it’s the right approach to address a new opportunity in the market? Does it make you look at your organisation in a different light? And when it comes to creative tactics, it goes even deeper – you must trust your gut.”
Don’t be afraid to ask in detail about comms tactics. Pete Davies weighs in: “Plenty is waffled by agencies about great work they’ve done for other clients. What you really want to know is what great work they will do for you. It’s easy to do PR for famous brands with unlimited budgets. It’s a lot trickier with challenger brands in the B2B marketplace in 2018 with a more limited budget.”
“You want your PR agency to acknowledge that and explain how they are going to get a decent share of voice where larger, bigger budget competitors may be drowning them out.“
Look beyond the pitch team to your day-to-day
It’s really important that there is good natural chemistry between you as the client and the people who will be actually handling your account. Not just the senior partners that turn up to the initial pitch.
Ask who will be working on your campaigns (not just the account manager) and if possible meet them face-to-face.
Pete Davies says the wider team’s understanding of your business is crucial, as well as the chemistry you share: “The most important question to consider is: “can I actually sit in a closed room with these people again, for two hours, and talk about my business?”
Ask for transparency
If you haven’t worked with a PR agency before, it can feel like a black box of processes and a potential black hole for your marketing budget.
Don’t be afraid to ask for complete clarity on an agency’s rates and other costs, and what this gets you. Even if you’re clear on day rates, do you know how much work is needed to achieve the results you want?
And if you’re not ready to commit to a long term working relationship, ask if you can try an agency on a short campaign first.
Louise Papachristou says: “I generally work with all clients on a trial basis to start with. A short project gives both parties the opportunity to work together and see what the dynamic is. During this period, I’ll spend time getting to know a client’s business, its people and its culture. If the chemistry is right for both client and agency, and the relationship is working, this will often progress to a longer-term partnership.”