ITL #254 Searching for a global public relations agency: focus on multi-market coordination and budget

4 months ago

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Selecting an agency able to deliver globally while sticking to budget is far from easy. Here are the questions to ask. By Steve Drake.



Our Silicon Valley client’s brief was clear.  The fast-growing firm with an impressive roster of well-known clients worldwide wanted and needed the services of a global public relations firm with demonstrated experience managing multi-market, multi-national accounts -- one that could show itself to be a good steward of a respectable budget for a thought leadership and branding program in key markets in North America, Europe and Asia.

On paper, the candidate agencies we identified and helped our client evaluate were well-qualified.  Each had company-owned and/or affiliate offices in all the requisite markets, and were armed with case studies that trumpeted impressive experience in at least some of those.  

But as the RFP process moved from proposals, to presentations and client reference interviews, deficiencies and flaws among the agencies surfaced.  Chief among them:  (1) weak examples of managing truly global, multi-market accounts; and (2) an inability, or unwillingness (or both) to be creative with a budget, which in this case was set in the high six figures.

Multi-market account coordination and budget management.  These are the issues global public relations agencies must better address when responding to RFPs for global programs.  And they are among the most important criteria prospective clients need to check off during the RFP process.

It’s ironic, but at least one global agency CEO has conceded to us first-hand that only 30 percent of his clients/accounts are truly “global;” yet most global PR agency networks portray a very different impression – unless and until they’re pressed.

Pins on a map

For agencies today, it’s simply not enough to include a graphic in a proposal, or a PowerPoint slide in a presentation, showing a lot of pinpoints on a world map or a lengthy list of affiliates across four continents.  A prospective client with a global brief wants to see and hear about concrete evidence that an agency candidate has successfully managed client work in multiple markets across international boundaries, and has produced the kinds of results sought by the client.

Agencies can and should document such successes in a number of ways, including written case studies, graphically pleasing components of PowerPoint/Prezi presentations, and by lining up client references who can speak knowledgeably about the agency’s global management prowess. With these examples, expertise in a particular sector or industry is less important than a demonstration of multi-market coordination and  budget finesse.

And then there’s an agency’s willingness and ability to work within a prospective client’s budget. Unfortunately, we’ve seen very little of that in the global agency searches RFP Associates has undertaken in recent years.  

In our Silicon Valley client’s case, three agency candidates withdrew from consideration after receiving our RFP, citing their inability to “make the budget work.”  And the two finalists struggled to explain how they would manage the budget across the key European and Asian markets important to the client’s thought leadership program.  They both presented budget options which exceeded the client’s budget ceiling, and which assigned funding levels, but little detail on activity, to regional agency offices in Europe and Asia.

When an agency reacts to an RFP request for budget management detail by walking away or by wringing its hands and complaining that “there’s not enough” to adequately fund a program, it reveals a focus on its geographic business model and/or bottom line – and its inability to think creatively with the prospective client’s needs in mind.

How should an agency more effectively respond to budget management requests in its proposal or new business presentation?  The agency might consider outlining a “typical” month in the life of an account, and offer detail on how agency offices would interact with one another and what kind of results would be produced during that month.  Or, it might conduct research ahead of time and create for the prospective client an “opportunity calendar” presenting potential activities in various markets at various times throughout the year – activities and timing that would enable the agency to make the best use of the client’s available budget, without over-servicing and losing money throughout the year.

More than hours

Either way, the agency should discuss more than how many hours of time a client will receive in each market, and convey to the client that agency personnel can and will be activated and coordinated for the benefit of the client and the proposed program – and not because of an artificial and pre-determined division of revenues to each office or region.

For a client undertaking a search for an agency to serve its communications needs in multiple, international markets, a focus on agency candidates’ true experience managing multi-market programs – and doing so within a prescribed budget – is essential.

A case study or two with detail on how an agency managed a program in France, or China, or another sole market, is inadequate.  A client should ask for explanations of how an agency coordinated a program or campaign across two, three or four international markets simultaneously.  The client should also ask for access to an agency’s client references who can speak in detail about the agency’s performance on those accounts.  And finally, the client should ask for case studies and references that showcase the work of at least some of the individuals identified by the agency as would-be staffers on the prospective client’s account.

On the question of a candidate’s stewardship of a global program budget, a client should be open to alternative budget options.  At the same time, it should insist that agency candidates provide details not only on how they would segment the budget across markets and offices, but also on the specific activities and work that would be accomplished in each.

For our Silicon Valley client, while there were inadequacies on the part of both agency finalists, it was the selected agency’s ability to demonstrate it had experience managing multi-market programs – it would be nimble, and that it would produce results for our client without exceeding the budget offered – which tipped the scales in that agency’s favor.


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The Author

Steve Drake

Steve Drake is a principal and co-founder of RFP Associates, LLC, a U.S.-based communications agency search firm that improves the method of identifying, evaluating and hiring agencies and consultants for programs ranging from single-market projects to global agency-of-record relationships. His 30+ year career includes executive communications positions with corporations and global public relations firms, including FleishmanHillard, for which he launched and managed the firm’s offices in Beijing and Shanghai, China. Twitter: @rfpassoc

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