An Interview with Corporate Ink’s Amy Bermar, Part 2: How to Approach a PR Agency Search

This is the second in a two-part series on how to shop for a PR firm. Thomas Kase talked to Amy Bermar, president of Corporate Ink, a PR firm focused on supply chain clients, who shared some insider knowledge from her experience on all sides of the agency pitch — selecting, winning, and losing. Read Part 1 here

Thomas Kase: What’s should I look for when the PR agencies present?

Amy Bermar: The smartest PR should be tied directly to what drives your revenue – which means understanding the buyer, the sales process, and what’s driving growth. Unfortunately, that’s not (yet) how most companies search for a PR team.

A lot of people still think PR means just news, a social presence, coverage, search, and visibility. Which is great. It’s also only the beginning. For a good PR firm and their clients it should be more interesting to talk about searches, demand-gen, buyer profiles, pipeline, and market-qualified leads.

We all love a great headline, of course! A few features – usually in The New York Times or Wall Street Journal – can decisively shape market thinking and immediately add to a company’s valuation. But we also like to talk about campaigns that drive tangible ROI. Examples include delivering 800 downloads, tripling first-time visitors’ time on site, and doubling the pipeline in a single quarter – tangible, measurable success that drives revenue.

TK: How common is this approach to ROI?

AB: Not so much right now, but it should become the norm in probably three to five years. CEOs will ultimately require a quantifiable return on their marketing and PR spending.

TK: What should you measure?

AB: It sounds obvious, but the first step is to get a 20/20 view of the biggest problem to solve. What does that mean? Well, most companies face three sales challenges that marketing can address. They need to build demand, stand out from the competition, and close deals faster. The best PR and marketing campaigns speak directly to solving those problems.

TK: With all this in mind, what’s the best way to do an agency search?

AB: You can simplify the process by refining your wants and needs before you begin. Start with only four to five firms; there’s no need to interview 10 to get to five. It’s generally a far more effective (and apples-to-apples) competition if you know whether you want a large firm, a boutique, or a freelancer. Having one of each doesn’t give you much basis for comparison.

Then, share a brief that addresses your market opportunity and challenges, priorities, metrics for success, and budget guidance. (This is classic Spend Matters advice in all RFP processes – tell suppliers about yourself and your goals. It’s especially important in strategic relationships of this nature. It’s good to think in advance about how to weigh the creative factors too, as well as operational concerns. Here are some useful considerations.

How important is it that the team provide “strategic” advice and industry expertise?
(This can include new positioning, breakthrough creativity and industry insights.)

Why should you ask this? Many companies are struggling to create enough high-value content that customers and prospects will read. If that’s the case, then having a team that understands the buyers and can bring new ideas is worthwhile.

Do you want most of the help to be execution – and making sure no story gets written without you? During a search, most companies emphasize strategy and creativity, but sometimes, “arms and legs” for producing content and pitching the media is the real priority. It’s worth being honest about what matters most.

Do proximity and time zones matter? Having an agency in the same city is nice, but not essential. Meeting face-to-face at least twice yearly is usually provides a strong foundation for strategy, relationships and day-to-day communication.

How will you communicate? Assuming there’s a tight agenda, calls every other week can be sufficient, and it will avoid burning budget. One additional tip is to cover all the routine checklist items in email, before the call. Surprisingly, not enough agencies do this.

TK: How about an RFP process?

AB: We’ve seen that pushing PR firm selection through an RFP process is increasingly common, even for programs with modest budgets, and you’ll want to determine at what level of spend an RFP makes sense. As a rule of thumb, it may not be worth the time and internal cost for an annual budget less than $180,000, especially if the metrics and performance targets are already clear.

Spend Matters takeaways

  • Media is still important – but not for the reasons you might think. A few major media outlets still carry real weight with buyers – but most prospects don’t make enough time to read, anything, in any form. So your news will reach them, eventually, but in ways that you’re not likely to shape. And only when they’re likely to want to discover it.
  • Focus on the firms that really want your business. Are they asking about your strategy and vision? Giving you new ideas? Sending media opportunities your way? Those are good signs.
  • The best firms may spend 100 hours or more on your pitch, even at the more modest level.
  • Meet the whole team. You’ll be working with everyone, not just the names on the door.
  • Ask them to set realistic metrics.
  • Provide a budget. This way, you’ll get a much better sense of what you can do – as opposed to what you might do.

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