Four Questions Every Marketer Should Ask Before a PR Pitch (But Very Few Do)

By Jane Ainsworth on 1st May 2019

I estimate that in the 27 years WPR has been in business, we have pitched well over 1,000 times, for business large and small.  We’ve been asked hundreds of different questions by thousands of different people, and can largely predict what will come at both the ‘beauty parade’ stage, and in the final pitch process.

What constantly surprises us, however, is not the questions we are asked, but the ones we almost never are.

Knowing the industry as well as do, we think there are four questions which will help marketing teams identify the agencies that will deliver for them long term.  Yes, the pitch has got to be good, the approach well thought-through, the ideas compelling, the budget in the right parish, and the team a good fit – but if you want to better understand the level and quality of service you will get, once the initial honeymoon period is over and the hard work is just beginning, we believe these will do the trick:

 

1. What are your billings per head?

Potential clients often ask us where they would sit on our client portfolio based on their proposed spend.  Usually this comes from clients who have been with a very large agency and have been left feeling like a small fish in a huge pond.  Their requests seem to get picked up last, and work feels rushed.

We’re not saying this is a bad question, but the answer could be misleading.  If the agency has lots of clients around the £50,000 mark, and your budget is £55,000 – you could be led to believe you would be a VIP, when (in reality) there is barely a cigarette paper between your monthly profit for the agency compared to the client next on the list –  who might shout louder, or be a flagship brand the agency has taken on as a loss leader.

The question we would ask is this: what is your revenue per employee?

Most (but not all) agencies work to a staff utilisation target – allowing some time for training, downtime, overserving clients, staying in touch with industry news, working on new business pitches, brainstorming ideas for existing clients etc, with the vast majority of the remaining time billed to clients.

From a client perspective, you want to see lower billings per head.  This suggests that the team will have time to service your account properly – to put in extra time when needed, to develop reactive ideas, to deepen their understanding of your business and market, to work on their own personal development and to have some sort of work/life balance.

It could give you an indication of how their day rate looks compared to the market too.

If you don’t want to ask (or you want to sense check what are you being told), PR Week publishes this information for the larger PR agencies on an annual basis.

 

2. What is your staff retention rate?

Countless would-be clients over the years have told me they are looking into changing agencies because the staff turnover on their account became intolerable; none has ever asked me what our staff retention rate is.

Decent agencies will track this, and many will have some sort of KPI around it.

You want a clear number and it needs to be calculated on the number of employees who were with the company at the start of the last financial year, and were still with them by the end.

A word of warning though – PR is a high churn industry, especially in London.  Figures we have seen suggest 50% is around average so anything above that is good for larger agencies (higher in the regions). 75% and above is excellent.

 

3. What is your client retention rate?

Again, huge numbers of potential clients have asked us for contact details of two or three people they can approach for a reference.  This is quite understandable and should certainly form a part of good due diligence process.

However, no client-to-be has ever quizzed us on our client retention rate.

The reference process allows the agency to cherry-pick the clients most likely to say nice things about them, so supplementing that information with some bigger picture information could be useful.

You need the agency to base its calculations on number of contracts lost, not value of contracts lost, otherwise the data could be skewed and not a fair representation of the strength of the agency’s client relationships.

Winning and losing clients is part of agency life, so no large, established company will be able to offer up a 100% figure.  Anything above 80% is a strong score you can definitely take comfort from.

 

4. What can I expect?

As an agency person, I have skipped into many new business meetings clutching examples of our work to show to a potential client.  Naturally, I select the campaigns I am most proud of.

No client has ever asked me to bring them an example of all the coverage we have delivered for a client in a similar market, with a similar spend, or a summary of everything we have achieved over the course of a year for a client with a similar brief and budget.

I proactively shared this with a client-to-be recently and I really think it helped us to secure the business. They had a clearer understanding of what they could expect for the money, as opposed to a general understanding of all the amazing things we could as an agency.

So, there are the four questions we would ask if we were on the other side of the fence (which alas we are not!) I’m not suggesting for one second that you should ask these instead of your usual question; I mean as well as.

There are many, many outstanding PR agencies out there and I truly believe these questions, along with yours, will help you to find the perfect match for your business.

 

The author: Jane Ainsworth is managing director of WPR. She has over 20 years’ experience in developing and delivering communications strategies for consumer brands including Dunelm, Tesco, Mothercare, Greene King, John Lewis, Bullring, Beaverbrooks and Westfield.