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Edward Bernays would dig me. Seasoned public relations strategist (10+ years in the game) who has practiced PR in multiple cities: Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago & DC. I'm an observationist and a soon to be card carrying member of the Twitterati. I love comfortable silences, revel in the Seinfeldian absurdities of life and have been described as a habitual line stepper. These are my thoughts...

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Take My Junior Staffer…Please

Recently, I was in DC for an interview with a major association. I was having a one-on-one with the VP of Communications and as I normally do in such situations I inquired if the organization handled its PR totally in-house or if they also contracted an outside agency. Having worked in an agency as an account lead, the question allowed me to segue into talking about my experience in that capacity. The VP told me that the association “used to” contract the services of a very big and well known PR agency (name omitted on purpose).

He went on to let me know that the selection of this particular agency was a board/executive team decision. They wanted big results and so they went after a big name with the experience to get big results. I next asked the VP what happened to the relationship and whether or not this “Big Name” agency was able to deliver results. The VP informed me that the results were pedestrian at best and not at all what the association was expecting for the $240K they were shelling out annually (for the math impaired that’s a $20K/mon. retainer). He further indicated that they were unresponsive, inattentive and failed to take advantage of key opportunities to position the organization.

There was one particular incident when he needed to speak to a principal about a crisis communications situation that had arose. The VP thought that paying the $20K per month retainer would at least get you access to an agency leader. But he found that out to be a very false assumption. When he called the agency to seek the counsel of a principal (the same principal that was very active during the pitch meeting) he was blocked by that person’s gatekeeper. The gatekeeper informed the VP that the person he sought was unavailable because he was busy with another client (a major credit card company with lots of commercials on TV).

Because that major credit card company paid millions annually for the agency’s services, it not only got more attention, but the attention of the higher ups. Unfortunately, the associations meager $240K per year did not warrant getting that kinda luv. I asked him, Well what kind of attention did it get you? His reply, “They gave our account to some junior staffer practically fresh out of college with limited experience.” As a result of that treatment and the apparent lack of results, the association decided to discontinue the relationship with the agency and bring all of the PR in-house, hence the reason I was being interviewed for the Director of Media Relations position.

Now, I don’t know how it works at everybody else’s agency, but at the smaller agency I worked at, this association would’ve been a premium client and at the larger agency I worked at, they still would’ve been able to get some top exec handholding for $240K annually. I was astonished by what I had heard. At either agency I worked for, I don’t think the practice of putting a junior staffer on a significant account would’ve been implemented. Or would it?

When I say junior staffer I’m talking account assistant or account executive. I believe anybody from senior account executive on up should be able to lead an account and/or an account team. I myself was leading small to mid-sized accounts from the time I came in the door as an account executive. But should I have been doing so? I knew the frustrations of the association as it pertained to the “bait and switch” because I had been involved in a few. The bait and switch refers to an agency principal being heavily involved in the new business courting and the pitch meeting, but once the account is secured it gets turned over to another staffer to lead and conduct the work.

On the surface this might seem disingenuous or even shady. But so long as no promises were made, that a principal would be “leading” the account or actually doing the work, it was all above board. Many times, I walked into those new biz pitch meetings knowing that I’d be leading the account. So I would try to kill any potential future concerns before they were born.

This might sound crazy but I somewhat agree with the practice of people other than the principal, handling the work and managing the client relations. Depending upon the scope of work and the amount of the project fee or retainer, it may not be the best use of agency time or resources to dedicate a partner to doing the work. There actually is such a thing as you get what you pay for, but that something you pay for should still net you some kind of return. So long as the person leading the account is knowledgeable, qualified, results oriented and attentive to the client, it shouldn’t matter to the organization spending the dough.

Quick antidote: I once led the account for a mid-sized Detroit-based law firm (20 employees). This law firm paid a very modest retainer, but still wanted the attention as if they were paying $240K. For that modest retainer I did a lot of hand holding with the law firm’s president and I generated some pretty decent results. But he wanted a lot more results for the money he was paying. I informed him, that it wasn’t a lack of understanding or ability on my part, but rather that the work necessary to get more results required an increase in account hours, hence a bigger retainer. He didn’t agree with my reasoning. To this client it appeared to him that if he had a partner, as opposed to some account supervisor handling his account, the results would be different. So he proceeded to end around me until he finally got an agency partner on the phone. In the end, the partner calmed his nerves, got the retainer increased and then sent him back to me. Go figure.


  1. Interesting. I hear this all the time. Part of the problem is the client's expectations from the beginning. Funny thing is though - and I'm sure you would agree, sometimes the senior/management/partners etc are best suited to the sales, account managing and business development roles opposed to the media liaison, campaign work. So yes, they are better suited in the pitch and strategy planning stages but often the bulk of the work/results are better handled by mid-level PR's - who manage media liaison everyday and their personal contacts are relevant and updated daily. I found that by explaining to the client that "Miss/Mr X" is the best suited consultant the agency has for their campaign because... and they have achieved excellent results in the past with 'xyz..' etc.
    I think the client gets upset when they are led to believe they will be dealing with one person, and then handed unexpectedly to someone else.

  2. Peta, everything you stated is right on point. And you were accurate in your assumption, I do agree with you. I think the way you laid out the explanation and/or handling of that situation is the best way to go. It's all about managing expectations.