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Running a successful tender: How to choose the right PR agency for you

Recently, I wrote about mistakes that PR agencies make when they pitch to in-house Public Relations teams. But what steps should companies take to ensure that their tender process is a success? I’m delighted to say that after a lengthy tender process, I’m delighted with the choice we have made and definitely feel that we got the best team for our culture and budget.
Here are some tips to get the best PR agency for you.

1. Create a detailed briefing document

Write a detailed brief that outlines your PR needs, the organisation’s business objectives for the next year or two, who your main competitors are and what your company stands for (if you’re worried about confidentiality, have all participants sign a non-disclosure agreement).

It can seem like you’re doing the agency’s job for them, but by approaching it this way you get the most out of the process – the agency gets to spend their prep time on coming up with a creative pitch instead of doing research, and you get a successful tender where you don’t have to listen to pitches that completely misunderstand your business.

2. Give them a ballpark budget

Some prefer not to give the game away when it comes to budget, figuring that if you tell them you have X to spend, the pitch will invariably come in just above that figure. However, it’s important to be able to compare apples with apples. A small, local PR agency with three people on staff might be a lot cheaper than a big international outfit, but their capabilities are likely to be a lot more limited.

Choose agencies of similar standing that are likely to be able to meet your needs and tell them roughly how much you want to spend. Then, sit back and watch which agency offers the most bang for your buck – some will impress with creative campaigns that don’t cost a fortune, while others will sadly choose to put forward the same old ideas that have been knocking around for years.

Ultimately, you know what’s in your budget for this – you know how much you have to spend. So the question becomes who will spend it most wisely.

3. Get detailed credentials

Ask for a deck with credentials. Most agencies have a standard deck that includes some background information, awards won, local and global officers, testimonials, high profile clients, capabilities and specialities. This will be updated to include the specific details of the Account Director, Manager and Executives that will work on your account.

Assess these documents carefully in deciding who to take through to the next stage. Our experience showed that you should judge a book by its cover – the most professional looking decks showed great attention to detail and invariably came from those with the most professional pitches.

4. Screen agencies over the phone

Once you have reviewed the decks, paying careful attention to testimonials from other clients, you’re ready to start shortlisting.

If senior managers are going to be involved, it can be difficult to book a lot of time in their diaries, and you don’t want to take up their time with agencies that definitely are not a fit – conduct screening over the phone to make sure this doesn’t happen.

For the agency, it’s an opportunity for them to ask questions and get a better sense of you as a company. For you, it’s a valuable opportunity to gauge professionalism, experience and team fit, and ensure a successful tender without the significant effort that does into face-to-face meetings.

5. Choose top agencies for face-to-face meetings

After phone screenings, set up face-to-face meetings with the agencies that you feel fit your culture best, who will be able to hit your KPIs, and – importantly – who will fall within your budget. Insist that the team who would take care of the account if they won attends the meeting – there’s no point meeting with three Directors with their vast swathes of experience when a 23-year-old graduate will be doing most of the work on the account.

Create a spreadsheet that lists the criteria the agencies will be ranked on, and mark them based on a clear, transparent basis. Columns could include experience, creativity, budget, personality, response to your brief and overall strength of pitch. The criteria you choose will depend on your specific needs – the important thing is that each agency is given a fair shout, and none receives preferential treatment.

This ensures the best outcomes for your PR department, and also means you have a clear document showing how and why you made your choice when Legal and Compliance come knocking.

6. Bring two back as finalists

After the first round of face-to-face interviews, gather the decision-makers for a meeting. Compare notes. Usually, you’ll find that most people pick up on the same strengths and weaknesses in a pitch, although discussions can turn up some additional observations and help to iron out any confusion. Add up your scores from your spreadsheet and eliminate the two lowest ranking agencies. Then, invite the two finalists back.

The first face-to-face meeting is very much an introduction, with both sides explaining a little about their company’s history, and where they are today. The second meeting is much more detailed, delving into proposed strategies and even specific campaign ideas. Budget may be discussed in more detail. Personalities will matter, as these are people you’ll be working closely with – which team seems like they can stay calm and deliver under pressure? Which team seems like they would be pleasant to work with on a daily basis?

7. Make an offer

Rank the agencies against objective and subjective criteria once again, and make your preferred agency an offer. You may want to bring in members of your Legal, Finance or Procurement teams at this point to help with the paperwork. Set Service Level Agreements in the contract, and retain the agency for no more than three years at a time.

So, that’s my experience of going through a successful tender process. How do you go about hiring for agencies that will be on big contracts? Leave a comment.

Strategic Communications: The Science Behind the Art is a practical guide to creating integrated communications campaigns. It’s all about achieving optimum PR outcomes using the PESO model. Pre-order it now.

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