Agency-Client Relations: Time After Time

In a post-digital world, the relationship between brands and organizations and their PR agencies is a complex one. There are more and more moving parts to the relationship, with both sides of the table crunched for time and, ultimately, solid returns. That’s why it’s increasingly crucial that time management live at the center of the relationship, according to Linda Rutherford, VP-Chief Communications Officer at Southwest Airlines. Gould+Partners recently caught up with Rutherford to get her take on how to tackle time (there still are just 24 hours in a day) and, in doing so, enhance agency-client relations.

Linda Rutherford, VP/ CCO, Southwest Airlines. Agencies need to push clients to take the time to arrive at the right strategy and insights, she said.
Linda Rutherford, VP/ CCO, Southwest Airlines. Agencies need to push clients to take the time to arrive at the right strategy, she said.

Gould+Partners: What’s the biggest challenge for effective agency-client relations right now? 

Linda Rutherford: The biggest challenge in agency-client relations right now is probably time. We are all time-starved; agencies need to be productive with their talent and clients need results. Sometimes, in an effort to “move the needle” we jump to action and tactics. We serve each other better if as clients we would slow down and listen to our agencies when they tell us it will take XX months to do the research, get the results, provide the insights and guide the strategy. Agencies need to take a stronger stance and push clients to take the time to arrive at the right strategy and insights. If we are reduced to implementing tactics because we are all in such a hurry all the time, we will ultimately not be the good partners to the business that we want to be.

Gould+Partners: In the current climate, what are the top priorities for PR agency owners looking for better retention with their clients? 

Rutherford: PR agency owners should be going deep with their clients to fully understand the business problems they are trying to solve. It’s no longer just about the communications strategy, but about the business strategy and what role, then, should communications play to help bring the strategy to life. Today, that means much more than the narrative and the collateral. It means a research-based, omni-channel strategy with measurable results. From a talent and services perspective, agencies big and small need to figure out how to meet the multiple potential needs of their clients.

Gould+Partners: What’s the most effective and overall strategy for PR agencies to help clients boost their online marketing efforts?  

Rutherford: I don’t know that there is one silver bullet, because it depends on the key audiences the clients are trying to reach. Is the organization B-to-B or B-to-C? Are we looking at lead generation or conversion rates? Is it about building community for your organization’s owned online platforms? PR agencies need to be crisp on what challenge needs tackling for the client and offer strategies that hit the mark. I believe it’s also necessary to mutually define what success looks like. When we say boost online marketing efforts, do we mean increase online sales, lead generations, conversion rates, increased talent sourcing, etc.? We should be specific, particularly in this evolving digital space.

Gould+Partners: What are brands and organizations lacking from PR agencies right now, in terms of digital media services?

Rutherford: What’s missing is standard measurement and a view of success of the service provided. While most PR agencies offer analytics, they are often a product of a proprietary algorithm or “black box.” The issue is raised when the PR pro brings his/her data to the table and it doesn’t match up with what Marketing or Operations is already providing to the C-suite. The data in the digital world is much easier to get; we just need to agree what it means. Terms like “engagement” and “influence” are being hotly debated and we still lack a standard measurement by which to view the data.

Gould+Partners: How can PR agency owners boost their value when it comes to participating in integrated marketing programs?

Rutherford: Agency owners can boost their value by being chief integration officers. Taking charge and ensuring each agency/vendor has the proper swim lanes, assignments and deliverables takes the pressure off the client to have to manage egos and turf battles. If I have to spend too much time managing the agencies working well together versus getting the strategy and deliverables, I’ll find another agency to work with next time. See time-starved comment above; there is much to do and there is little time to waste it parsing out and dealing with hurt feelings.

(This is the first article in a periodic series regarding agency-client relations. Do you have clients at the senior level who are willing to share their thoughts and strategies for how to improve agency-client relations? If so, please let us know.)