Guest post by Simon Locke, of Communications Match

At this moment, thousands of companies are looking for and evaluating communications agencies with expertise in areas including public relations, internal communications, government relations, SEO, content and digital marketing.

Most are looking for new capabilities or to replace existing firms. Many others, generally startups or small or medium-sized firms, are seeking agencies for the first time because they’ve reached the point in the arc of their development where they need help to grow their business.

Recent research from CommunicationsMatch™ and Researchscape highlights the dynamics of the search process and the willingness of companies to change agencies.

The main finding of the CommunicationsMatch 2017 Agency PR & Communications Agency Search Report is the importance of word of mouth in the agency search process. In fact, 76% of respondents cited “asking peers” as the primary resource to find agencies. Google, LinkedIn, associations and trade media were cited by 20% or less of the respondents.

Similarly, when we asked agencies during the development process of CommunicationsMatch how they thought they were found, word of mouth was considered vital. They also said search engines and associations were important.

Word of mouth is clearly key, but it has its limitations. Remember dating before the internet? We were limited to who our friends knew or random encounters. That’s still how many companies find agencies. And since, for the most part, the people we know tend to look like us – this is not a recipe for finding diverse firms.

Technology revolutionized dating by giving us the ability to find people with the personality traits that fit our needs. This is what CommunicationsMatch is doing in the communications industry by giving companies the ability to search by industry and communications expertise, location, size, women and minority ownership, membership organizations and designations, and much more.

A key takeaway from Researchscape’s study, Public Relations Customer Experience Benchmark Survey,” is that while companies say they are happy with existing agencies, a large number are open to hiring new agencies. The study reports high levels of satisfaction—77% being very or completely satisfied. Despite this, only half the respondents said they’d be reluctant to switch firms. Indeed, our Agency Search Report revealed 37% of respondents were actively looking for new agencies.

Although companies primarily said they were searching for new digital capabilities, the lesson is this: satisfaction may be high, but inertia, as a measure of resistance to moving, is low.

There are a number of potential reasons. These include: PR or other communications skillsets are seen as a commodity and the services offered are not that different between firms; companies may say they are satisfied, but this isn’t the best metric for retention; and finally, when companies only have a limited pool of firms to select from, they don’t know if the agency they have engaged is really the best fit. As a result, they may well have a view that “the grass may be greener” with other firms, making them more likely to consider other options.

As a former head of communications for leading financial institutions around the world and founder of agencies, I know from experience that no two agencies are the same. It’s a mistake to think otherwise.

Communications is a people industry. Every professional has different experiences, along with every firm. It is important to find candidate agencies and professionals with the expertise and fit that best meet a company’s specific needs.

When they have the broadest view across the industry companies are most likely to find agencies and professionals with the best match for their needs and personality fit. We believe the combination of a technology-driven search platform and a comprehensive and effective RFP, interview or reference process (both are offered through CommunicationsMatch), provides the best path to hiring success.

When it comes to asking the right questions of companies about retention – what we ask is important, but what agencies do is the most instructive. Agency churn is a significant issue. The Researchscape study shows that generating earned media is the leading indicator of satisfaction, which may not be a surprise, but it is important to consider other metrics of performance as well. One powerful indicator of retention that encapsulates many of these metrics is: “Am I generating a satisfactory ROI on the money I am spending?”

Lastly, we believe the question “is the grass greener?” should be addressed with agency searches that go beyond word-of-mouth. In fact, anecdotal evidence from RFP Associates, a CommunicationsMatch partner company, reveals that when an agency is hired following a fair, open and extensive RFP process, the client-agency relationship tends to be deeper, last longer, and, in many cases, be award-winning.

This echoes what we have seen when it comes to dating: if you’ve looked at all of your options and have found someone who really matches your needs, you’re more likely to marry that individual. For most, this deeper relationship is most beneficial for both parties – in our case, companies and agencies.

The findings of the CommunicationsMatch and Researchscape studies raise a number of issues companies looking to hire communications firms and agencies need to consider. Among them is the idea that while word of mouth may be an efficient way to find candidate agencies, a more disciplined process that looks beyond who you or your peers know, to evaluate firms with skillsets that match your needs, is most likely to lead to long-term agency relationships and the greatest ROI.

CommunicationsMatch is a search platform that helps companies find and engage communications agencies and consultants by industry and communications expertise, location, size, and more. The site has 5,000 agencies and consultant profiles in areas including: crisis communications, public relations, internal communications, government affairs, investor relations, content marketing, social media, SEO, website development, photography and video. Listing & Search are Free. See more Insights articles and videos on our Insights Blog. Prior to founding CommunicationsMatch, Locke held senior corporate communications roles at Prudential Financial, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank and founded communications consultancies.

Author Notes:

Jeffrey Henning

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Jeffrey Henning, IPC is a professionally certified researcher and has personally conducted over 1,400 survey research projects. Jeffrey is a member of the Insights Association and the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers. In 2012, he was the inaugural winner of the MRA’s Impact award, which “recognizes an industry professional, team or organization that has demonstrated tremendous vision, leadership, and innovation, within the past year, that has led to advances in the marketing research profession.” In 2022, the Insights Association named him an IPC Laureate. Before founding Researchscape in 2012, Jeffrey co-founded Perseus Development Corporation in 1993, which introduced the first web-survey software, and Vovici in 2006, which pioneered the enterprise-feedback management category. A 35-year veteran of the research industry, he began his career as an industry analyst for an Inc. 500 research firm.