The COVID-19 pandemic has forced companies of all sizes to reassess their operations, including how a public relations or communications agency fits into the mix, and taking a hard, honest look at the value a relationship with an agency provides.
For Bellmont Partners, the past 10 months have reinforced much of what we already knew to be true regarding how we and our clients work together. One of our agency’s core values is flexibility, which has been acutely important in the midst of a global health crisis.
The pandemic and its accompanying emphasis on flexibility has also presented several opportunities to become more efficient and effective, and do an even better job at meeting our clients exactly where they are when it comes to how they need to work with agencies.
If you’re considering changing communications agencies in 2021, or working with an agency for the first time, here are five things to keep in mind:
Your agency’s role doesn’t have to be as rigid as you might expect. It’s common to begin a relationship with an agency with a one-year or six-month engagement to build momentum and provide an ample opportunity for both sides to get to know each other. While Bellmont Partners often begins this way, we also have the ability to jump in and get quickly immersed in a short-term project or be tapped on a project-by-project basis. Many of our clients are long-established relationships, in some cases we are the agency of record. Often we collaborate with – and complement – our clients’ other agencies, from advertising to digital marketing to branding, web design and more. But all of our client relationships have started and evolved in different ways, and we have plenty of less formal relationships with many of the organizations we work with. Sometimes those relationships expand into an ongoing or even agency-of-record engagement, but other times, it works best to stick with occasional projects. Find an agency that’s willing to work with you in whatever way works best for your situation and needs.
An agency should act as an extension of your team. Especially with increased layoffs or furloughs since the pandemic began, it’s more important than ever to find an agency that can serve a specific purpose exactly when you need it. Are you looking for an agency to bring big ideas to the table, but your own team can implement? Do you prefer an agency that pushes you to try new things, and then holds you accountable? Do you see your agency’s role as uncovering opportunities and making connections? Do you need a nimble team that can easily execute on the ground? Or all of the above? Bellmont Partners uses a combination of approaches, depending on what our clients need – and we adjust along the way.
For some clients, we focus on more strategic work. But this past year in particular, we’ve had clients reach out to us for things they either just don’t have time to do or because they lost a member of their team, or a team member just getting started in their career needs some direction or help from us. And our work has been turned up or down, which doesn’t mean a pile of paperwork — they can just let us know. We love working with clients that have built trust in us and call or email us just to get an opinion on something that may not even be directly related to what we’re working on. Especially as meetings continue to stay virtual, and we miss out on opportunities to gather around a single table, having partners and vendors that feel and act like a natural extension of your team is critical.
Bigger isn’t necessarily better. While there are certainly benefits to working with large, international agencies with offices across the world, smaller shops have their advantages as well. Our clients tell us they appreciate the access they have to senior leadership: all of our team members, from the president to assistant account executives, work directly on accounts, and keep their skills honed through professional development. And because we’re not beholden to a corporate office on the other side of the country, all of our 16 team members are empowered to make important decisions to better serve our clients. We are in constant communication with clients about budgets and adjusting if an out-of-scope opportunity or challenge presents itself, rather than surprising them at the end of the month with an unexpected invoice. We make choices based on what our clients need. Consider what’s important to your team, always talk to references or those who have worked with the agency before and ask them what about the partnership worked, as well as what didn’t.
Keep an eye on consistency. If there’s a complaint we’ve heard most often from clients who come to us after working with another agency, it’s that they’ve had to spend countless hours bringing new people up to speed, since their agency team changed often. At Bellmont Partners, we’ve made a big investment in our company culture, which in turn delivers the consistency our clients crave. It’s been more than two years since a team member has left our agency, and a big part of that is due to our focus on a people-first culture. Many of our relationships and client engagements extend back a decade or more. Don’t ignore Best Places to Work awards as one gauge of how an agency functions — awards don’t tell the whole story, of course, but they do recognize the agencies where team members are engaged in what they do and the clients they work with.
Look for a partner, not a vendor. The best agency relationships are built on a foundation of two-way trust, where your agency team is integrated into and up to speed on your company’s operations. Because our clients feel comfortable giving us access to the C‑suite and to overarching strategy, operational challenges, sensitive information, opportunities and metrics, time and time again we’ve been able to offer valuable counsel and perspective on areas of the business you wouldn’t ordinarily classify as “communications-related.” How do you find an agency that will work to become a true, integrated and long-term partner rather than an order-taking, transactional vendor? Talk with current and former agency clients to find out where the agency and its people thrive, and where they need work. Are they responsive, results-oriented and passionate? Will they make your job easier? Do they have a variety of skillsets to tap if your scope of work changes throughout the year? Those are the agencies that deserve a second look. Seek out a collaboration that you’ll look forward to strengthening every day, rather than an agency that might say all the right things on paper, but may drop the ball when it comes time to really get to work.
Your agency relationship should work for you and your organization. If you’re struggling to find the right fit, we hope these tips may help hone your search and clarify your expectations for the results of partnering with an agency. If it sounds like we might be a good fit for what you’re looking for, we’re always happy to discuss how we can support your team’s evolving needs.