We all recognize how important it is to choose clients wisely, yet we don’t always do it, and the results can prove damaging: Short-lived and tumultuous partnerships, poor return on new business budgets, and perhaps worst of all, confusion and declining morale among internal personnel who have to witness and live through client-firm conflict.
The process of choosing clients wisely is tricky—more an art than a science. To cast some light on current best practices, we queried several new business experts—Ogilvy Washington’s President Robert Mathias; GolinHarris’s SVP of Business Development Linda Blakely; Gregory FCA’s President Greg Matusky; and the Hoffman Agency’s CEO Lou Hoffman—to discuss their internal thinking and guidelines. The responses we received were lively and disparate, but some dominant themes came through.
The biggest “do”: Devote time and resources to researching the client. Hoffman related that his agency methodically asks—and answers—a number of questions upon considering whether to pursue or accept a piece of business, including whether the kind of work is conducive to Hoffman’s growth, whether the prospect’s budget is realistic, whether senior client executives will be involved, and whether the prospect has a good track record working with PR firms.
Ogilvy’s Mathias likewise emphasizes the importance of direct contact with clients so as to achieve a deeper understanding. “Talk to them before you submit your proposal. An open line of communication enables you to clarify issues, test ideas, and design a program to meet the client’s need. It also helps us get to the clients’ definition of success. We need to know our prospects, not merely assume. Every client is unique, and while you may have generalized knowledge from the last pitch or a previous client relationship, it is important to know your potential client’s issue, space, and goals. Research is key.”
Another, related “do” is to approach the potential new business assignment with the mindset of a partner, not merely that of a vendor. Mathias again: “Vendors take orders and do only what they are told. They feel little responsibility for the client’s ultimate success. Be a partner instead. A partner will adopt the client’s success as his/her own and offer solutions, ideas, and even challenges that a vendor never would.” If you’ve got a prospect for whom you can’t imagine serving as a partner, it’s probably best to say no. GolinHarris’ Blakely offers a similar sentiment, noting that firms should not merely be willing to invest in the new relationship, but “flex” to establish strong relationships. “The lines between advertising, direct marketing, promotion and public relations are being blurred. Be open to clients looking to connect with collaborative partners and be ready to help them understand and adapt to the changing landscape.”
Turning to the “don’ts,” we found that each of our experts had a strong set of criteria in mind for weeding out bad prospects. Gregory FCA’s Matusky advises that firms pass on clients that don’t include budgets in their RFPs, reasoning that “if the prospect won’t tell you their budget, then they aren’t really interested in partnering with a firm to find solutions to their public relations challenges. We learned long ago not to waste our time developing detailed proposals to then find out the prospect doesn’t have the dollars to fund it at a professional level of commitment.”
Also anathema for Matusky: Clients that “look for some kind of creative Hail Mary without any idea of the process behind it. This kind of prospect expects you to create an idea out of thin air and give it away in the RFP, all with the suggestion that if it’s good enough, you win the business. They have no idea that creative is a process that comes out of a partnership and a deep understanding of a client’s business.”
Finally, Matusky advises that firms cast a cautious eye on clients who ask for press references to consult before agreeing to retain them. “This is one that we are seeing more and more in RFPs. Any client who thinks that the media is willing to shill for a PR agency doesn’t understand the unique relationship PR professionals maintain with their media contacts.”
As Hoffman reminded us, assessing a client’s desirability as a partner ultimately boils down to “gut feeling” in addition to the rigorous assessment of data. To maximize analytic rigor, the Council has created Fit to Win, an evaluation-scorecard developed for public relations firms to use as they determine whether or not to pursue a piece of new business. We’ve also developed tools for prospective clients to use, including an RFP Builder and a pamphlet guiding clients through what should really be a two-way selection process.
Selecting the best clients is tough, and we surely just scratched the surface here. So let’s keep the discussion going. What are your key “do’s” and “don’ts” for selecting you next client-partner? We want to know!