Warren Buffett famously said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” No doubt, your company reputation is a valuable asset — and it can go boom or bust based on the agency you pick for public relations and marketing.
Picking the right agency is a critical business decision. When it’s a bad fit, the red-flag warnings can be painfully obvious. But often, they’re not. In fact, about one-third of my company's clients have said they fired their last agency due to low-key, chronic problems. In retrospect, they knew months before the contract ended that the relationship had hit a rut. This got me wondering: What are those subtle signs of a stall?
Based on what I've learned from clients and throughout my time as the CEO of a full-service PR firm, here are warnings signs that are often brushed off by business leaders when working with a marketing company:
1. The agency says yes to everything.
Does your agency agree, without any question, to everything you ask for? Does it rubber stamp a yes, even when your request is a bit outlandish? For example, if the agency approves a press release for your new junior hire who just joined the human resources team, this might be a sign you're not in a good partnership or receiving any guidance.
In my experience, agencies will know when to push back diplomatically, often protecting you from a PR nightmare. If your agency never questions your logic, it could mean it is more interested in the quick win (making you happy in the moment) rather than the end game (building up your company’s reputation).
2. The KPIs are MIA.
If you can’t remember the last time you saw a key performance indicator, it’s time to ask. As they often say, what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done.
Without clear KPIs, things tend to get too comfortable. Your agency relationship can start to feel more like a marriage with no metrics to hold one another accountable. Remember, this is a business partnership, and you need to clearly and regularly be measuring its performance.
3. There’s no innovation.
When you ask your agency about the tools, software and data the team is now using, do you get blank looks? This is a warning you might be working with an agency that has gone stagnant.
If the agency isn’t innovating internally, it’s likely it isn’t raising the bar for you, either. Agencies that accept the status quo tend to take the same cookie-cutter approach representing their clients. If you want an agency that will truly push the envelope, look for proof of it in the agency’s company culture.
4. Diversity is lacking.
Studies have found that diversity can boost creativity. Take a close look at your agency’s entire team. Importantly, ask yourself if there’s diversity at every level, especially among the leadership team.
When an agency has a diverse team in place, it means your strategies will have more depth and versatility. It also brings greater cultural insights, which could open new doors you’re not even privy to yet.
5. There’s too much turnover.
Have your account representatives changed two or three times in a year? That’s troubling, for sure. If that’s the case, you should examine the turnover at the entire agency. If there is a lot of turnover happening across the board, that could be indicative of a toxic workplace.
I say this with a caveat: Proactively changing up your team to give fresh insights is usually a good move. In fact, it shows your agency is aware of creativity becoming stale. So in this context, I'm talking about people leaving the agency at a very high rate.
6. You’re not getting feedback.
By this, I mean that every interview you do is considered great. Every byline draft you send in “works.” But from my perspective, this isn’t thoughtful or constructive feedback, and it can indicate they’re skimping on time and attention.
Ensure your agency is taking the time to explain how something is great or not and why something works or doesn’t. Remember that building a reputation is not simply "handing over the keys." It’s very much a collaboration. Consultants who want to build a long-term, fruitful relationship will do that by educating you along the way.
7. You’ve expanded, but they haven’t.
You started out with a crawl-walk-run approach to PR, and at first, it worked great. But now, you've made several internal marketing hires and have the budget and capacity to take your marketing program to the next level.
If your agency can't provide the support you need or point you in the direction of a partner agency who can, it might be time to part ways. Outgrowing your agency can be uncomfortable, but it’s a growing pain you must work through wisely.