Hiring PR & Communications Agencies? Looking to Win Business? New Agency Search Research Offers Lessons from the Fortune 1000 


Simon Erskine Locke, CEO, CommunicationsMatch

Steven Drake & Robert Udowitz, Principals, RFP Associates

Tony Cheevers, Vice President, Researchscape

The interim results of our new survey of CCOs, CMOs and decision makers at Fortune 1000 companies and large not-for-profit organizations offer important takeaways for current PR and communications agency search practices and agencies seeking new business.  Watch a short video summary of the results here: How Companies Search For PR Agencies.   

Presented at the Institute for Public Relations Research’s Bridge Conference in Washington, D.C. on April 11, 2019, the findings of the survey conducted by CommunicationsMatch™ and RFP Associates, in collaboration with communications research company Researchscape International, reveal the reliance of communications leaders on their knowledge of and experience with agencies, and on word-of-mouth recommendations from professional peers during the agency selection process. In fact, almost two-thirds (64%) of respondents cited wordof-mouth and 70 percent said they rely on their industry knowledge when they start an agency search and hiring process. 

New Agency Search Research Offers Lessons from the Fortune 1000 

Other topline results:  The majority of respondents work with multiple agencies, and a third of respondents said they had four or more agencies under contract. A third of our respondents reported that the annual budget for their primary agency alone exceeded $1 million. More than two-thirds of respondents (67%) said they use an RFP in the agency hiring process, and most (70%) involve other company departments: about 4 in 10 involve Procurement, and about one-third bring in Marketing. Click here for the PR & Communications Agency Search & Hiring Survey Interim Report and to download the IPR results presentation.

Corporate Communications Takeaways from the Search and Hiring Survey

While two-thirds of respondents expressed overall satisfaction with their agency search process, consistently 40 to 50% indicated they were only moderately or slightly satisfied with specific components of their search process, including the RFP, the time taken to identify agencies, resources to find agencies, and the number of agencies considered. 

New Agency Search Research Offers Lessons from the Fortune 1000 

Interestingly, communications leaders who had previously worked for agencies were less satisfied with their agency search process than their counterparts who had not.

One of the issues we will explore further in our final report – which will draw upon qualitative interviews with some of our respondents – is the challenge all communicators face of limited time. Our research underscores a gap between what they recognize as ideal, e.g. a more comprehensive search process, and the capacity to do more. Relying on personal experience and word-of-mouth offer short-cuts to finding and selecting agencies, in the perceived absence of resources to efficiently identify qualified agencies. The incompleteness of RFPs as reported by our respondents also likely reflects the time and resource challenge of creating RFP documents from scratch. Given these pressures, it should perhaps not be a surprise that communications leaders’ responses indicate they consider their search process to be “good enough.”

What may not be clear is whether there is a cost for companies and organizations that rely on a “good enough” agency search and hiring process. One of the takeaways from the study is that three-quarters of the primary agency relationships for our respondents were less than four years old. This reflects the communications sector’s ongoing challenge of agency turnover. There’s clearly a significant cost to this for both agencies and the organizations that hire them. In our final report we will provide additional insight into the link between agency search and outcomes in the client-agency relationship, including retention.        

Agency Takeaways from the Search & Hiring Survey  

The research revealed a high level of overall satisfaction with agencies, but showed that agencies are falling short in key areas.

Under the category of “opportunities to strengthen client relationships,” the data showed respondents are moderately or less satisfied with agencies in areas including agency proactivity, effective account coordination, staff stability, meeting objectives, operating within budgets, and meeting deadlines. But underscoring a potential concern for larger agencies: higher budgets were correlated with lower overall satisfaction ratings.

New Agency Search Research Offers Lessons from the Fortune 1000

The survey also highlighted what companies are looking for and value most in the agency hiring process. “Understanding of my organization’s communications needs,” and “quality of strategic thinking, program ideas, and recommendations,” were the top considerations for companies hiring agencies. 

Once agency candidates are engaged in the selection process, almost 40 percent of respondents felt that agency responses were “boilerplate,” 33 percent perceived agency candidates to be “upselling,” and nearly 20 percent noted  that agency responses were off-base or not consistent with the scope of work. 

Jennifer Swint, Global President, of Porter Novelli, who moderated the presentation of the results at the IPR Bridge Conference, noted the challenge of completing long and cumbersome proposals at a time when teams are busy working on client business. With incomplete RFPs, and a less-than-clear pathway to winning the business, most agencies would prefer not to complete time-consuming RFPs, but, as Swint acknowledged and the survey shows, the RFP is and will continue to be a feature of the communications sector.                  

Overall, the survey data reflects the challenges faced by clients and agencies in the search and hiring process. It also highlights the need for search and RFP tools and approaches that can offer a clear return on investment. This is the focus of CommunicationsMatch and RFP Associates.

About the Study

Interim results discussed during the IPR Bridge Conference were based on 101 survey responses (53 complete, 48 partial) as of March 25.  The final results and full survey report, based on responses through April 12, will be released in May.

CommunicationsMatch’s agency search, hiring tools and resources save companies time, achieve better search outcomes and build stronger brands. With 5,000 agency and individual profiles, companies search for communications partners by location, size, clients, keywords, ownership, designations, diversity and more. CommunicationsMatch also offers agency search consulting, communications research tools, as well as programmer & developer search. Find out more at: www.communicationsmatch.comFind out more about How To Search For Agencies on CommunicationsMatch and about How to Send an RFP.   

RFP Associates, LLC is a communications agency search firm that has developed a specialized search and selection methodology that improves the process of identifying, evaluating and hiring agencies. For more than a decade, the company has worked with corporations and associations to engage agencies for agency-of-record assignments and confidential projects.

Researchscape International is an agile market research consultancy delivering high-quality custom and omnibus surveys, automated reporting tools as well as other research-related services, to marketers and agencies. Its surveys are frequently used to drive thought leadership, support content creation and help grow organizations’ public profiles. Other services support specific client needs including concept testing, feature prioritization, crisis communications, customer satisfaction and more.

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