Simon Erskine Locke, Founder & CEO, CommunicationsMatchTM
In our 2017 Communications & PR Agency Search Report, three-quarters of respondents said they asked peers for recommendations when looking for new agencies. Only around 20% of respondents cited Google or LinkedIn and around 10% said they used RFPs, trade associations, media or industry meetings as sources for agency searches. (Click here for a Communicators to Communicators (C2C) 3-Minute Insights Video Summary of the results.)
This may or may not be a surprise.
When we were developing CommunicationsMatch™, we asked corporates how they found agencies and agency leaders how they were found. All cited word of mouth as the primary way they found agencies or generated new business.
The survey results also confirmed what we’d heard about other search resources. More often than not, those we spoke with on the corporate communications side of the business, indicated they didn’t really know of good resources to find agencies – so word of mouth was almost the only choice. On the other hand, in our conversations with agencies, they mentioned Google, LinkedIn, association lists as key ways companies found them.
There’s little doubt that in a digital communications world, companies need more than ever to find firms with specialized capabilities across a range of skillsets, in addition to traditional PR. As the communications industry has increased in specialization, finding resources that match specific needs is correspondingly harder. In fact, two thirds of our survey respondents did not think it was easy to find agencies.
The reliance on asking peers is so important because a recommendation from people we know and trust is often the easiest path to finding communications partners. Getting a recommendation is a time saver and shortcut. “If I know these guys are good, how much more work do I need to do?”
But, it is important to recognize that asking the people we know for recommended agencies and consultants has its limitations. Even those with expansive networks may only have worked with one or two agencies in recent years, giving them a limited pool of first-hand experience. They may have run into other agencies, but will probably know most by reputation only.
So, asking even a few people only gets a company so far – and, by most measures, would not pass muster as due diligence.
The reality is there are many highly-qualified and capable firms in the industry, often with very specific experience that may be perfectly aligned with a company’s needs, that will not be surfaced without a more rigorous search.
A disciplined RFP process will clearly help companies identify a broader selection of firms than word of mouth alone. Large companies or organizations may be willing to invest in this process for agency of record assignments, while using word of mouth to inform decisions to hire firms or consultants for projects. Smaller firms, more often than not, may not be able to afford the process or have the time to choose this path.
The challenge is to quickly and efficiently uncover even a small portion of firms in the industry that match needs. To provide a sense of scale, on CommunicationsMatch™ we have 5,000 agency and consultant profiles searchable by 180 categories of industry expertise, 70 categories of communications expertise, location and company size.
There’s another issue that also needs to be considered: diversity. We tend to go to who we know. And the people we know, more often than not, look like us.
I recently had this conversation with Neil Foote, President of both Foote Communications and the National Black Public Relations Society. We discussed whether the reliance on “asking peers” was part of the diversity problem in the industry. He noted that going to who you know creates high hurdles for smaller and diverse firms with skillsets that may well match needs, but that may not be on the radar screen. Even large firms, with broad and diverse capabilities, may not be well known outside the industry.
Foote added, “There’s still too much of a tendency for firms to only rely on their same old boy network without considering diverse firms as their primary agency of record or as a partner. This has got to change. We need more platforms to level the playing field.”
Knowing who is out there and, if hiring a minority-owned firm is a priority, ensuring you have diverse firms in the mix, is simply good practice. With diversity a focus of the industry, few would likely argue against this.
We believe it is important for companies to have a comprehensive search tool that helps them find firms that match specific needs across a range of search criteria, including whether a firm is women or minority-owned. We built this into CommunicationsMatch™ from the start. In the coming weeks, we will be announcing an important new partnership that will make it easier to find diverse firms. Having resources to help with agency selection for smaller firms is also important. Industry associations provide hiring guides and CommunicationsMatch™ also offers a Guide To Finding & Selecting Public Relations & Communications Resources.
There are many reasons why asking peers when selecting an agency is the most widely used approach to finding agencies. It’s simple and we trust our peers. But in the same way online dating tools became so important to helping people look beyond their immediate circles, we need to leverage technology to find high quality firms from a bigger pool against a broader range of criteria, and then seek validation through recommendations.
We believe following this path will benefit the entire industry. For many companies – both large and small – the challenge of finding the right firm is a barrier to engaging them. At CommunicationsMatch™ our admittedly lofty goal is to play a role – however small – in expanding the communications pie by making the process of finding firms easier.