What clients look for from a comms team

Alistair Smith talks about navigating the client satisfaction challenge – how to agree shared goals, deliver on target and build a lasting relationship between a client and agency.

This is chapter 13 of #FuturePRoof and if you want to know when the rest of the chapters are available, give us a follow on Twitter at @WeArePRoofed


You’ll learn:

·         Why agreeing shared goals is so important to the client-agency relationship
·         The benefits of an honest approach to agreeing a brief and defining campaign frameworks
·         How trust can create a sustainable relationship that is fruitful for both parties

Clients can be unreasonable. They want your creativity, engagement and effort. But they want it for the lowest fee possible and without a long-term commitment. This may overstate the position, but there is a clear client-satisfaction challenge for any agency. If you don’t really know what your client wants, then it’ll be hard to deliver it brilliantly.

In the best agency-client relationships, each side has a clear appreciation of the other’s skills and perspective and each side is clear about their shared goals.

Over many years and in a number of roles working with a range of different agencies, from consumer to B2B to City, I’ve seen great success and I’ve also seen dissatisfaction and recrimination. 

I’m writing from a client perspective, so, while trying to be fair to both sides in all of these situations, I’m sure a certain bias will be apparent. If we all had the gift of perfect self-awareness, then the world would be a far simpler place.

From a client perspective using a PR agency can be a deeply unsatisfactory and stressful experience. You choose the agency that you liked best in a pitch situation. Then you hope fervently that they will manage to deliver what they promised. Why? Because in choosing a particular agency to fulfil a brief, you are not only investing your firm’s money but also your own personal equity in their success. Securing budget is a competitive endeavour, so the client is under close scrutiny for agency performance. 

Understand the pressures that your client is under and be clear: delivering the targets is a vital part of the job; so is making your client look good.

Nail the brief

Be very clear what the client is looking for.  In my experience, a clear brief is the key differentiator between successful client-agency relationships and those which have not lasted. If the client cannot really articulate what they are trying to achieve, then they won’t know whether you’ve done a good job or not. 

It’s worth devoting considerable time to refining the brief and developing a clear action plan. And beware the drift towards using the agency as an overspill resource, handling low value tasks that the in-house team pass on. In this situation, the combination of ambiguous targets and short deadlines is toxic.

In defining the brief, be clear where you add value for that particular client. If the key assets you bring are contacts and an understanding of complex financial affairs, resist the temptation to try and expand into managing consumer issues and creative launches, and vice versa. It can be hard for an agency to admit to areas of weakness, but this is preferable to undermining the agency’s credibility by providing sub-standard advice or delivery.  Bring a solution; introduce someone you know who fills the gaps.

Think who and how

It can be tempting to believe that the most senior person in the client company, the chief executive for instance, is the most important stakeholder for a PR agency. Unless they selected and briefed the agency, perhaps for some highly sensitive matter, then courting them to the exclusion of an in-house PR team or marketing department can end up being short sighted. 

The CEO has a range of commitments and demands on his or her time. Their focus will shift and while they want their communications advice to be of the highest quality, they don’t want advisers demanding meetings when the situation doesn’t merit it. This point applies as much to their internal advisers as to those from outside the firm.  Be judicious about when you need to interact at the highest level, then your interventions will be listened to and valued.

The vast majority of the time, the CEO wants to be confident that communications issues are being dealt with efficiently. This allows them to focus on other matters. So he or she will want to know that the communications advisers (internal and external) are working well together.

Trust is vital

In most instances, the senior in-house communicator will be someone with whom the agency has a close and constant relationship. In this context, the external PR agency can provide a valuable perspective, independent advice and challenge which the in-house communicator cannot. But the in-house communicator is likely to have the deeper understanding of how to get things done in the organisation and of the unspoken issues. 

Successful agencies know this and work with the in-house team ahead of providing advice or guidance to the CEO. In many instances, this will allow them to be more insightful or challenging than would otherwise have been the case.

Building trust between the in-house team and the agency is vital. A free and open flow of communication allows for a joint approach to any problems and identification of opportunities. 

It can be tempting to try and avoid bad news: “no one is interested in this story” for example. But maintaining some sort of hope only for it to be dashed by the reality of no media coverage is infinitely worse. Your overly positive prognosis is likely to have been passed on to other stakeholders, which means your client will be embarrassed. Recriminations are almost unavoidable.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all: do what you said you would. I have fired more agencies for failure to deliver against their great ideas than I have agencies whose ideas were very straightforward, but who executed flawlessly. 

Ensure that you have the people in your team to make your ideas come to fruition and monitor the detail to make sure that they do. I know the pressure is on to win new clients, but don’t add to that pressure by failing to retain and develop those who are already on the roster.


Alistair Smith is Managing Director, Group Corporate Communication, at Barclays. In this role he is responsible for the bank’s corporate narrative and alignment of communications activity across Barclays’ businesses globally.  Over his 16 years at Barclays, he has been Communications Director for global retail banking and for corporate banking as well as being Group Media Relations Director during the financial crisis.  He has had responsibility for international communications teams as well as working in South Africa.  Prior to Barclays, Alistair worked in media relations at Ernst & Young and as a PR consultant at Countrywide Porter Novelli.  He has an MSC in Public Relations from Stirling University.