My mum simply cannot believe we don’t get paid to pitch.
She’s seen me work on pitches – including long teleconferences while I’m on holidays at her house – and has heard how stressful they are.
‘And you can’t charge anyone for all that work?’ she says in an incredulous voice.
If you don’t work in professional services, it sounds kind of nuts. The work, the hours, the creativity that goes into winning a new client (or worse, keeping a current one).
And all the time, you have no idea what’s going on client-side.
Maybe they’re holding a beauty parade because the board told them to review suppliers. Maybe they have no intention of leaving their current supplier.
Or maybe it’s a fishing exercise to see how much it would cost, but they decide it’s waaay too expensive.
Maybe the marketing team wants to choose you, but the CEO wants to give the gig to their old friend/former agency/mate’s daughter.
Or perhaps the corporate comm manager who called the pitch is actually about to get sacked. (Yep, seen that one.)
Either way, the whole thing is a big ol’ pain in the butt, with more losers than winners. But that’s the game, and we’ve all chosen to play it.
What makes it more or less bearable is the way we’re treated throughout it. Just like you can tell a lot about someone by the way they treat waiters, you can gauge a person and an organisation by they way they deal with suppliers.
Last December, we presented to the board of a former client. They were all excited and positive. Give us a proposal! Tell us how much!
After a couple of months of hearing nothing, it was flicked down the chain to marketing. Fine, we’ll go meet with them. Oh, the brief has changed? Ok. Oh, the pitch is now competitive? Ok. Oh, you want a new proposal? Sure.
After a couple more months of hearing nothing, I finally get an email. ‘Thanks but no thanks. No guernsey for you’. Not a word of explanation, no feedback, no insights into what went wrong. Even when I asked for it.
That’s the kind of shit, right there, that sends people heading to the Ashram. It’s ok that we don’t win every pitch. But what makes it a little less painful is learning from it, getting some intelligence on our competitiveness, even just feeling like we were close.
Luckily, right after this episode, I had a meeting with the CEO of a long-term client, who is not only passionate about his industry and the super fund he works for – he is also a damn nice guy. When the person at the top is a decent human being, it shows in the way the company runs. It comes out in their brand, customer satisfaction, growth and relationships. Good stuff creates more good stuff. It’s not rocket science.
So why do so many people act like tools? What’s the big challenge with treating people respectfully, appreciating their work, valuing their time?
We are all clients and we are all suppliers at some point. So let’s think about the interactions we have and try to make sure we’re creating the good stuff, as often and as much as we can.
Time in a PR agency can be measured in dog years. I’ve been in consulting for over a decade now, so that’s about 70 years in normal career time. I reckon I should be able to retire; sadly, my superannuation fund doesn’t agree.
PR consulting is an emotionally intensive game. When you’re winning (clients, media hits … whatever) it’s inspiring and satisfying. When you’re losing clients, when nobody on earth wants to run your story, when you have a client that sucks your will to live … well, there are some tough times to be had. I guess every job is like that in some ways; maybe PR just attracts emotional people.
When I had a particularly rough day recently, I threatened to disappear to an ashram. It’s become a bit of touchstone for me and my colleague David. On a good day, the Ashram Rating is low; on a bad one, we start googling the closest ones.
But all jokes aside, work can be tough. The things that keep us here, doing what we do, come down to the people we work with and the cool work we get to do. So I decided to make a list of the things that make my job awesome, and which keep the Ashram rating to ‘low’ most days.
1. Friends – I’m pretty spoiled, in that I work with a bunch of people who totally rock. Whether we are having $3 Friday drinks together (seriously, that exists in Sydney!) or they are staging an intervention when I can’t possibly write the proposal I need to write, friends are what make work … well .. less worky.
2. Mentors – It was a good day when I decided to come and work for the inimitable Tom Buchan. He’s had a profound influence on my career, starting from the time when I handed him my first new business proposal and he told me the writing was ‘shit’. He was right, it was. Tom and a bunch of other smarter, more experienced people have made a big difference to my career. Everyone needs at least one good mentor.
3. Asking for help – It’s no use having either friends or mentors, if you don’t reach out to them. People aren’t mind readers; if you want their support, you often have to be very explicit about it. They generally love giving it, but it’s up to you to show a little vulnerability.
4. New stuff - One of my clients is a career management expert, and he says that the key to staying engaged in your job is to keep ‘stretching’ – doing new, different things that challenge you. Sometimes, you need to proactively look for things that get you outside the orbit of your everyday work. Put your hand up for a taskforce, teach yourself to make an Infographic (I have, but I suck) – whatever you can do, find ways to make it new and different
5. Martinis – sometimes, alcohol is the only way to deal with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Wine is fine too.
What about you? What gets you through the tough days?
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”.
It’s one of the most famous opening lines of any novel, but I’m not convinced Tolstoy was right.
Anna Karenina’s marriage was a mystery to those outside it, but if we break it down to the simplest cliche, it runs something like ‘Distant older husband, wife feels unloved, hot young guy comes in and sweeps her off her feet. Turns to shit’.
Maybe all our lives are a cliche when reduced to a few sentences…
Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is that there are archetypal relationships, and these apply just as easily to client relationships as they do to marriages.
And just as not every marriage can be saved, not every client will stick around for the long haul. I’ve been in this game long enough to know that you can be the best partner in the world, and still lose a client.
But there are some warning signs, and sometimes if you spot them early enough, you can mount a campaign to hang on. Here are some of the marriage breakdowns I’ve been through, and what you can potentially do to avoid them. And if you can’t, at least you know you’re not alone!
- ‘It’s not you, it’s me’. This is the client who has so much shit going on internally, they can’t focus on their external positioning to give you the time of day. Usually a client in financial crisis, they either don’t have time and headspace for PR, or some bean-counter runs a big red line through the PR budget and then you’re outta there. Not much you can do to intervene here, except stay in contact and wait for things to look up. Or work on smaller, low-cost projects to keep your hand in and the relationship strong.
- ‘I’m trading you in for a younger model’. You’ve been on retainer with this client forever, and they get a new leader, or the board gets it in their head that suppliers need a shake-up. It will often go out to pitch, but you’re only there as window-dressing – like turning up to marriage counselling for the sake of it. In reality, they have a fresh new agency with a bagful of promises, ready to wow them with blue sky thinking. Again, there’s not a lot you can do here except hope the new lot screws it up and the client comes back (yep, it happens).
- ‘I want to see other people’. This is not as terminal as the situation above. They want to put the feelers out to see what else is out there, and maybe even open it up to pitch. But they aren’t really committed to going – they just want to see it there’s anything better on offer. If you can bring your A-game, come up with some genuinely new ideas, freshen up the team and bring some value-adds to the account, you could well keep it. But you know it’s going to have to be flowers and candlelight dinners all the time from now on, as the client will always have one eye on your competition.
- ‘I’m going to the shop for a pack of cigarettes’. You know the bloke who just ups and leaves one day, with no warning and no discussion. Yeah, that guy exists as a client. Sometimes it’s a directive from the board, sometimes it’s just an unpredictable CEO, sometimes there is no rhyme or reason you can see. You just get a call, get axed and then try to work out a termination clause. This is the shit that sends you running for the ashram, especially if you’ve been doing good work. But that’s consulting: win some, lose some.
- ‘You take me for granted’. Let’s admit, sometimes a client is good mate, you’ve worked with them for ages, you do pretty good work … but. You get a bit complacent, you have other, more demanding clients, you get stuck in a rut. This is the situation you have the most control over. You need to bring out some new lingerie every now and then (figuratively ok? Although literally could work in some situations). A new idea, a new campaign idea, a value-add such as training. The key is to keep it fresh and keep reinventing before they have the chance to get bored.
Ultimately, no relationship is forever – certainly not in consulting. The key is to control the things you can, and try not to take it personally when you can’t. And if all else fails, go to the pub.
Yeah, I know we’ve been asking that for ages now. Every time a media outlet shuts down, or a corporate PR budget gets slashed, I think ‘well, that’s another nail in the coffin for good ol’ media relations’.
The harder it gets to achieve good media results, and the more I see traditional PR budgets shrink, the closer I get to giving it all away and joining an ashram in the mountains of India.
But then … I don’t. And not just because I wouldn’t cope with the vegan diet.
I don’t because I know that media relations will always have a place in PR and marketing. The other shiny, social media stuff is important too. I know there is waaay more to PR than getting a good run in the newspaper (despite what clients sometimes think).
But you know the most compelling reason we’ll never see the end of media relations? One word: ego.
There is no greater buzz than seeing your mug in the media. CEOs love it, spokespeople love it, board directors love it (as long as it’s positive, of course). I know, because I had MY OWN byline recently. Yep, a PR person actually penned an article in their own name.
Ok, it is admittedly for one of the nerdiest corporate journals around, Keeping Good Companies. But I wanted to look at the role of company boards in managing social media, and it just so happens my dad is a total guru on the topic of board governance. (Yes, the conversations at our family dinner table are just as geeky as you might imagine). So we wrote an article and placed it in the publication that made the most sense*.
And when I got the proof of the article, with my own little name at the top, it was a buzz! It felt like being famous. Validation, ego-boost… whatever you call it, there is something satisfying about seeing your name in lights.
So, remember that next time you’re thinking about winning or keeping a client. Those making decisions about budgets are people, and as such, their decisions will be informed by emotion, ego, or some combination thereof.
Yeah, sure, there is ROI. There are statistics and metrics and KPIs. But there is also the very human desire for recognition – of your brand or your name. Every time you, or your client, or your spokesperson lands a good piece of media coverage, you have a little reward centre lighting up in your brain. It’s the same neural pathway as when you get a compliment – a feelgood reaction. (Don’t ask for my neuroscience credentials, just accept my pop psychology, ok?)
So there will always be a place for media relations. It’s a crucial part of brand positioning, it helps create awareness and it demonstrates expertise and authority. That’s the textbook stuff, and it’s all true.
But beyond that, media coverage makes people happy. It makes PR people happy, it makes clients happy, it makes CEOs happy. And it will hopefully keep me out of the ashram for a while yet.
Are you ready to nail it in 2013?
Nail what, you ask? Well, everything. Health and fitness, finances, career.
I’m sure you already have your gym membership sorted, and have paid off your Christmas credit card (yeah right!).
So, onto career. Well, luckily for you, I have consulted the experts on that front.
Since I’ve shared lots of my own career advice here on the blog, I asked some of the stars I work with at Buchan about how they’ve succeeded in their careers to date. These are my mates who have done the hard yards in PR agencies, and now lead awesome teams that do great work. They also have some spot-on advice for climbing the ladder the right way.
Sara Blasing, Head of Technology (and a former Microsoft account lead for Waggener Edstrom over in Portland and Seattle).
- Unite as a collaborative leadership group – this counts at all levels. Find your peer group (create one if it doesn’t exist) and work together to proactively manage and solve problems you see at your organisation.
- Know how to achieve results through others - this is a common mistake of many middle managers in our profession – they become control freaks and don’t trust anyone under them to do the job as good as them. The best managers empower their direct reports to succeed and do the work they want them to, how they need it to be done.
- Communicate – up/down/sideways. Make sure you always let people know what is going on. This helps build trust in your and your works and helps you avoid being on the defense to micro managers.
- Tend to the weeds – Details are important. Dot your I’s and cross your T’s and always follow through with your superiors.
- Don’t be a whiner – One of the most destructive people in an organization is the whiner. Whiners aren’t necessarily public with their complaints. They don’t stand up in meetings and articulate everything they think is wrong with the company. Instead, they move through the organization, speaking privately, sowing doubt, strangling passion. Constructive criticism is healthy, but relentless complaining is toxic. Don’t be one of these people rather be the one that identify these people and replaces them.
- Work hard, play hard – remember that we aren’t saving lives here (as David Leahy says, it’s PR not ER). This job is stressful and you are always on call in client service. But know when to make the call and prioritise your personal life/play over work or you will burn out.
- Be ambitious (or maybe better said as “proactive”) - you need to be a person/culture that supports big steps and powerful beliefs. Always participate, have a point of viewand raise your hand. Proactively identify solutions and up-level appropriately
- Take the long view – If your culture is dependent on this quarter’s earnings or this month’s sales targets, then it is handicapped by short-term thinking. We tend to overestimate what we can do in a year, but underestimate what we can do in five years. The culture needs to look ahead, not just in months but in years and even decades.
Kyahn Williamson, Account Director, Investor Communication
- Your internal profile is just as important as your external profile – don’t always prioritise client work over internal initiatives.
- Don’t wait to be given the responsibility or opportunity – step up and take on new tasks – no matter how small, without waiting to be asked to by your manager or client
- Service is paramount – at the end of the day clients are buying people – your technical skills might be second to none, but if you can’t deliver that with excellent and consistent service and reliability, and get your client to understand the journey you’re taking them on, they won’t value the work you do – or the results you get as highly. Or as Tom Buchan would put it: you’ve got to have the theatre.
- No one likes surprises, so don’t sugar coat things - our job in PR is not only to ‘sell in a story’ or get great media coverage – we need to understand the risks associated with the work we do, and prepare our client adequately.
David Leahy, Account Director, Healthcare
- Never turn down a meeting: Whether it be with a recruiter, another agency or a client. You never know where these people will end up, where your career may take you or where your paths may cross again.
- Be a decent human being: This may sound obvious. However, our industry encourages a lot of high-achieving, smart, career-driven people to join it. As a by-product they can often be driven to the point of being difficult. So by being approachable, relaxed and generally a decent egg to deal with, you’ll stand out.
Thanks Ky, Blaze and David for being generous with your wisdom!
Journalists reserve a special dislike for media releases that begin ‘Company X, the world’s leading developer of innovative business solutions, today announced … (a boring product launch)’.
I don’t know how it became accepted practice to stick self-serving jargon in the most important part of a release. I also don’t know how the Kardashians have become a touchstone for popular culture. Some things just remain a mystery.
The self-serving company summary is just one of many painful ways that we PR people annoy the media. What, they don’t love corporate crap designed to heap praise on the company producing it? No way!
Sure, I’ve had to be a party to this plenty of times; there is an enduring belief among corporate leaders that any award they win requires a media release to share that news.
But the kind of PR I like doing, and the shit that works? That’s based on demonstrating expertise, not crowing about the fact you have it.
For professional services companies – which is mainly who I work with – this is crucial. They don’t have a product that you can touch or feel, so they need to prove their smarts. But no matter what industry you work in, nobody likes a show-off.
A lawyer, for example, needs to be provide useful and practical insights into a legal issue affecting their client base. A financial adviser needs to explain tricky financial issues. A recruiter needs to provide advice on the best hiring practices. And so on.
Where good PR practitioners add value is in helping to tease out what those issues are. What are clients constantly asking them? What regulatory changes have just come into effect? What is a hot topic in the business media?
If this sounds obvious to you, then you’re probably doing it right. Unfortunately, there are plenty of companies who think the best way to tell you how awesome they are, is to tell you how awesome they are. These ‘leading’, ‘world-class’, ‘cutting-edge’ companies can make a PR person’s life kinda hard.
It’s weird, because they probably wouldn’t do it in real life and expect it to work. If I was at a bar, and a guy in a suit started telling me how he is the best in his industry, the best in his sports team or the best at anything else, I’d call him out on being a wanker and walk away. (Come to think about it, I have done that in my time).
Is it any wonder then that news journalists do the same to companies?
Quality content, not blustery self-aggrandisement, is the key to not only landing media coverage, but to having an audience really listen to your message.
Our challenge, on the PR frontline, is to convince corporate decision-makers of this fact – something we can really only do by developing and landing quality stories. In other words, showing not telling.