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When should PR pros fight for long-term contracts?

October 7, 2019

Any marketing professional knows that the times are a-changing when it comes to client contracts and partnerships. Fewer brands are looking for an Agency of Record; instead, many opt for short-term, project-based contracts—especially in uncertain financial times like those we’re facing now, when you can’t open Bloomberg.com without seeing talk of the next recession. 

For obvious reasons related to longer-term financial stability—a paycheck you can count on—long-term contracts are often preferred for an agency. But beyond that somewhat self-serving reason, there are plenty of valid reasons that a PR or Social Media agency wants to engage on a longer-term basis—and these reasons often benefit the client, too. 

Firstly: it should go without saying that a good, ethical agency will provide recommendations based on what they genuinely think a client needs. At Sprocket, we have stopped new business meetings to say “It sounds like what you need to do first is branding and web development. Then let’s talk.” Or: “Based on what we’re hearing, you need our help getting your brand social media channels off the ground, then want us to hand those responsibilities off to someone on your team.” Often, we’ve really wanted that business, but our job is to provide recommendations and listen to the needs of our client, and sometimes that means helping for a short time, or waiting to engage. 

All that said, we generally prefer to engage with clients on a longer-term basis; our agency minimum is a 6 month contract. Here’s why.

  1. Getting to know a client takes time. Most agencies have a process for onboarding clients, usually set up to ensure that the agency team has a deep sense of who the brand is, their preferences, goals, etc. For Sprocket, this onboarding process can take the better part of a month. So if a client wants to engage only for a couple of months, as much as half of that time could be spent on the onboarding phase - which doesn’t give the agency team a whole lot of time to garner campaign results. That’s because...
  2. Campaigns take time. On the PR side, especially, it can take time between when we start pitching media and when we actually see those pitches become news stories. Especially with national media, there’s a long timeframe from our initial contact on behalf of a client, to finding the right story for a reporter to include our client in, to seeing the story actually run in the print or web edition of the outlet. For that reason, 3-month engagements with clients hardly offer enough time to see results - which is, in itself, a vicious cycle. Clients can feel frustrated to not see coverage in one or two months, which makes them feel less confident in an agency, which makes them want to engage in shorter contracts. The better option is to allow PR professionals to work with reporters and media to find a time and place that makes sense for a client story to run, and that makes sense in the media’s calendar. 
  3. Lots of new news means lots of pitching — which can’t all be done at once. First of all, if a brand has lots of new news to share with media, that is fantastic. Truly - it allows for the juiciest storytelling. But with a bunch of different storylines to tease out, PR pros need time. They can’t hit up the same reporters on a weekly basis with different angles, or reporters might start ignoring their emails. Of course, not all angles will be pitched to the same reporters; that will depend on the reporters’ areas of coverage. But there will likely be some overlap, and you don’t want your PR agency to push so hard that reporters start rolling their eyes when they get an email about your brand. 
  4. Clients with a proclivity for crises need an agency with a longer-term view. It’s true that some brands are more crisis-prone. And for brands with an ongoing PR crisis challenge, having an agency who knows the ins and outs of the brand and can jump in at any time to handle a crisis is valuable. 

All this is to say that there is a time and place for long-term contracts, and a time and place for short-term contracts. Later this month, we’ll be covering the benefits of short-term contracts.
If you’re at an agency: do you opt for long- or short-term contracts?