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If you work in an agency, you can’t help but spend plenty of time in the minds of your client. What exactly is the criteria that goes into selecting an agency? 

And perhaps more importantly, why does that process sometimes end in dissatisfaction? 

I wanted to share my (hard-won, direct) thoughts about how I think companies can wind up with the right agency for them. I’ve placed a focus on fintech firms, which can sometimes oscillate between wanting the brand boost that positive press can achieve and wondering if they might be able to bypass it altogether with newer communications methods. 

Be clear on the process 

Never underestimate the pain of an RFP. While procurement may demand using one, they frequently aren’t the best tool to guide the agency search. Proper RFPs take dozens of hours to assemble and then require PR firms to spend an equal or greater amount of time in reply. Too much of this is busy work that doesn’t get to the real heart of the matter – can this firm understand our story enough and have the capabilities to deliver results?

Instead, issue a brief that asks firms to submit a proposal to a specific question(s) related to your company and set them a limit such as 20 slides or five pages. Specificity and constraint lead to higher quality, more tailored proposals – and a shortened review process 

Know your worth to a firm 

Your ultimate goal is to pick a firm that will treat you with the importance you deserve. That means understanding how far up the totem pole your company will be among a firm’s client roster. Money is the best indicator – you ideally want to avoid being a small client. What is a lot of money for you may not be for the firm and this can create  a mismatch in expectations. Money isn’t everything. You may have a particularly interesting or innovative story that might be useful expertise for your firm. Or perhaps the firm is looking to expand its area of expertise and is willing to work with a smaller budget. Try to align value with new partner.

Drill down into the firm’s and team’s expertise 

Fintech is an increasingly broad term. Its origins stem more from consumer finance and digital banking but expanded to encompass nearly everything associated with finance and technology. The reality is that the skills, expertise, and media knowledge required to craft a killer online banking story are wildly different than they would be for an institutional trading technology story. Agencies will market their experience under the umbrella term of “fintech” but if you’re a capital markets tech firm and the agency team’s experience presented to you is primarily in payments, they will lack the institutional knowledge to bring success. You should also look to incorporate an interview phase into your process once you have got to a final two or three agency candidates. So few companies do this and it’s a great way to cross-examine a firm’s expertise. On-the-spot questions like “Tell me an interesting article you’ve read in the payments space over the past couple of weeks and why you think it is interesting”, will quickly tell you if the agency really has its finger on the pulse in your space. 

Assess the overall quality of the team and their longevity 

We’ve all been baited and switched. In the PR agency world, it’s an unfortunately common occurrence. The ultra-shiny and impressive team that presented so articulately and confidently to you in the final stage may not be the final team. Asking “who will work on this day to day” isn’t a reliable way to find the answer. References are key. Make sure that more junior members of the team play a role in the process so you see how they perform. You don’t want a team with the most capacity to do work but not the most capacity to get results. 

Be clear on your expectations for results or listen carefully to advice 

It’s tempting to select an agency that promises you front-page coverage in the Wall Street Journal. Maybe your company is interesting enough to deserve that level of attention but the reality is for the large majority of fintech companies, it’s a long-term ambition that may take years to manifest. You are far more likely to have a great partnership with an agency that is upfront about what they believe are realistic minimum expectations and long-term ambitions.  Look for a company that is able to talk about their process of testing and learning. You want a partner, someone who will be able to evolve with your brand.

Relationships are set up for success or failure by how they begin. Smart firms think beyond the ‘dog and pony show’ of the selection process and towards building a lasting and rewarding partnership.

We of course are ready to compete for your business, but can be so much more effective when our future clients show us they know exactly what they want. 

Get in touch to talk more about your fintech PR and comms challenges here.

Sam Barber is a senior vice president in New York