The one question you can’t forget to ask when searching for a PR agency

Sometimes you read something and all you can think is “couldn’t have said it better myself.” That’s how I felt reading  Roy Osing’s fantastic column  yesterday in the Globe and Mail on the need for leaders to get way deeper into the trenches with their teams, and to never delegate truly strategic work.

Osing writes: “Strategic actions require the fingerprints of a leader who is a master at do-it-yourself.”

It wasn’t about the PR industry, but it easily could’ve been.

Sound familiar?

One question clients always ask their prospective PR agencies (and behind closed doors, agencies ask of themselves) is who the “lead” will be on the team. It can be difficult to answer.

Do they mean the “day to day” lead? That’s the person best defined as the throat to choke. They put in the hours, they are on speed dial, and on the “to” line of every email.

Or, do they mean the other kind of lead? Call them what you will, be it strategic oversight, senior counsel, senior lead. It’s the person who a) is the most experienced and who b) will typically be seen most often during the initial sale and onboarding, or at major milestones. Otherwise, they’re the name on the "cc" line.

It works... in theory

On the surface, it may seem like clients and agencies like this arrangement, mostly due to budget. Clients worry that too much senior leader time will run up billables (although let me be clear: if your agency sends you surprise bills, you should switch your agency). For agencies, spreading senior talent across as many clients as possible is ideal.

The result is that senior leaders can’t dive into execution, and the barriers to changing that are put in place early by both sides. Over time, the risk is that everyone comes to believe the leader shouldn’t execute, and that more junior people will carry the load. And that’s where breakdowns can begin.

There are lot of good reasons to senior leaders to stay above the fray. Juniors learn from mistakes. No one wants to work for a micro-manager. And how do you build capacity when a handful of people are doing all the problem solving? But there can be too much of good thing.

That’s why small agencies see their own size not as a disadvantage, but as a winning edge. Senior people see things through from start to finish. And when they can’t handle it all, they seek out fellow experts to get it done. It’s fast, it’s efficient. And it’s what I’ve come to embrace.

The takeaway

So, as part of your agency search ask yourself this question: how important are senior counsel and real industry knowledge to the successful execution of your mandate? If it the answer is “very,” then be prepared to ask some tough but necessary follow-up questions.