The CFO of a global PR agency asked me recently why it is that very few clients behave as if they really like the PR agencies they work with. His view was that it’s because clients are reluctant to share the credit when things go well and need someone to pass the blame to when they don’t.   There’s more than a grain of truth in this, but I think it’s more complicated that that.

I’ve written before about how agency teams and in house teams are overly duplicative and this leads to tension.  More than this, the way the client/agency relationship is traditionally structured lends itself to promiscuity. Trust is usually undermined in a promiscuous relationship.

It starts with the client demanding a three-month termination clause when negotiating a contract with a new agency. This suggests a fear of commitment.  Then, unless the client has bought the account team’s entire billable hours, it has to share that account team with another client or more.  An in-house acquaintance of mine once told me that she was convinced that the account team were giving their other client better headlines.

Meanwhile, clients that have just signed up with a new agency and expect the agency to invest in the long-term wellbeing of the relationship, continue to flirt with other agencies that would like the business.  They have lunches and attend networking events and drinks receptions.

Agencies, too, play their part.  PR consultants have a habit of believing that they know more than their average in-house client, are better connected and more creative and have an unfortunate habit of communicating this, especially to more junior members of the in-house team.  And while this is unquestionably true in some cases, it’s not true in the majority and the agency will never have the inside knowledge or understanding of the business or the industry that their client team has.  Any conventional relationship would suffer the strain of such a set up.

Many believe that, with the increasing decline of traditional media and methods of influence in favour of digital communications today, that now is the right time for a radical overhaul of the PR agency business model.

I believe this is true.  The key question is what does it change to become? If I knew the answer, I wouldn’t have to work for a living.  What I do know, however, is it has to work for both sides.  Unless the agencies and their clients sit down to figure it out together, the answer will invariably be wrong for someone and the relationships won’t change.

But get it right, and the concerned CFO will be able to go back to worrying about profit margins and cost lines and start relaxing about the relationship.



The formative years of my PR career were spent in a trade’n’tech agency supporting clients such as an industrial food pump manufacturer, an electronic components distributor and a business that produced plastic bags to protect microchips from electrostatic damage.  Not exactly the stuff to excite London-based PR girls.

My job was to get any journalist interested enough to write about my clients.  Given the nature of the clients, national press coverage was as common as hobbyhorse droppings.  I repeatedly asked myself why I hadn’t chosen political communications, a career route where, I was sure, begging wasn’t a skill necessary to secure national press attention.

I am equally sure that Downing Street’s communications department left work for the weekend after announcing Gideon’s third budget hoping for a new week of headlines not bothered by the 50p tax rate nor the ‘Granny Tax’.  They needn’t have worried.

First came the Sunday Times exclusive that Peter Cruddas, a little known Tory Party fundraiser, was offering a private dinner with Dave and an opinion on Government policy in return for a £250,000 ‘donation’.

Cruddas’ rapid resignation was secured just in time for David Milliband to come in from the political cold with the immortal line: “George Osborne thinks it is acceptable there is no tax on caviar, but it is fine to tax a pasty.” At a stroke, Pastygate was born.

Then, just as the pasties were starting to cool, Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, when asked what advice he had for motorists facing the fuel shortages should tanker drivers to go on strike, suggested stock-piling petrol in jerry cans in the shed at home.

Halfords quickly reported brisk trade on the sale of jerry cans and the Fire Brigade Union challenged the intelligence of the advice.  Panic at the pumps followed as we queued for the rapidly diminishing supply of motion lotion. Then Dianne Hills tragically suffered 40 percent burns while siphoning petrol from one container to another in her kitchen. There was a chorus of calls for Maude’s resignation.

And then, to top off the week from hell, George Galloway and his Monster Raving Looney ‘Respect’ Party recorded a barnstorming majority in a by-election in Bradford, picking up four times as many votes as the coalition candidates combined.

George, best known for pretending to lick milk from the hands of Rula Lenska on a reality TV show, tweeted after his success that he hoped to: “…  live up to your expectations. Shattered but happy after the Blackburn triumph.” Easy mistake to make, I suppose.  Both towns start with a ‘B’ and Blackburn is only 40 miles away from Bradford.  So George is hardly a worthy conqueror for the Conservatives, even in Yorkshire.

More cynical minds than mine have suggested that the whole Petromageddon story was a deliberate strategy to remove the ‘cash-for-dinner-with-Dave’ story from the news agenda. A long-term believer of the ‘cock-up, not conspiracy’ theory, I prefer to think that even No 10’s comms department is more often flat footed by a Darwinian comment than a badly conceived Machiavellian plot.

Either way, Danny Finkelstein, executive editor and chief leader writer at the Times, summed it up well, observing that:  “No one is going to put the Government’s communication strategy for the past week on their CV.”  Indeed!



His daughters were waiting at arrivals, excited about showing him the new lives they’d created in the big city. The arrivals board announced the plane had landed on time.  Then it advised ‘baggage in the hall’. Finally, the passengers began to pass through.

They waited but couldn’t see him.  Anxious after an hour, they called airport security. An hour later, their dad was found.  It was the first time he’d flown and he was familiar only with bus travel. After descending the steps to the runway, he’d turned left and stood behind the aircraft waiting for the hold doors to open so he could reclaim his bag.  He had been standing there for almost two hours. “Silly old fool,” the airport staff muttered.

During the golden age of air travel, food and drink and hot towels were handed out with a smile by the airline’s attentive cabin crew.  All you needed was a boarding card.  You sat in the lounge until your seat number, which was printed on your boarding card, was called.  Then you walked to the gate where you were welcomed and shown down the gangway and then to your seat. That, of course, was before Ryanair and its ilk were born.

Austerity Airlines consider pre-allocated seating an unnecessary frill and have stopped it, as they’ve done with dispensing boarding cards at check-in.  Printing a boarding card is something you do on your inkjet printer before leaving for the airport. Aeroplanes board faster as a result, but the experience of air travel has been diluted further – no one retains boarding card stubs for the memory anymore.

With the absence of a seating plan, airline passengers behave differently.  Last week, I arrived at the gate 90 minutes before my flight.  I ordered a coffee and a cake and sat down with a newspaper.

Within 10 minutes, there were around 70 people standing in an orderly, snakelike queue to board the flight.  A further 10 people joined the back of the queue every few minutes.  Each of them stood, apparently afraid to lose their place in line.  There was ample seating provided around the lounge but the queue ignored it and stood.  When boarding eventually started, the queue began to shuffle forward slowly, like condemned men to the gallows, kicking their carry-on bags before them.

Airlines have sucked the glamour, pleasure and civilisation out of air travel, but they don’t insist that passengers stand in a queue for up to 90 minutes.  Passengers make that choice themselves, despite knowing that the plane won’t leave without them.  Furthermore, everyone that’s paid for their ticket generally gets a seat.

Maybe the girls’ father, more familiar with the humble bus, saw the future on that maiden flight a few years ago?

If you have to travel Austerity Airlines, please, please, please do us all a favour. Don’t stand in line for 90 minutes.  Have a seat in the lounge and wait.  Otherwise, there’s a danger that Michael O’Leary’s spies are watching you. You could give them the idea of removing all on-board seating and replacing them with straps attached to the roof of the jet for all standing slights.  It’s what they do on the Underground, after all.