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Building The Agency Of The Future

PR and marketing agency staff can be a formidable asset in shaping clients' businesses for the better, but there are frequent complaints about visibility and lack of quality output. What's the solution?

This post was written for Material Impact's third birthday. Material Impact specialises in financial services PR and marketing, in particular for fund administrators, asset managers and their membership organisations.

Prospective clients often share with me a common narrative of frustration with their current PR agency. They find themselves locked into rigid retainer packages that yield subpar results, lamenting a lack of responsiveness and understanding from their agency teams.  

I’ve encountered various expressions of this discontent over the years. One client remarked, “Our agency doesn’t seem to grasp what we do,” while another expected more proactive recommendations and follow up on a monthly basis, considering their not insignificant retainer, also paid monthly. A frequent complaint is the agency’s failure to maintain a good pace and standard of work over any length of time - “I guess they’re ok” is commonly heard as a summary of how it’s going. In short, clients often feel neglected, especially when they perceive their agency prioritizing higher-paying clients, or those who have the time to constantly chase up. 

It's a misconception that these negative experiences make my sales process easier.  

Instead, these negative experiences are detrimental not only to individual agencies but to the industry as a whole. It breeds distrust in PR and marketing's ability to deliver a solid return on investment, creating a new task, to convince prospects that a partnership with us will indeed be different. No matter how innovative our approach, deep our expertise, or impressive our track record, skepticism remains in the initial meeting due to past disappointments – once bitten, twice shy, as the saying goes.  

Rebuilding trust once such a prospect becomes a client is a gradual process, but fortunately, the outcomes in our industry are quite binary: media coverage is either achieved or it isn’t, a successful event is hosted or not, campaigns attract leads or it they fall short. There’s nowhere to hide and this clarity of results plays to our strengths, favoring our teams and others who combine expertise with consistently hard work – and that's exactly how we thrive at Material Impact. 

In fact, that's why, amidst the pandemic, I founded Material Impact. Seeing an opportunity for change, our motto became “Proactive. Responsive. Effective.”, serving as a continual reminder to my team and I to disrupt the traditional agency-client dynamic.  

So, how are we different?  

In-House Mentality: We don't have to wait for the client's cue. Our approach is proactive engagement, where we regularly present new recommendations, new ideas and insights, keeping clients ahead of the curve. We begin each week with the thought, “if we were in-house, what would we do?” This mindset cannot be understated, it allows the team to take ownership of their work – they're no longer a third party consultant with no skin in the game, they’re taking the role of a direct employee of the client. This is more than play acting, it’s a reminder that in a very real sense the salaries of the whole team originate from the clients we serve – no bad thing to remember. In fact, this is perhaps the single most important factor that leads to taking ownership of the process and driving consistently positive results for our clients. 

Flexible Service Packages: Traditional agencies silo services, each department has a different P&L. That means if you’re a firm’s PR client, you don’t necessarily gain access to their other services such as content writing, social media or design without paying an additional fee on top of your monthly retainer, which is carefully guard railed against such a possibility by traditional agency staff. Why shouldn’t the client be able to accordion their unspent fees between services? The agency isn’t losing anything if the annual contract value is honored.  

Material Impact favors customizable service packages. We write annual plans on the understanding that things can change, business objectives aren’t always set in stone – products are sometimes recalled, fund launches delayed, surprises appear all the time. Simply, we allow clients to choose between the services they need the most, at the time they need them.


Finally, as part of this philosophy, we also roll over all unused hours into the next month – too many agencies don’t. It creates a more proactive environment as it makes it incumbent on us as the agency to ensure we’re doing the work – or lose the fee that month. It’s a foolproof way to get the responsiveness many clients expect from an agency. 

Value-Added Delivery: We recognize that time spent should equate to value added, not just hours clocked. I’ve watched agency staff squirm as they try to justify why 100 hours spent on administration are billed at outrageously high rates. At Material Impact, we don’t want to squirm. We want our clients to believe us when we say, “we did this work because it added value”, so we don’t believe in busy work and we simply charge fairly from the start. In short, this approach encourages efficiency as our team is motivated to work on initiatives that truly advance the client’s objectives. 

Tailored Strategies: Agency staff the world over are under considerable time pressure, sometimes because they are managing more clients than they have time for. In a time pressured environment, it’s tempting to apply a cookie cutter approach to all clients. What works for one might work for everyone, right? Wrong. Clients have different audiences, different unique selling points, different jurisdictions and different brand tones of voice. What works for one might not work for another. Treating each client as unique, with distinct challenges and goals, address individual client needs, leading to more effective outcomes and higher satisfaction – of both client and agency teams.

Benchmarking: Not all, but many agencies don't benchmark their work. Sure, as a client, you get a report of the output for that month. But how does anyone on the receiving end know if the output is any good or not? The "or not" part is what drives a fear of that sort of benchmarking, but it's inherently poor practice at best and dishonest at worst. Material Impact has a dedicated, full service analytics offering that's independent of those executing a strategy. We take benchmarking so seriously that we frequently analyse the media coverage of fund administration firms globally, producing the Fund Administration PR Top 100 (an exercise soon to be conducted for asset managers), the data of which is available in our data and analytics software solution. As far as we know, we're one of the very few firms in this space with a proprietary model for scoring PR work, a cloud-based system to host that reporting on for clients and a frequent, industry-wide PR benchmarking exercise.

As we move forward, our commitment to being proactive, responsive and effective remains unwavering. I believe that with the right mindset, flexibility and client-focused approach, financial services PR and marketing agencies can indeed rebuild trust and deliver exceptional value. For my firm, I want Material Impact to be more than just a name, but a promise of impactful, meaningful, and lasting results. 


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