Has COVID triggered a shift away from traditional PR agency retainer fees? How to meet international PR objectives without paying over the odds


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With countries across the globe gradually lifting lockdown restrictions, businesses are bracing themselves for what the new norm might look like. What is almost for certain is that budgets are unlikely to bounce back anytime soon, and departments will have no choice but to carefully assess their spending. This particularly applies to B2B companies that are reconsidering their sales and product strategies in a post-COVID environment, and presents questions over how they may deliver their marketing messages and realign their marketing budgets. The reality is the days of five-figure monthly agency retainers are gone. B2B marketers will instead have to adapt their approach to realize PR and marketing success.

We’ve seen it all during the pandemic – whole markets changing their focus to producing ventilators rather than floor cleaners or F1 cars, gourmet restaurant chains making up food boxes for frontline workers, organizations going entirely digital or managing operations using remote assistance… I could go on.

But the ‘post-COVID’ business re-think is now underway – and it isn’t just operations that will change because of the impact of the virus. With budget cuts affecting departments across organizations, communications budgets will also need reevaluating. Of course, everyone wants to get back to ‘business as usual’ as quickly as possible, but the fact is budgets will not instantly return to pre-COVID levels, and without the same financial resources, many organizations will struggle to return to high-fee agencies.

Shifts in recent marketing behaviors are not temporary measures
Irrespective of how companies have gone about their business to navigate the pandemic up until this point, communications strategies will need to be adjusted to align with new budgets to seize new business opportunities – or make up for any that may have fell by the wayside due to the crisis. Some companies may be eager to take advantage of new opportunities after the pandemic and pivot to new markets and geographies where they see potential. But for these businesses, the idea of commissioning multiple agencies for global outreach while operating on a considerably smaller budget is an unrealistic expectation.

Companies will start to pay more attention to the money they are spending on agencies charging high retainers – a $10k to $15k monthly fee is typically just a starter before they progress to special projects – and begin to look for results. Media monitoring, social and influencer engagement, a lead generation pipeline and prospect account nurturing are usually expensive add-ons. In the post-pandemic setting results will matter more than ever – organizations will be closely assessing the value of their investments and spending five-figure sums on retainer fees will be a distant reality.

Maintain global outreach with a hub-based approach
Many organizations reviewing their communications strategy may even be weighing up whether they want to continue to outsource their PR support. The big figure budget may simply no longer exist to fund recruiting a PR agency – or a negative experience with a previous agency may lead an organization to start thinking about taking back control of their PR efforts. Overviewing PR campaigns without the expertise of an agency may not be for everyone, but if companies re-think their approach and implement a content ‘hub’ strategy, they can run successful global campaigns from an in-house department. Perhaps they then only have to outsource their outreach.

Organizations that have taken the plunge to take PR into their own hands first must establish their high-level overarching messages for their campaigns. This is sometimes easier said than done, but in the fallout of COVID, my experience is that companies are now especially focused on their key messages and markets, and have a greater awareness of the geographies that hold most value. Then, if they want the flexibility to fast-track into new vertical markets and geographies, it is simply a case of localizing or adapting content ahead of pitching. There really is no need to produce net new content – simply repurpose! Pitching and placing might require specialist support – but priced by the deliverable and by geography with placement metrics – something B2B marketers can easily keep track of and manage.

Transition away from tired and tested big agency practices – move with the digital times
If a change in strategy in-house is not viable, then think carefully about the agency you choose. Remember, you need to re-stock your sales pipeline and PR articles delivered and placed in key influencer journals will be critical to this, not multiple hours logged on a time sheet. Crucially, getting back to pre-COVID PR and marketing activity levels, and executing global campaigns successfully to support sales teams, will depend on a B2B organization’s choice to pay for PR support by the finished deliverable – be that an article, blog post or white paper – and not the hour.

And don’t forget the press release. The big agencies all rely on wire services which distribute copy to generate machine pickups. Lots of background noise perhaps – but no real media engagement achieved. The press release however holds substantial value. If you get the news proposition right, and hang on all the ‘hidden agendas’ messaging you can, then send your release straight to the inbox of a journalist in your target media. This will form the building blocks for a good ‘conversation’ with key influencers for future thought leadership placements. Newswires won’t ever create this opening for you.

In the evolving digital landscape, it is possible for an agency to provide campaign support in a range of geographies and vertical markets from a single hub. There’s no need to turn to a PR agency with offices in every one of their target geographies – multiple teams in multiple offices mean multiple retainer costs, not to mention the increased likelihood of inconsistent messaging and dilution!

Using an agency with a global outreach hub can cost significantly less than a large retainer fee. By transitioning from hours worked to PR items delivered, organizations can return to pre-COVID PR activity levels at a third of the cost. Yes, you must still rely on the quality of the agency staff, but if you pay by the deliverable and set strict placement metrics, you will ensure transparency and have the ability to manage the success of this part of your marketing strategy.

Cut out the middlemen and benefit from consistent campaign support
Apart from costing less, switching to a hub-based approach, whether in-house or with an agency, comes with the added advantage of streamlined processes. No multiple teams dotted across different geographies and time zones working in siloes. You oversee operations through one office or one internal department.

Eliminating multiple middlemen ensures faster results due to the efficient nature of a smaller team – and a single point of contact who is accountable for results rather than for inputting hours on a time sheet.

Reset, explore more refined ways of working, achieve global PR goals
B2B organizations have had to think on their feet during recent months and reconsider how they operate – and more crucially how and where they spend their budgets. The shift to a deliverables-based and results-driven marketing strategy makes perfect sense for these organisations in a post-COVID environment. Move away from the administration and cost of high-retainer agencies – take control of global campaigns from a single hub at a fraction of the price and laser focus on achieving results!

Jamie Kightley
Jamie Kightley is Head of Client Services at IBA International, a B2B PR agency serving global technology clients. Jamie has over 5 years experience in the PR industry and is responsible for designing, planning and implementing social media and public relations strategy for the company’s business-to-business clients, spanning North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific.


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