Why I’m a beauty contest drop out.
I never thought I’d be entering a beauty contest but here I was again, showing a little leg.
Like a lot of progressive PR firms, we resist the process known in the industry as a “beauty contest” – competing against other agencies in a series of presentations otherwise called Request for Proposals, or RFPs.
It’s not that we fear competition, we just find the process flawed. In almost every case, the decision-makers looking to hire a PR firm have already decided with which firm they want to work, but they invite others into the process to make it appear they have met their bosses’ mandate to conduct an exhaustive search.
In the go-go years of the mid-2000s, landing new clients was the least of worries for our small firm. As we experienced 50% growth each of the years following our 2002 launch, meeting the demands of our existing clients was our top priority. However, when the Great Recession hit, things changed, including our need to keep our new client and prospect pipeline full. So we sometimes found ourselves agreeing to dance and pose on stage in front of a panel of judges we had not had a chance to meet beforehand.
Three years ago, we were seduced into talking with one of the larger real estate firms in the city. They asked us to come and talk with them about how we could raise their profile in the market. We were so excited to meet their team that we forgot to ask if we were part of an RFP process. Turns out we were.
No worries. As we dazzled the younger members of the hiring committee with our recent successes of growing our clients’ market share through videos, eNewsletters, micro-websites and social media management, we were encouraged by the enthusiastic nature of their line of questions. They smiled and nodded and gave us such reassuring winks, we walked out thinking we had connected with the decision-makers. A few days later, we got a call from the CEO, who had not even attended our presentation.
“We appreciate your efforts to push us into new areas,” he said. “But we decided to go with a firm that is more anchored in basic PR practices of simply cranking out press releases and shoving them into real estate columns. We’re not ready for all this new-age stuff that I heard you presented.”
We were stunned. Did we not do our homework? Should we have asked more questions before we showed up for the presentation so we could have limited our discussions to the more traditional part of public relations? Or should we have remained true to our beliefs that today’s changing media environment demands a more diverse platform of communicating to our clients’ customers?
When we began our firm nearly 10 years ago, it seemed every client wanted to be in the newspapers and magazines or on the radio or TV – what we now call traditional PR. Our first two clients were firms run by professionals we knew before we ever hung out our PR shingle. Then, as we met their customers or outside partners to gather quotes or take their photographs, they would often invite us in to discuss how we could assist with them with their PR needs. There was low-hanging fruit all over the PR orchard and we were enchanted by the ease with which we landed new clients.
As the years passed, the seeds of much of our varied new work were planted in prior years through discussions with our existing clients about ways they could increase their market share by trusting us to implement new technologies to promote their services. As we brought them new ideas and informed them of new available technologies, our clients always listened closely and, even if it took them a year or two to agree to try something new, they’d eventually trust us to invest their dollars efficiently and more effectively. They found we could not only expand their voice in the marketplace, we could do it for fewer dollars than they were spending in more traditional areas, such as advertising.
As our client base expanded, so did our service offering. In the early days of our firm and in the beginning stages of a client relationship, we often focused on traditional media. Then as they grew to trust us and as we expanded our discussions, our work work expand as well. It seemed to come in waves or stages. There was the age of redesigning websites. Then, for a year or two, just before the Great Recession, we were busy producing award-winning videos and eNewsletters.Then we produced several books. In the past three or four years, our clients all seemed to catch the social media bug. In the early part of 2012, we managed a lot of thought leadership media campaigns. Then as the summer heated up, we began preparing our clients in advance how to handle crisis management situations.
While we are thankful our intellectually curious clients are open to new ideas, it’s often quite the contrary when we talk to firms considering hiring a PR firm. It appears that marketing directors of larger firms enter engagement discussions with PR firms with their own set of priorities. I suspect that adage of “no one ever got fired for hiring IBM” has frightened fiscally challenged CEOs during the past few years to tether their marketing forays to tried-and-true methods until they discover to their horror that their competitors are emerging ahead of them in new communication arenas.
The CEO who called us that day to let us know we did not win their beauty contest moved on to run another firm within a few months. We decided it was probably good that we didn’t win after all. It probably wouldn’t have been a good fit for our firm and it proved once again that I probably just don’t have the face or the legs for a beauty contest.
– Chris Schroder, Schroder PR