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What Are Agency Partnerships? Why It May Be Smart as a Solo PR Pro to Work With an Agency

The pandemic hit my business hard, creating a need to diversify and utilize new revenue channels. 

My mix has always included agency partnerships, but 2020 forced me to get creative and leverage those agency partnerships to stabilize my business. (Even though I really didn’t want to after being burned pretty bad.) 

What are agency partnerships?

Agency partnerships usually form as a result of traditional advertising and marketing agencies not having PR pros on staff. So, they contract us solos to be part of the account team. 

Most of the time you are positioned as an extension of the agency and clients are never the wiser. 

Depending on scope and agency needs, you may be on retainer to be used as needed or your scope can be narrowly defined to one account. 

Agency partnerships at work

Let me share two different agency experiences with you that have defined how I now approach working with agency partners. The names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty. 

Agency A: A boutique creative and digital shop that dabbled in PR

At first, it was great. It was an exciting national account, and my main point of contact (POC), the account director, understood the value of strategic PR, appreciated my ideas, and gave me credit for results. 

However, I was very siloed away (red flag #1). I only met with the agency team for client status calls, and any of my recommendations for other account buckets such as web and social were facilitated by my POC. To the rest of the team, I was just traditional media relations. 

After a few months, the account director parted ways with the agency, and I stayed on the account. This is when things really started to change. My new POC was now a very green digital content creator, not an account service person. Upper-level management (think old mad men type guy and a middle-aged awkward creative director) began questioning everything that came out of my mouth (red flag #2). I had to prove everything with research or a third source, and the new AE slowly started taking credit for my ideas. Plus, the work environment was horrible. Very cliquey and judgey. I definitely began to feel like the odd man out (red flag #3). 

They asked me to put together a very robust communications plan that included my media relations approach and social strategy and other communication stuff not part of my usual responsibilities.

Maybe they DO value my strategic PR brain, I thought. So, I put together a fabulous, and I mean fabulous, plan touching every communication channel you could think of. They loved it. 

We presented it to the client who also loved it, but the new POC took 100% of the credit and upper-level management sat there and didn’t say a word (red flag #5). Two weeks later, they gave me my 30 days. Said they were taking PR in-house and had hired someone. 

Over the next year I sat back and watched them execute my plan. It was painful. 

Agency B: A boutique integrated and brand/creative strategy firm

I was referred to this agency by a colleague who had a conflict and couldn’t work on the proposed account. Apprehensive, I took the call with said agency and was pleasantly surprised. 

I was asked how I would approach the account; did I prefer to work solo or as part of a team? They then went on to talk about how all successful accounts rely on solid strategy as part of an integrated approach rather than tactical. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Was this a match made in heaven? 

I then introduced them to my beloved PESO model (thanks Gini Dietrich!), and we ended up talking shop for more than an hour. They offered me the gig and I got started immediately. 

I worked on the account for a month and secured multiple media hits for our restaurant client at the onslaught of the pandemic. I also developed a strategic media relations plan and crisis response templates. 

This led to them approaching me for a pro bono opportunity for a nonprofit who was raising money for the local food bank and was helping with distribution in the parking lot of their large retail center. This campaign is when the synergy between the agency and I exploded. We developed a strategy from start to finish together. It was great! 

After that pro bono gig, Agency B began slowly incorporating me into more accounts, started including me in new business pitches and even hired me to handle some of their own communications for their anniversary campaign. They appreciate and trust my recommendations; heck, they even seek them out! They know solid strategy is the key to success and respect my opinion. It’s a fun, collaborative and successful partnership. 

The complete opposite of Agency A. 

These polar opposite experiences taught me to not only know my worth and not to compromise or allow certain things. They also taught me how to approach agency partnerships moving forward, so I never relive that nightmare again.

Questions to ask before partnering with an agency

  1. Does their culture/work style complement yours?
  2. Will your role be strategic or tactical or both? Does this support your business goals?
  3. Will you be siloed, or will the account be a collaborative effort? Is this what YOU prefer?
  4. Will this organization value my expertise and treat me like a valued member of their team?

3 quick tips for success when partnering with an agency

  1. Be proactive – when you initially meet with the agency, ask questions about their culture, process, expectations etc. 
  2. Start small and test the waters, then upsell your services once you know it’s a good partnership.
  3. Listen to your gut and don’t ignore the red flags

Agency partnerships really can be amazing and provide new channels of revenue for your solo biz. You just have to make sure it’s the right fit.

Maren Minchew, owner of MMPR, is a communication junkie who loves public relations and digital communication. From media relations and corporate communications to social media strategy, she has a passion for crafting messages. Her knack for research and strategy development resulted in several awards for media relations strategy and content development. MMPR specializes in media relations, content development and B2B communication strategy. Maren has served as a board member of the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) San Antonio Chapter since 2012 and is immediate past president for 2021. When she’s not developing messages, creating content, or pitching media, you will catch her trying new restaurants, in the kitchen or traveling the world (when there isn’t a pandemic). Connect with her on LinkedIn.