Forefront Communications

To Find the Right Agency, Ask The Right Questions

Mark Dowd

Mark Dowd

With the new year nearly upon us, marketers have their budgets and plans in place. Now it’s time to get to work.

To ensure that their efforts are effective, many sign on with marketing and communications agencies. But the media landscape is a tricky and evolving place. That’s why it’s critically important for companies to choose the right agency. However, actually making that “just right” agency pick can be difficult.

We know this to be true because most of us here at Forefront have extensive experience outside of the agency world alone – specifically on the client side or as journalists.

From this perspective, we offer the following. Whether you’re engaging with an agency for the first time, or are in the process of switching agencies, be sure to ask your potential new firms the following questions. Getting the right answers will not only make your selection easier, but it will increase your chances for sustainable success.

Rainmakers aside, who will actually do the work?

Every agency pitch will be delivered by a smooth and accomplished PR pro, often times a founder – the man or woman whose name is on the office door. While impressive, those people usually will have little day-to-day involvement in your program. So, ask who will be assigned to your account. Who will be writing your press releases, developing and delivering news pitches, and interacting directly with reporters and editors on your behalf?

Do some digging.

Ultimately, your account team matters a lot more than the rainmakers, so ask about those people and their credentials.  The key person is your proposed account lead. Usually a vice president or account supervisor, he or she will be the lynchpin of your program. Check them out on LinkedIn and other online resources to gauge their experience. Where else have they worked and on which accounts. Have they ever actually taken the lead on PR strategy and execution? Do they have directly relevant experience in your space? Do they have personal and professional contacts in the publications you are targeting?

Be wary of former Big Company types if you’re not one

Across the PR industry today, there’s no shortage of practitioners who used to be with some big, household name corporation. Now they’ve hung out a shingle and started an agency. That big company experience draws clients in like a siren’s song, but for scrappy startup clients or even established mid-sized firms, their programs are often the wrong fit. When you work for a household name – be it a bank, big tech firm, high-flying hedge fund, etc. – the name of the PR game is different. Your role is to essentially serve as a gatekeeper and brand protector.

But that’s a very different skill set than the one required to fight tooth and nail for attention in a crowded market.  And without the BigCo name to drop, or sought-after executive to dangle, how good will they be at getting ink for a lesser known firm?

Get references including back-channel

The references provided by the agencies you’re considering will generally be glowing, of course. But that’s not to say you can’t be a little more thorough and find out a bit more. In addition to the main contacts listed, call other people in those companies, like more senior or junior staff. Is there a former VP of marketing who has moved on and can speak more freely? Poke around these references to build a bigger, clearer picture. You may also want to reach out to one or two of the major media contacts in your space to get their view. You might just get lucky and gain a sense of a firm’s modus operandi from the media’s perspective, which is a critically important perspective to have.

What are the mechanics of the retainer arrangement?

Monthly retainers are the coin of the realm in PR. It’s a dollar amount paid for an agreed-upon level of professional services for some period, oftentimes yearly. Instead of getting pinned down to an approximate number of hours each month, most agencies prefer to commit to providing you a certain amount of value. So, have them sketch out how they see the monthly retainer breaking down (most shops are light on the rainmakers’ time, who bill out at $500+/hr., and is heavier for the junior resources).

One common disconnect is when the client (you) view the retainer as a ceiling when the agency views it as more of a floor. To avoid the unpleasant surprise of an overage bill at the end of the month, ask what management mechanisms the agency can provide in order to manage to the retainer amount. What happens during the first few months when there’s considerable ramp up work to do? Or how about when you have a crisis hit or major product launch that needs attention?  End of month invoice surprises, or mid-month calls that we’d reached our time allotment, were always extraordinarily frustrating when we were on the client side (and why we vowed to operate differently when we started Forefront).


There are a lot of questions you’ll need to ask your potential agency partners, and lots you’ll want to learn about them before taking the plunge and signing that services contract. The list of questions outlined above isn’t complete, but it’s a good starting point.  And if you’re in the market for an agency, and want Forefront’s answers, my co-managing partner Mark Dowd or I are just a phone call or email away. Best of luck with your agency selection!