Maclean’s

AHA-logoA good relationship between a client and an agency is a two-way street. We have been fortunate at AHA – for the most part, we have had exceptional relationships with our clients. However, that isn’t to say that we haven’t had relationships that just didn’t work – sometimes, it just isn’t a good fit in personality or “chemistry” (that magical ingredient we search for). Other times, the client’s expectations may not have matched with what we knew we could deliver. (I remember one client saying that we needed to get him on the cover of Maclean’s magazine because I had worked there… his story wouldn’t have interested Maclean’s and when I explained this – he just didn’t understand why I couldn’t call up my former colleagues and “get it done.” Needless to say, we had to end our relationship with this client). And, of course, every communications person I know has had a client that is just too “out there” for a productive relationship to exist.

A positive client/agency relationship benefits everyone involved. At AHA, we go the extra mile for our clients, and that’s because of the good relationships we have built together. It’s hard to be motivated to work over a holiday weekend for a client who is unreasonably demanding, has unrealistic expectations, or is just hard to work with; but for the clients you like and respect – you dig in and do what needs to be done.

Below are our five key elements for a positive relationship.

Define goals

When we know what is expected of us, and what our client has committed to deliver, we can focus on strategy, creativity and generating results. We know that every once in a while, a goal post has to move – but that should be the exception, not the rule. Understanding expectations, our roles and our goals makes both the AHA team and our clients happy.

Keep us in the loop and respond to our requests for information

It is crucial that we are kept up-to-date with what’s new and our clients’ marketing initiatives. (That means regular meetings and knowing what is going on at the client office.) When we need information or a response (to a media request for an interview, for example), it is important that we get this as quickly as possible, or at least know the client’s schedule so that we can understand why they aren’t responding.

Communicate regularly

We connect with our clients on a regular basis – a quick coffee, a phone call or an e-mail just to check in – and they do that with us too. At AHA, we send status reports each Monday – so our clients always know what we are working on and where the project budget or monthly retainer stands. If a campaign isn’t going the way we thought it would, we brainstorm internally and reach out to the client to discuss solutions – and they will flag it if they see something that doesn’t look effective as well. If there is an issue, we come together with our clients to discuss it. Regular communication is essential to a good relationship, and it is important that both the agency and client are proactive in this area.

Make us feel like part of the team

Making your agency feel like a seamless part of your team is really important. Department or organizational e-mails, team meetings, including us in company functions… these are all of value. Our clients see AHA as an important part of the team. There is huge benefit to that – we get to know the marketing and communications people (including those managing social media), we understand the internal challenges that you face, and we have an emotional investment in your success. For AHA and our clients, there is no “us” and “them” – it’s all “we” – and our clients will tell you that provides exceptional return-on-investment.

Pay us on time

While this might seem like a no-brainer – not paying your agency on time can create a problem in your relationship. Treat us with respect – and pay us on time. When you don’t pay our invoice on time, trust is lost and that can negatively impact how we work together.

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I spent last week in meetings with journalists in Vancouver and Toronto. Here at AHA, we regularly meet with writers and editors and TV and radio producers so we can keep informed about what they are looking for; how we might be able to provide them with information about our clients that they would see as relevant, valuable and useful; and how their jobs have changed. (They have changed a lot in the past five years and continue to change.)

We’re quite fortunate that we have built up solid relationships with some of the key journalists in Canada and the U.S. and that they take our calls, open our e-mails, and agree to meet us for coffee when we are in town. This is an important activity for us and for our clients. It is a priority for us.

I heard something very interesting in the meetings last week. Toward the end of our meetings, several of the journalists who deal with sections that are not breaking news brought up sponsored content. They made it clear that a good story is a good story and they would run it, but added that there is an opportunity for sponsored content that is written by editorial staff and is like editorial, but paid for by the organization.

This is interesting to me on several levels. When I was at Maclean’s magazine – there was no way that any journalist would have brought up content that was paid for by the interview subject. But that was a different time and the media world has changed completely over the past decade. We used to call this type of content: advertorial. It was more of an article than an ad, but was developed and paid for by the client organization and you paid ad rates to run the piece.

Now, there is a hybrid – you are paying for space but a journalist writes the content. And it is crucial that as communicators we realize that this is now our reality. The question is – how do we best manage the process now that PR or communications is no longer just about earned content, but includes paid content as well? It changes our strategy and our approach.

This is yet another canary in the coal mine, in my opinion. While media relations and generating editorial coverage (and now potentially paying for some of it) will always be important to many organizations, it is also a wake up call that organizations (and their communications teams) should be creating their own content. You need good editorial writers who can authentically tell your story – and not make it feel like a marketing piece.

This is another signal that content is crucial, and that the way we create and share information and our organizational story continues to change. The train has left the station; it is important that you bring your organization or your clients along for this amazing adventure. An adventure that continues to change and evolve – meaning that as communicators, we need to adapt and grow.

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We are big fans of David Henderson. An award-winning former journalist, Henderson tells it like it is and he doesn’t pull any punches. In many ways, he reminds me of some of the diehard news journalists I have had the pleasure and privilege to work with when I was at Maclean’s. Getting the story was what they lived for; covering breaking news and explaining what was happening and why to our readers was their reason for being. And they didn’t hold back when they had something to say – like Henderson.

His recent blog post talks about what news media is like today, and what that means for the news we see and read as consumers. That made me think about how much journalism and the news that comes into our homes each day has evolved over the past two decades. I know that magazine journalism has changed since I worked at Maclean’s. It had to. The morning and evening news has changed too, and it continues to change.

I have a television in my office. Not only does it make me really popular during events like the Olympics, but it also allows me to have different news channels playing throughout the day. I don’t sit there and stare at the TV. Sometimes the sound is off so I can concentrate (although I grew up at Maclean’s, so I can work pretty much in any busy, noisy, stressy environment). I get a taste of several news and talk shows each day and there are times when something catches my interest and I think: “Well, that’s changed.”

As a communicator this is important on several levels. How we pitch media has changed and how people hear or take in information has changed as well. Now, I am not saying that your daily newspaper or evening news should be the standard by which you communicate. I’m saying that it is important to review all media forms – from the newspaper to the nightly news to community papers to cable network talk shows to blogs, Facebook and Twitter – with a view of looking at the language being used, the topics being covered and the amount of time or space allotted to them. Check the newspaper comments online and see what elements are creating discussion among the readers; follow the nightly anchor’s Twitter feed and see what people are saying about the broadcast. Find out what resonates and why. Understand how information is being communicated today – don’t assume it’s the same way as yesterday. Identify the realities of the situation so you know what is and isn’t an appropriate pitch to media currently. If there are situations like Henderson points out, where the media seem to be ignoring a big story, find an alternative distribution channel for it: your blog, a guest blog post, a video segment or link to the information on social networking sites.

The news media is a lot different than it was even five years ago. Make sure you stay up-to-date with your current affairs.

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I grew up at Maclean’s, Canada’s national news magazine. It was my first real job out of university and I was a part of the Maclean’s “family” for decades. Until I started AHA in 2003 (with co-founder Paul Holman), I was listed on the masthead as a Contributing Editor. At Maclean’s I was surrounded by some of the best journalists in the country (and I would argue, in the world). They were smart, knowledgeable and dedicated. Quite a few of them took the time to help me, mentor me, show me the ways of journalism and taught me how to tell a good story based on facts. They also drove into me what makes a story and how to pitch it so you got approval to do the piece. That is a skill set I use every day as a communicator.



We have a process at AHA that is similar to what a story idea would go through in a newsroom. We put the idea and the pitch through its paces and spend time on making sure that not only is the core idea able to stand up, that the pitch itself is crafted in a way that speaks to the community or audience that we are targeting. And, I have to say – sometimes the pitch might not generate coverage, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. There is only so much room for stories in newspapers, magazines, morning shows and the news. Sometimes, it isn’t the story, it’s the space and that’s where, as communicators, we are fortunate to work in a time that allows us to share the story through websites, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media networking sites.



I recently came across an interesting post on Ragan.com that talks about how to pitch media. It’s worth a read.



There is a skill and a craft to pitching media and to generating coverage for an organization. It takes time, effort, research and planning – and it takes an ability to take the facts and information and tell them in a compelling way. So much has changed in the last decade – technology has given us so much opportunity to share information and our stories with a larger community. What hasn’t changed is that if you want someone to pay attention, at the heart of it all, you need a story that matters to them and you need tell it well.



On a side note, I have to admit that watching the reports about the News of the World newspaper being shut down because of the phone hacking scandal, I wish that I could recreate the Friday nights at Maclean’s when we would all go for a beer after work and talk about news. I would love to know what they think of this and if they were ever tempted to bend their integrity for a story.

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AHA Creative Strategies is a PR agency and we often get calls from individuals and organizations that are looking to work with an agency. From the moment that we started AHA more than eight years ago, we had a vision of the type of clients that we wanted to work with. It wasn’t necessarily focused on any one industry or field, but more the approach, the integrity, the character and personality of the person and the organization. We’ve been incredibly fortunate that we have been able to work with great clients that came to AHA because they were focused on communication either within their organization or to an external stakeholder group (or groups).



We provide a range of services, which if you are interested you can see here. Most importantly, I think, we have always approached our work with clients as a partnership. We take the time and make the effort to understand their needs, objectives and expectations. We also have honest and respectful discussions about what is possible and what is probable.



There are times when we reach high and we’ve achieved some great results that we are proud of. However, there are moments when a potential client says something like: “I expect to be on Oprah.” Or, because I worked at Maclean’s, they want to be on the cover of the magazine. That’s when we start to provide a reality check. There are people and organizations that have been on the now defunct Oprah show. There are people and organizations that are on the cover of Maclean’s (not always for positive reasons) and while we never say never, we also don’t often take on a client who thinks that is success. There is so much more to what we do – more than a short blog post will allow. At the core of it, what we provide is strategic PR and communications services that help build awareness, provide visibility for the brand and that develops, maintains and expands an understanding of the organization and what they offer. If their only goal is to get on the cover of Maclean’s, we’re not the right agency for the project.



I had to smile when I came across this piece on Seven Stupid Reasons To Hire a PR Agency. It puts a great deal into perspective when it comes to how and why to work with someone like us.

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