Review: How To Sell Value – Demystified

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

How To Sell Value – Demystified: A Practical Guide for Communications Agencies
By Crispin Manners
PRCA / Emerald Publishing, 2023, 126 pages

Right at the outset, the author identifies the problem this book sets out to solve: that PR people have trained themselves to focus on activity over outcomes, on time rather than value. No more timesheets!

While the subtitle of the book makes it clear it’s written for those running agencies, it also applies to the wider challenge of evaluating (putting a value on) public relations. So this book has been produced as the second in the PRCA Professional series, but could equally well have come from measurement and evaluation body AMEC.

But why change, and why now? The author cites three reasons: because the pandemic led people to question their attitude to work; because of the economic challenge of low growth and high inflation (stagflation); and because of the efficiencies available through artificial intelligence (AI). 

If PR people define their value by WHAT they do – rather than WHY they do it – achieve a business outcome – then they will have little defence against clients replacing them with tools like ChatGPT.

Later on he revisits the problem with stating ‘what’ we do and helps with the crafting of ‘why’ or purpose statements along with making it clear ‘how’ we do it.

Manners lists the problems with time-based pricing of public relations services, concluding with the killer punch:

‘If a 15 minute call opens an opportunity that converts to $1 million of value for the client, does it make sense to charge for 15 minutes? Conversely, if it takes eight hours to write a dull press release, that won’t get picked up, is it worth eight hours of fee?’

If you’re not yet persuaded, Manners has a chapter he calls The Eight Deadly Sins of Time-Based Pricing.

I didn’t expect to be surprised by any of this, but the baby (retainers) is about to be thrown out with the bathwater.

‘Agencies like ‘retainers’ because they give security of regular income. But apart from that benefit, retainers are generally unhelpful to an agency because they are a very ineffective way to define the value exchange between an agency and a client…. I recommend that you change the name of your contract from a retainer to a service contract.’

The author knows there are obstacles to making the change from time- to value-based billing, and he provides answers to many of the questions you may have.

For example, what if procurement asks for a day rate? His answer broadly questions the value of contracts won through a procurement process, taking into account the time taken to submit and the likely success rate.

The author makes a distinction between what he calls the ‘user buyer’ and the ‘economic buyer’ throughout the book. The user buyer is typically a marketing manager who is preoccupied by KPIs such as the process of lead generation or SEO (ie activities) whereas the economic buyer is focused on the return on investment (ie outcomes). Moving from time-based to values-based billing will require access to more senior decision makers.

This is an admirably clear book. I can’t fault the author’s expertise (he’s a second generation public relations consultant who has led consultancies and advised others; his father, Norman Manners, was one of the PRCA’s founders in the late 1960s). But it leaves me asking three questions:

  • There’s reference to the branded methodology approach of management consultancies with the implication that this places them higher up the value chain in the eyes of client organisations. Certainly, he gives the clear advice that ‘presenting you and your people as experts is essential to commanding a premium.’ But what comparisons can be drawn with other professional services? Solicitors still seem to follow a time-based billing model.
  • What about the specialist versus generalist question? Focusing on value means downplaying channels and tactics, so surely leads to greater pressure to integrate marketing, branding, digital and communication services. And yet we know that those who can charge the highest fees often operate in specialist areas (such as public affairs or crisis and reputation management).
  • It’s an old argument and one I’m reluctant to reopen. But since the advice is to project your expertise then don’t the terms consultant and consultancy suggest something more valuable than agent and agency? That surely lay behind the original name for the PRCA: the Public Relations Consultants Association and is still in the current ICCO name: International Communications Consultancy Organisation. It’s also here in the author’s praise for the practices of management consultancies. And yet he follows the current fashion by talking about communications agencies in the subtitle and elsewhere in this book. Despite this he points out the problem of giving client-facing colleagues job titles such as ‘junior account executive’ (where’s the value in that?). Over 30 years ago I worked for a forward-thinking consultancy that replaced such titles with ‘consultant’ and ‘senior consultant’. If you don’t get the distinction, ask yourself if you’d be more reassured to be referred to hospital to see a consultant or an agent? 

This is a practical book complete with checklists. It’s not cheap at £20 for a short paperback (£19 for the Kindle version), but I now know not to consider price, but rather to focus on the value delivered.

One person isn’t named in this book, but I felt their presence in it. Francis Ingham may have died earlier this year, but many of us will have heard him berating the industry for many years for charging too little and paying its people too little – usually because it was incapable of proving its value to clients. I imagine he was involved in the gestation of this book and I’m sure he’d be proud of the result.