For nearly 20 years, I have been a marketing and communications professional. I have worked on both the corporate side (as director of marketing for both privately held and publicly traded companies) and on the agency side (as vice president of a “Top 100” public relations firm). Over the years, I have hired – and fired – dozens of marketing firms, ad agencies, research firms, public relations firms and marketing consultants. I have had the pleasure of working with amazingly talented firms and individuals, and the nightmare of working with far too many modern-day snake oil salesmen.
If you are working with an outside marketing/advertising/public relations firm – or considering doing so – here are a few things I wish I had known from the beginning that I have learned (usually the hard way) over the years working with countless firms and agencies.
- Before hiring any firm, look at the marketing and promotional work they do for themselves. I am amazed at the firms that insist their clients need elaborate, expensive campaigns and programs when the agency doesn’t even have those things to market its own services and capabilities. If a firm tells you that you must embark on any marketing campaign, social media campaign, advertising campaign, a website overhaul, a major community initiative, a trade show push, a massive anniversary event, or anything else, ask that agency to see the work they have done for their own firm in that area. You will be surprised at how many firms are pushing services that they don’t even do for their own business. This is like hiring a 375-pound personal trainer who doesn’t work out and eats Twinkies all day.
- Evaluate and investigate everything a marketing/advertising/public relations firm tells you about itself. While some firms are completely honest and forthcoming when telling you why you should work with them, others are not. Visit their offices. Talk to their clients (not just the ones they tell you to contact). Do exhaustive online research about them. When they tell you they have 75 employees and offices in five major U.S. cities, visit those offices and count those employees. Ask them about their pricing structure (hourly rates, standard mark-up rates, etc.). If they are not being honest with you while they are pitching your account, they will not be honest with you once you’re a client.
- Demand a complete, itemized billing breakdown – every month. This is likely the most important thing I’ve learned. Surprisingly, many agencies and firms act as if this is something you have no right to see. Many firms religiously monitor hourly billing to ensure accuracy and those firms have no problem providing you with a detailed monthly breakdown. Other firms regularly take liberties with their time documentation – and these firms will not want you scrutinizing their time sheets. Remember, you are paying big bucks for these services and you have every right to see what you’re paying for. Also remember that charging a client for more work than is actually being done is fraud.
- Establish tangible, measurable objectives from the onset. When an agency is trying to sell you on their capabilities, there is a tendency to promise the world. Hold them to that … and tell them how you will evaluate their success. If they don’t deliver, ditch them.
- Beware of “value billing.” Value billing is a common practice with marketing agencies and law firms (Google it). It simply means charging a client for the “value” of the service rather than the actual amount of time it took to complete a task. Agencies and firms will argue that you are paying for “their experience, contacts and expertise.” Wise clients know that the $150 to $250 hourly rate you are paying should already cover their “experience, contacts and expertise.” Once again, billing for more time than you actually worked for a client is fraud – and it happens every day in the world of advertising and public relations.
- Look at the firm or agency’s employees and ask yourself if you would hire them as senior-level employees at your company. You will be paying $150 to $250 per hour for these people. Ask yourself if you can justify that rate based on what they bring to the table. When you are being pitched, you will likely see the top people from the agency or firm. Once you hire that group, you will likely start seeing lower level employees (think “bait and switch”). While the people who sold you on that firm may be worth the high hourly rates, the people who are actually working your account may not be. Ask to see the hourly rate for ALL people who will be working your account.
- Make sure the firm you are hiring is keeping up with technology changes, market changes and that their work is relevant. You would be surprised how many firms are still placing yellow pages ads, charging for clipping services, and haven’t figured out digital marketing or social media yet. That’s fine if you want your marketing, advertising and public relations programs to be current for anyone living in 1986. In this situation, the newer and younger firms and agencies have a leg up on older more established firms. There is a real tendency for firms and agencies to “do what they’ve always done” and this is a perfect formula for your failure.
There are great marketing, advertising and public relations firms out there that do amazing work for their clients. Those firms welcome clients that want to evaluate performance and stay actively involved in the professional relationship. There are also countless firms that will turn and run the other direction the minute you start asking questions. My recommendation to you would be to do the exact same thing … turn around and run in the opposite direction.