Hiring an outside direct marketing agency requires an investment of money, time, commitment and trust. There's also the risk of putting your company's reputation and profitability in the hands of people who may not share your zeal and dedication.
On the other hand, when both sides click, an agency can open doors to new customers, new markets, and new growth.
There are different tip-offs to indicate it's time to switch from doing things in-house to seeking an outside agency.
One trigger is seeing how well your current marketing programs are performing. Lackluster results could indicate a need for a fresh approach. Comparing your advertising to that of your competitors could be another indicator that it's time to change. For example: Does their name come up higher in search rankings? Do their mailings have more impact? Do they have a more robust social media platform? Still another trigger could simply be that you're not attracting enough new business on your own.
After you've determined you need an agency, what then? Asking the following questions can boost your chances for a mutually beneficial relationship.
1. How do you begin the search?
According to Lois Geller, president of Lois Geller Marketing Group, a Hollywood, Florida-based direct marketing agency, referrals are a good place to start.
"Ask for referrals from other small business owners," Geller says. "If they belong to a Chamber of Commerce or a Rotary Club or any local organization, ask around and see what agency other businesses in their area have been really satisfied with."
Narrowing your focus to select items saves both time and money and clarifies the agenda for the agency. "I think the organized people who walk into agencies get the best work and the best value for their dollar," says Geller. "Write down what your objectives are and make them realistic."
"Small business owners should have an idea of what they're looking for from an agency before they even start the discussion," says Phil Kening, principal at New Jersey-based Beacon Marketing Group. "What do they need help with? What are their objectives? Once they have that clearly in their head, they need to see if the agency matches up with those needs."
3. What's your budget?
This may be the single biggest source of confusion in the selection process. Obviously every business wants to get the most for their money, but it will only lead to frustration without a realistic plan.
Kening emphasizes that the size of the budget should come up in the first meeting. "It doesn't have to be the exact budget," he says, "but the agency needs to know what the pain threshold for the client is."
Equally distracting is when a business has a long laundry list, a short budget, and expects the agency to work miracles.
"Some businesses think that if they tell me they have $25,000, I'll spend the $25,000," Geller says. Not necessarily so.
A more reasonable approach is for a business to highlight a few areas that need improving, be candid about the money they have to spend, and ask the agency what it can do under those circumstances.
"When a client tells us what the budget is, we're working off the same hymn book. That's a real partnership," Geller says. "If they have a smaller number, I can use the same advertising principles and just simplify them down."
4. Should you ask for samples beforehand?
It's a good idea. Beyond demonstrating the agency's caliber of work, Geller points out that clients can sometimes get ideas for what they want by looking at work the agency has done for others, giving the agency a clearer idea of the client's tastes.
5. Should you meet the people who will be working on your account?
Absolutely, according to both Geller and Kening. Familiarizing yourself with the team not only gives you an idea of what it's like to work with them on a personal level, but also gives you a sense of their capabilities.
"You want to know the people on your account, whether it's the whole team or at least just the lead person," Kening says. "You get a feel for what their knowledge base is and to make sure that you're going to have a competent team."
6. Should you choose a local agency?
While one-on-one relationships are an integral part of any relationship, technology like Skype and the growing use of videoconferencing has opened up a wider pool of candidates for small businesses.
"If you want to make local connections, I guess it's good to have a local agency that might give you entry to groups or associations that you think might help your business," Geller says. "Other than that, I would go for the talent."
7. Should you sign a contract? If so, for how long?
While lengthy contracts might still exist at some agencies, nowadays most agencies offer much shorter terms, as short as one year or even less.
"I don't think there is a minimum anymore," Geller says. "Obviously you have to give the agency a chance to perform the duties you want done and get the results."
Put another way: If you hire an agency to come up with a new direct mail campaign, stay with the agency at least until the campaign has run its course and the results are in, usually several months.
Sometimes, when the match is right, those months can turn into years. Debra Kravet, owner of Apthorp Cleaners in New York, has been with Geller about five years, letting her develop a website and creating a brand for her business. The efforts have evidently payed off, as the business’s overall five-star rating on the customer review site Yelp can attest.
Since good advertising always offers a little something extra as a surprise gift, two bonus pieces of advice:
"Sometimes all the business needs is a consultant that will help train them," Kening says. "They can do the work themselves and manage it themselves because literally they don't have the resources to pay an agency."
Also, first impressions are really important. "It's the way you feel, that gut feeling," Geller says. "If you like them and you feel like they're going to do a good job, usually it happens that way."
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