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Star Makers

Finding public relations and advertising agencies to make your business shine.

Advertising and publicity are as important to the success of a business as attractive landscaping is to the sale of a home. Yet we all know people who feel they can put in their own sprinkler system, plant their own trees and lay out the perfect garden without help from anyone.

Similarly, many small-business owners try to handle their own advertising and public relations. This may work if you are one of those few lucky people who can do anything themselves (short of taking out their own appendixes). Most of us, however, are of the "plant the shrubs and watch them die" variety. We think we can do what the pros do-only to see our investment bear no fruit or shrivel up and turn brown.

If you're looking to help your business grow, the use of professional, experienced advertising and public relations firms can make a big difference. But once you've committed to the idea that you need professional help, how do you choose the right agency?

Start by understanding the difference between advertising and PR. The traditional definition of advertising goes something like this: "Creating or changing attitudes, beliefs and perceptions by influencing people with purchased broadcast time (radio, television, audio/videocassette), print space (newspapers, magazines, journals, programs, billboards), or other forms of written/visual media (fliers, brochures, bus-stop billboards, skywriting)."

Public relations, too, influences people's attitudes, beliefs and perceptions; however, it does so through press coverage in television, radio, newspapers or magazines which, unlike advertising, is often free. Because advertising and public relations are not the same, it is critical that you avoid the one-size-fits-all approach when choosing an agency.

Issues to Consider

Because most small businesses don't have huge advertising budgets, it is important the dollars you do have are spent wisely. That means working with an agency that can really meet your needs and with which you feel comfortable. Not all advertising agencies can deliver everything they claim. There are lots of companies vying for your precious money, so carefully consider the following issues before committing to any contractual agreement.

1. Define your objective in hiring an ad agency. What do you want to achieve? What should be different after the agency goes to work for you? What kind of working relationship do you prefer?

2. Check out sources. Consider work you've seen or heard that has impressed you. Call friends and colleagues you trust and get their recommendations. Attend professional or trade association meetings, and talk to members who have used agencies before. Seek out their opinions, and note whose names come up often (both pro and con). Watch for articles about ad agencies in area papers, trade magazines and related publications (such as chamber of commerce newsletters).

3. Once you have a list of candidates, screen them by phone. Ask about their backgrounds, projects they've worked on, the results they've had, their fees and anything else important to you. Then set up interviews with the three or four firms that impressed you the most.

4. Interview the finalists. Find out the following:

  • Do they have experience working with your industry? What is their track record when working with companies like yours? Do they understand your business and the nuances of what you do? If not, are they willing to research the information they need?
  • Is there chemistry? You can tell if there is a good "fit" with an ad agency. A good agency will express interest in getting to know you as an individual and learning more about your company. They will be good listeners and quick learners. They will make good suggestions and react quickly to your questions and opinions. They should demonstrate the ability to anticipate what is best for your business and be prepared to disagree with you if they feel you're on the wrong track.
  • Do they show originality and creativity? Based on the agency's previous work, do you feel these people understand how best to "sell" your product or service? If you operate a home health-care agency, for example, you probably don't want an ad campaign that features technology over tenderness. Sensing your clientele, the agency should know enough about you to put together the appropriate message.
  • Are they reliable and budget conscious? No amount of chemistry and creativity can make up for a missed deadline or an estimate that's way off. Be sure the agency has not only the creative skills needed but also the time and commitment to devote to your needs. Whether you're the biggest or smallest client in their stable, you should be able to count on consistent attention to detail. They should be available to answer your questions and be accountable for delays and expenses.
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This article was originally published in the April 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Star Makers.

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