Americans love choices. From vitamins to vacations, we have a multitude of options to fit virtually any budget or need. When it comes to marketing our businesses, a variety of help abounds, from large, full-service marketing communications companies to "virtual" agencies where the principals call in specialized freelance talent as needed. If you choose carefully, you can also find highly expert media placement services or qualified design teams that do a lot more than create logos and brochures. So no matter your company's size or budget, you can always call in the pros without spending an arm and a leg.
When it comes to marketing budgets, size is relative. In a small town, a local advertising budget of $50,000 will get you the services of a first-rate small agency, while that same budget may mean you'll have to coordinate your campaign yourself if you're in a larger market. You can reduce your costs significantly (and consequently have more funds for ad placement) by working with a qualified creative design firm or a team of art director and copywriter to produce a family of ads, then hire a media buying firm to plan and place your campaign. Media buying services are compensated directly by the media in the form of a 15 percent commission, though you may be asked to pay a minimum fee to cover planning time. Then you'll know that experienced buyers are negotiating with the media on your behalf and mapping out a campaign with sufficient reach and frequency to ensure your message penetrates the target audience.
Your job will be to provide the information an agency might ordinarily gather, including a solid description of your target audience, the benefits of using your product or service, an overview of your competition, and the best way you can position yourself against them. In addition, you and the design team will work together to perfect a creative strategy, and you will approve every stage of the artwork until the team delivers camera-ready ads on disk to the buying service.
Once your marketing budget increases to between approximately $100,000 and $1 million per year, the midsized and boutique agencies will come calling on you. The advantage is, they're more likely to provide a one-stop shop where you can have all your advertising, direct mail, public relations and collateral materials handled by specialized departments. Your production costs will increase, too, as a typical agency team may consist of an account executive, an account supervisor, an assistant account executive, a creative director, an art director, a copywriter, a media director, a media planner and a host of other personnel in production and administration, plus specialized teams they may bring in for broadcast production.
How to Choose
There are four indispensable questions to ask when hiring an agency or creative team:
1. Are you familiar with my target audience? Hire an agency or design-and-copy team that understands how to speak your prospects' language. A copywriter who spends most of his or her time writing ads for consumer products may not have the necessary experience to speak to a different type of audience, such as government employees.
2. Are you experienced in the right media? Writing radio copy, for example, is vastly different from writing direct mail, which also must be designed to include highly specialized components. Select professionals who understand how to use your media of choice.
3. What results have you achieved under similar client challenges? Always ask for references and case histories demonstrating the designer's abilities to get results. Most professionals in the field can create attractive-looking materials, but the proof is in how well they work at generating leads or sales.
4. What can I expect to accomplish within my budget? Include a frank discussion of what you have to spend and how the dollars will be allocated to meet your goals. Never ask a potential vendor to tell you what your budget should be. Put your cards on the table and choose the firm that will spend your money wisely.