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Keeping Your Brand Out of Politics

Politics has gotten ugly. OK, it’s always been ugly, but in the last decade, it’s gotten extra super ugly. As a nation, we are more divided than ever by politics and it doesn’t look like this is going to change any time soon. Many companies (wisely) try to stay out of all things political as much as possible. As we saw with the Susan G. Komen PR disaster earlier this month, doing otherwise can create an unwanted poopie storm of biblical proportions. Unfortunately, sometimes particular special interest groups try and drag brands into their fights. Such has been the case with Starbucks and guns. In most states, if you don’t have a criminal record and meet certain established requirements, you can get a license to carry a concealed firearm. While this fact completely freaks out a vocal minority of people who envision gun fights over parking spaces and a return to the Wild West, the truth is concealed carry is a non-issue. As a matter of fact, concealed carry permit holders are among the least likely people around to commit a crime with (or without) a firearm. They aren’t really a threat to anyone except, from time to time, criminals. In California, the process of getting a concealed carry license isn’t straightforward at all. Decisions about of who may or may not get a concealed carry permit is left entirely up to local law enforcement. Words like arbitrary and discriminatory come to mind because in practice, the only people who are able to get a permit are judges, politicians or people of privilege. Until the beginning of this year, the only way a California resident could legally exercise their Second Amendment rights was to openly — meaning visibly — carry a holstered and unloaded firearm. Now they can’t even do that (but for the time being, they can still carry shotguns and rifles). Openly carrying a firearm is can be alarming to some people (though, in reality, most don’t even notice). It also exposes the person carrying the firearm to being handcuffed and harrassed by overzealous/uneducated law enforcement personnel. As a result, a growing group of Californians decided to ban together and meet in public places as a way to draw attention to the state’s unfair and inconsistent gun laws and educate others about their cause. One of the places they congregated was Starbucks. The open carry movement drew the attention of several anti-gun groups who began putting pressure on the businesses they frequented to ban firearms entirely from their establishments. Many businesses caved in to the pressure but Starbucks did not. In 2010, the company issued the following statement: While we deeply respect the views of all our customers, Starbucks long-standing approach to this issue remains unchanged.  We comply with local laws and statutes in all the communities we serve.  That means we abide by the laws that permit open carry in 43 U.S. states.  Where these laws don’t exist, openly carrying weapons in our stores is prohibited.  The political, policy and legal debates around these issues belong in the legislatures and courts, not in our stores. This simple response provides a BEAUTIFUL example of how a company can – for the most part – stay out of difficult and (emotional/incendiary/divisive) issues. This was probably a tough decision to make, but it was unquestionably the right thing to do in the long run. They took control of their own message and opted to stay focused on the issues that matter to them. As I’ve written here numerous times, companies no longer get to control their own message completely. Customers and others play an increasingly important role in defining any company’s brand. However if a company plays its cards right, it does get the final say. With that one simple statement, Starbucks is now in a position where it no longer has to do or say anything more about the regardless of whether or not it fades away or goes on for years to come — the latter being more likely. Today, for example, The National Gun Victims Action Council made a very lame attempt to paint Starbucks’ refusal to take an anti-gun stance as being part of the “NRA’s lethal pro gun agenda.” They also attempted to organize a nationwide boycott to try and hit Starbucks where it hurts. The result? The NGVAC Facebook page — with a whopping 240 “likes” as of this afternoon — has been taken over by  folks who went out of their way to visit Starbucks in support of its decision to rise above the fray. The Starbucks Facebook page is also loaded with positive comments and words of thanks from sensible and rational people (the majority of whom appear to support the first and second amendments). In all likelihood, the result of the boycott was a noticeable spike in sales for Starbucks. I’d love to know how much but I’m sure this isn’t a story the mainstream media is going to cover. Presumably, Startbucks will have the sense to keep mum about the whole thing as well.      

Want to Write a Mission Statement That Doesn’t Suck?

This is the best online video I’ve seen in a while on any subject. I hope more businesses take it to heart. My take on the subject comes in the form of two lessons. Lesson one — lighten up and show a little personality. That’s what will let people connect with your brand on an emotional level. Lesson two — ban writing by committee. Brainstorming as a group is good. Writing as a group is bad. If this process is mandatory, have the testicular fortitude to be the guy at the end of the session who steps up and points out that the vapid, milquetoast crap you all just hammered out is just that. Thanks Fast Company!

If Your Next Marketing Campaign Involves Tattoos, it Might be Time To Hire an Agency

Harley doesn’t have to pay for it — they get it for free

Branding is a very powerful thing. One of the best ways to know your brand has truly struck a chord with customers is when it starts showing up in tattoos. It is entirely possible that, at this very moment, someone somewhere is getting the words “Harley” and “Davidson” forever inscribed on their skin. After all, Harley is a truly iconic brand that, for millions and millions of people, defines cool (despite the fact that Harley makes crappy motorcycles). Unfortunately, over the past several years, there have been some marketeers who have seen fit to create marketing campaigns involving tattoos. Perhaps the most famous is Golden Palace, an online casino that actually found someone so desperate for cash that she was willing to have the company’s logo tattooed across her forehead for $15,000. The move was demeaning and sad, but generated a ton of publicity. While nearly all of it was negative, the campaign met its objective — to get the company’s name out there. It’s OK to be gross if you are an online casino. Earlier this month, a video of a guy getting a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses tattooed on his face went viral. It isn’t clear whether Ray-Ban or one of its agencies was in on it (or even whether or not it is real). If Ray-Ban is behind it and actually paid this kid to get that tattoo, that is pretty awful. Even if they got away with it without being directly implicated, I still don’t think it does anything to help the brand. Unlike Golden Palace, Ray-Ban does have an image to uphold. Convincing some rube to get a terrible tattoo on his face as a marketing stunt isn’t hip — it’s immoral and wrong.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should

Right now, Titus Cycles is running a campaign on Facebook where people design a Titus Tattoo and tell the community of Facebook fans where on their bodies they would put it. Fans vote on which concept they like best and the “winner” is flown to Titus headquarters in Arizona, gets the tattoo (applied by an artist of the company’s choosing) and is awarded a mountain bike worth about $5,500. It is true that Titus does make one hell of a mountain bike (I actually own one and love it). Some might even say the brand is tattoo-worthy. But this campaign is sophomoric and shows the company doesn’t truly understand either branding or tattoos. Titus makes high-end, high-dollar bikes. While I’m sure there are plenty of potential Titus customers who dig tattoos there are many more who probably don’t. Tattoos just aren’t an integral part of the cycling or mountain biking culture. And, while tattoos are a lot more mainstream than they used to be, they are still pretty edgy. The problem is, Titus doesn’t come off as a particularly edgy company, nor should it. Titus has actually earned the right to position itself as a premium brand. When a company legitimately can position itself that way, it absolutely should. Obviously someone at Titus understands this nuance because the company’s new Website does just that. It is gorgeous. It is worth noting that most of the riders pictured on the site are conspicuously ink-free. Then there’s the matter of the tattoo itself. When people choose to get a tattoo of a brand, it’s because they identify strongly with that brand. In a way, they are using the meaning of the brand to help define who they are. They are doing it because they want to, which makes it an authentic form of expression. Paying someone to get a tattoo of a brand changes all that. At the end of the day, it just turns the person into a living billboard. At that point it stops being authentic and is just lame. In addition, no serious collector of fine ink will let just anyone slap a tattoo on them. Many people — at least those with truly great work — will wait months or even years to get an appointment with the right artist. At the end of the day, there will always be people willing to do all sorts of odd things for a little bit of notoriety and a few dollars. But just because you can find people to do those things doesn’t mean you should. That tattoo is going to last a lot longer than any buzz you generate and, quite possibly, longer than your company will even be around.

Communications On the Edge II — Pepsi's Done it Again

Another sign that we are doomed as a society or just some juvenile humor?

Another sign that we are doomed as a society or just some juvenile humor?

Last year, Pepsi found itself in the middle of a controversy over some suicide-themed ads they put out that were pretty tasteless. My assessment of that particular issue was Pepsi messed up good and proper. Now the company is back in the hot seat over a (sort of) tasteless iPhone application it created to help promote its AMP energy drink. The application — like the drink — is marketed to pubescent males. The idea is they can use the app to get advice on how to score with different types of chicks. Unfortunately, they took it one step farther by also building in a feature that lets them brag about their conquests to their friends. As was obviously expected, the campaign got Team Political Correctness all up in a tizzy. Pepsi then “apologized” to those who were offended on Twitter and asked people to Tweet their opinions about the issue. They even asked people to use a pepsifail hashtag.  Brilliant. What they didn’t do is immediately kill the application (which they have since done). CNN had Adam Ostrow of Mashable and PR “guru” Kevin Dugan on to discuss the topic. Both made some excellent points about the pros and cons of the campaign and whether or not Pepsi should pull it from the Apple App Store. I tend to agree with Adam on this one. Yes, it is tasteless; but, at the end of the day, it is designed to appeal to young boys and that’s what young boys like. Yes the “brag about it” part was a little over the top and was probably not necessary. Yes, it was bound to piss people off — and get a lot of publicity in the process — and there is no doubt that this was a calculated strategy. But should Pepsi have pulled the app? Ultimately, I say yes but ONLY because AMP is owned by Pepsi and the Pepsi brand needs to stay squeaky-clean. If AMP was its own company, I would have said there would be a strong case for keeping it, political correctness be damned. It might get some people’s panties in a bunch, but not AMP’s target audience. In a way, the controversy is good for the brand if the goal is to appeal to pseudo bad-boys. And, as Adam pointed out, a “sister” app. that poked fun at guys would have been another legitimate way to mitigate the “outrage.” I also suspect that the reason Pepsi didn’t pull the app right away is because they wanted to get the Twitter publicity first. By “admitting” they screwed up, they had already set the stage to later make it right. I also suspect that if the “it’s a joke — lighten up” crowd dramatically overwhelmed the “oh my heck, I’m so appalled” crowd they would have kept it up. Pepsi took a risk. I think it paid off. They also provided another great case study for savvy social media marketing.

High on Coke — Coca-Cola Embraces Fans’ Facebook Page, Effectively Sharing Ownership of its Brand With Loyal Customers

Was Coke right in sharing ownership of its brand? Yes.

Was Coke right in sharing ownership of its brand?

Coca-Cola is one of the world’s biggest and most well-recognized brands.  It makes me wonder how many billions – or perhaps even trillions – of dollars the company has spent to get there. That’s why it was particularly refreshing to read a recent story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the way the company reacted to the success of a Coca-Cola Facebook page that the company did not create. The page was actually created last year by a pair of 29-year-old Coke fiends in Los Angeles. Dusty Sorg and Michael Jedrzejewski created the page for no other reason than they were passionate about the beverage.  It turned out to be a very popular page. Within a few weeks of its inception, it had hit 75,000 fans.  After the first million fans, the Facebook administrators contacted Coca-Cola to see if it wanted to take over management of the page. Fortunately, Coke’s director of worldwide interactive marketing declined. His thinking was that if the company took the page over, it would be seen as an intrusion and it would lose some of its grass-roots appeal and credibility. Instead, the company rolled out the red carpet for the page’s creators and invited them to headquarters for a sit-down. Ultimately, the decision was made to take a collaborative approach to managing the page between Sorg, Jedrzejewski and a small group of Coca-Cola employees. Today the site has 3,365,220 fans and is the second most popular page on Facebook page right behind Barrack Obama’s.
Coca-Cola superfans given the red carpet treatment

Coca-Cola superfans given the red carpet treatment

In today’s world, a company cannot maintain complete control over its brand no matter how hard it tries or how much money it spends. Brands are being discussed, debated and mutated all across the Internet. And, while companies can’t control their brands, there is still a lot that can be done to influence the discussion. At the end of the day, the key is to for a company to become a legitimate part of the community having the discussion. Relinquishing complete control of your brand can do wonders for your company’s image. Some smart executives at Coca-Cola were well aware of this fact when they addressed this particular situation. This type of thinking may well help Coke become the choice of a new generation.

A Large Coffee, By Any Other Name, Is Still A Large Coffee — Does Starbucks' Crazy Nomenclature Help Its Brand?

One way to avoid the whole size discussion -- while reducing your impact on the planet -- is to take your own mug

One way to avoid the whole size discussion -- while reducing your impact on the planet -- is to take your own mug

I freely admit that I am no fan of Starbucks. It isn’t because I think Starbucks is a big, evil corporation. It isn’t because they have mediocre coffee or that I am opposed to paying $4 for a non-alcoholic beverage. It isn’t because they have automated espresso machines that eliminate the artistry of the Barista and it isn’t that I have a phobia of the stereotypical MacBook-toting customers that infest the place. The reason I dislike Starbucks is the lingo they want me to use. At Starbucks, they want me to call a small a “Tall,” a medium a “Grande” and a large a “Venti.” And I refuse to play along. This is harder than you might think. Every time I go in there (which isn’t very often) I ask for the same thing — a mocha with 4 shots in the smallest cup they offer, hold the whipped cream. Without fail, this brazen act of defiance ignites the same battle of semantics with the person who pushes the button that activates the automated espresso machine (a.k.a the artist formerly known as Barista). “You mean a Tall?” they say, while holding up a small – but not the smallest – cup for me and the rest of the store to inspect. “No, I mean a small,” I say pointing to the stack of the small cups I know damn well they refer to as “Short.” At this point, they grab the small cup and announce to anyone within earshot that I’ll be enjoying a short quad no whip mocha. Never — and I mean not once — have they just said OK and made my drink. It is as if their training demands that they correct me before they commence with the button pushing. I’d be content with this little game — and I’d probably even play along —  if Starbucks was cool and hip and counterculture enough to refuse to conform to a cup size nomenclature thrust upon them by “the man.” But Starbucks is the opposite of cool. In many ways, Starbucks is “the man.” Everything about Starbucks says safe, milktoast, corporate and vapid. That’s why mainstream America embraces it. I’m sure some see this as a branding coup for Starbucks. I see it as an annoyance. Update: It appears I’m not the only one who sees it as an annoyance. A reader sent me the link to this video …

Thanks To His Trusty Omega, Michael Phelps Will Always Know When It’s 4:20

Phelps' Sugar Smack dealing sponsor didn't want to associate itself with such unhealthy behavior. Hypocracy? Absolutely.

Phelps’ Sugar Smack dealing sponsor didn’t want to associate itself with such unhealthy behavior. Hypocracy? Absolutely.

When the story emerged that a photo of Olympic hero, Michael Phelps pulling tubes was making its way around the Internet, I wasn’t shocked to hear that some of his sponsors chose to drop him. This is understandable and sponsors should have every right to maintain control of their brand image in any way they see fit. And let’s face it, some segments of our society are ridiculously uptight and Puritanical. But in an age when you can admit to having experimented with illegal drugs and still become President of the United States, it is good to see that not all of Phelps’ sponsorships are going up in smoke. In fact, Omega came right out and said that they don’t care and will continue to support him. I say good for Omega. It is worth pointing out that Michael is actually wearing a “totally dope” Omega in the picture. That’s right ladies and gentlemen; he actually uses the product he endorses. This particular factoid was the subject of a recent CNBC blog post. The author of the story gave Phelps a lot of credit for being a genuine brand advocate. There was a poll associated with the story looking for reader opinions on whether or not the photo was a positive or a negative thing for the Omega brand. I have to admit I was a little surprised that fewer than 9% of the respondents thought it was a problem. The majority, 62%, thought it was a good thing and the rest were undecided. It is hard to say if Kellogs really made a mistake in dropping him or not. Frankly, I’m inclined to think it was a reasonable decision. The Kellogg’s brand genuinely does need to appeal to a very wide audience and uptight people buy groceries too. On the other hand, the company cannot be completely unaware that “reefer madness” is unquestioningly responsible for a measureable percentage of Pop-Tart, Famous Amos, Keebler and Cocoa Krispies sales.

Communications on the Edge

Nothing cracks me up like suicide

Nothing cracks me up like suicide

I’m all about edgy. I like dark twisted humor and laugh at jokes that make many people cringe. I nearly always root for the companies that have the balls to do something different and take risks with communications campaigns that push the limits. But I also have learned — occasionally the hard way — there are times when edgy is simply not the right tool for the job. A recent ad campaign by BBDO Dusseldorf and Pepsi provides an awesome example of where edgy is definitely uncalled for. The ads portray a personification of a lonely calorie offing itself in a variety of gruesome ways. The point they are trying to highlight is the joyous fact that Pepsi Max has but one calorie. The violent and graphic images they use overshadow and muddy that point. Not surprisingly, the ads caused quite a stir. Advertising Age wrote all about the ordeal in an online article that circulated very quickly. If you look at the reader comments about the article, you’ll see that most people agree Pepsi made a big mistake – one that Pepsi’s PR team is currently working to correct. Wholesome Pepsi adBut a surprising number of reader comments defended the campaign. Their comments discuss the importance of being edgy, how political correctness has ruined the advertising business (along with everything else) and how those who are offended should simply “get over it.” The overwhelming majority of these comments came from the folks in the creative or graphics segments of the ad biz. Perhaps the apparent lack of judgment and filters is why ad agencies rarely take these guys to client meetings (a shame, really, because those meetings would probably be a lot more fun if they did). What I find most interesting is that the people who stick up for this particular campaign genuinely don’t appear to understand WHY it is such a colossal screw up. But the reason is simple; it strays way too far from the rather whitewashed and benign brand image that Pepsi has spent more than a century working to create.

Goes great with Thai

Pepsi may call itself the “Choice of a New Generation” but, in reality, they have a customer base that extends across hundreds of cultures and virtually every imaginable demographic. And the bigger and more diverse your audience, the greater the chance an edgy campaign will miss its mark and be seen as offensive or even hurtful. With a customer base as big as Pepsi’s, even if an ad like this only drives off one percent of its customer base, you are still talking about a huge number of people. Where Edgy Works It might seem ironic that the very same ads that worked so miserably for Pepsi could actually work fine for a company that is going after a more specific and targeted audience. I even think the title of the Advertising Age story on the issue works fine. It reads “Pepsi Opens a Vein of Controversy With New Suicide Themed Ads.” Even though it is a little tasteless, most of the magazine’s readership probably recognizes it as clever and are able to take it in stride. Edgy for the sake of being edgy doesn’t make sense. But when it works, it works well. There is a great Wired Magazine article about Ian Woolward, who did a bunch of print ads in the early 1990’s that pushed the envelope and arguably crossed the boundaries of good taste. But they worked (at least I thought so). One of his most infamous works appeared in PC Magazine in the early 1990’s. It was part of a series of ads for Logitech. They were a new company that had just come out with a line of ergonomically- correct mice. The purpose of the ad was to underscore how good the mice felt to use. All of the ads were offbeat, but the one that caused the biggest stir was the “peeing baby” concept. On one half of the page was a diapered baby boy laying on his back with a caption that read “feels good.” On the other half of the page was the same baby – this time without the diaper peeing straight up in the air with a caption that read “feels better.”According to Woolward, “the ad really says that the product is fun to buy, fun to use and is fairly sophisticated because the ad itself is sophisticated.” Did the add “piss off” any potential customers? Yes. But Logitech knew this and accepted it from the outset. But it made me curious enough about the product to run out an buy one and I still use Logitech mice to this day. The VW ad below isn’t real. Though clearly designed by professionals, it was (supposedly) a spoof that just happened to get leaked and go viral big time. While the political correctness police would never allow a company like Volkswagen to air such an ad, if they had, I’d probably be joining the creative types and say “just get over it.”

The Ethics of Advocacy

You've come a long way, baby

You’ve come a long way, baby

Public relations has the power to mold and shape public opinion – often more than many people realize. Discussion about the ethical use of this power is as old as the profession itself.  In the 1920s, Edward Bernays, who is often referred to as the “father of PR”, developed a very successful campaign for the American Tobacco Company designed to help convince women that smoking was healthy, fashionable and even patriotic. Unfortunately, his campaign succeeded. Later in his life – once cigarettes were found to be anything but healthy – Bernays was plagued with remorse saying that if he had known the dangers of tobacco, he never would have taken the account. But plenty of today’s largest and most well-respected PR firms have gladly picked up where Bernays left off, knowing full well the danger of the products they promote. And it isn’t just big tobacco. It seems like pretty much any company, no matter how despicable, is capable of hiring world-class PR representation if the price is right. Like any good defense attorney, who justifies representing criminals because the “deserve their day in court,” these agencies justify their actions by saying their clients deserve representation (or their day in the court of malleable public opinion). Public relations has undergone a tremendous amount of change in the last decade.  Traditionally, the role of the PR practitioner has been very much behind the scenes. We used to help clients talk at customers through print and broadcast media.  Today we help clients engage in discussion with customers through a variety of methods. In some cases, we may even lead the discussion and serve as spokespeople. Weber Shandwick has given this paradigm shift a name – advocacy. In fact, advocacy, has become the backbone of the agency’s branding strategy.  In many ways, they are right. In order to effectively promote a company in today’s PR and marketing environment, where words like “authentic” and “transparent” carry a lot of weight, it makes sense that true believers be employed to help spread the word. By definition, a real advocate must take on a greater level of personal ownership for the message he is spreading. But what happens when a PR person is asked to represent a company that isn’t really worthy of advocacy?  What happens when the actions of that company run counter to the individual practitioner’s belief system? This is where the concept of advocacy begins to fall down. Bottled water – besides being a major pet peeve of mine – provides an excellent example of what I’m talking about. Bottled water is an unsightly pig upon which PR and marketing types are currently applying copious amounts of lipstick. It is said that people in the United States go through TWO MILLION plastic bottles every FIVE MINUTES.  This bona fide environmental disaster is illustrated beautifully by artist Chris Jordan. Frankly, it makes me sick. Not surprisingly, the industry has increasingly come under attack by environmentalists. The industry’s response? More marketing! Fiji went with a new “Fiji Green” initiative and is striving to become “carbon neutral.” Arrowhead came up with a new “eco-shape” bottle that uses less plastic and a smaller label. Ethos Water went with an oh-so-chic cause-related marketing angle. While some consumers and even a handful of media actually seem to be buying in to this nonsense, those who genuinely care about the environment  are having none of it. Many of them call it “greenwashing.” The rest call it “bullshit.”  And that’s exactly what it is.

Greenwashing at its finest

Bottled water is big business. Fiji, Arrowhead and Ethos Water all have big PR and marketing machines (how else could they have convinced consumers to pay for something they get for free in the first place?). Presumably, very few of the people on these teams actually think they are helping their clients save the planet. The way I see it, anyone who participates in this type of marketing is doing something that lacks integrity. However, those that call themselves advocates actually bear a personal moral responsibility for the harm these companies are doing to the environment. KoiFish Communications is selective about the type of clients we represent. This allows us to accept ownership of our clients’ messages, to get behind their causes and to genuinely serve as advocates. It also allows us to take a great deal of pride in what we do. While relatively few employees of larger PR firms have much of a say in terms of what clients the agency takes on, everyone has the ability to choose not to work on a particular account. And if you really consider yourself and advocate, it isn’t a choice – it’s an obligation. The Truth About Bottled Water — Penn and Teller (mature language, NSFW)

2009 Creative Services Budgets — Time to Tighten the Belt?

Here’s an article I pulled out of my archives. It was originally written after the burst of the technology bubble completely hammered the PR industry. Alas, it seems just as relevant now.
PR agencies tighten their belts along with clients
The best agencies can help you in lean times by working smart
Today, it would be hard for even the most die-hard optimist to say that the economic outlook for next year isn’t a concern. Many PR budgets will be cut and all of them will be more heavily scrutinized. As a corporate marketing or communications professional, the decisions you make today become realities your company will have to live with for the next several months. This makes now a great time to evaluate what you are getting out of your advertising, public relations, graphic design and interactive service agencies. Regardless of business climate and budget, the first and only priority of your agency’s account teams must be to ensure that every dollar they spend is used to contribute to the success of your company. In good times, this means having the discipline to stop themselves (and possibly you) before moving forward on big campaigns that make a lot of noise, but don’t get you closer to meeting your business objectives. In hard times, it means your agency might need to help you determine which programs should be scaled back, which ones should be approached differently and which ones shouldn’t be fiddled with. In extreme cases, they will let you know that a serious re-alignment of goals, results and resources is in order, and they will help you make this case to management. By sacrificing some short-term revenue, your agency is betting on your continued success and demonstrating a long-term commitment to your business as well as their own. They know that when you look good, they look good-when you fail, they fail. Understanding this principle provides the foundation for a long-lasting business partnership. Unfortunately, in good times as well as bad, there are other pressures that can cause some companies and their agencies to deviate from this course. They act first, think later and make some big mistakes in the process.
PR agency fat cats don't have 9 lives

PR agency fat cats don't deserve nine lives in a down economy. All activities should revolve around your most important business goals

When communications dollars are plentiful and business is good, some companies try to spend their way into a position of market leadership, giving little thought to how expenses map to results. Some agencies are more than willing to help clients spend their budget by promoting half-baked strategies or ideas. This approach usually generates nothing more than fat invoices. Conversely, when resources are tight, anemic communications budgets are often expected to yield unrealistic results. Adding fuel to the fire, some agencies attempt to bridge the budget-vs.-expectations gap by offering more for less through steep discounts as a way to win business. If you want to get stellar results with limited resources, you need a smart agency with the proven ability to do things right the first time. This isn’t the time to bargain hunt. When evaluating your communications budget and considering where to invest, consider these important questions:
  • How long has the agency been in business and what is the health of the organization?
  • What is the agency’s business model?
  • How does management protect against market volatility?
  • Has the agency operated successfully in strong and weak markets before?
  • How did the team help clients weather the storm when times were tough?
  • What processes does the agency have in place to manage your budget and avoid overspending?
  • How are contracts and billing handled?
You need an agency with an established track record and lots of experience. Try to get a feel for how well the business is run. If its managers don’t have a good handle on their own organization, you can’t expect them to help make important decisions that impact yours. Don’t just ask the agency these questions-ask existing clients. Any good agency will provide you with references that should be able to discuss overall performance, service and how their account is managed. If you are evaluating a public relations agency, you might also check in with key editors and industry analysts. Don’t forget that a real business partnership requires two-way communication and a lot of give-and-take. Your account team needs to know the good, the bad and the ugly. They also need to know immediately if your objectives change. Be straightforward financially. If times are good, let them know so they can make recommendations accordingly. If tough times lie ahead, help them manage their own business by letting them know as soon as possible. When looking for an agency to grow old with, be leery of those that seem too desperate for your business and are willing to do anything to win it. While the best agencies are always looking for great new clients, they usually have a steady stream of work regardless of the economy. Choose wisely.