Working with outside marketing agencies has proven to help firms with branding and increasing sales. But, outsourcing can be scary, expensive and non-productive if you don’t know how to select the right firm, as well as what to expect in terms of fees, contracts, and more.

There comes a time for most firms, especially in today’s hurried work environment, when outsourcing or seeking marketing counsel is necessary. In fact, many would argue that outsourcing marketing activities and strategy is smart as it allows you to benefit from an outside expert opinion. However, what is shocking is the approach many take to hiring consultants and the misconceptions surrounding fees, schedule, strategy and more.

Let’s begin with the selection process – a scenario we are all accustomed to, though we often forget our key selling attributes when we are on the other side of the equation. For example, I was recently asked to evaluate a firm’s marketing materials and create a new identity. The firm asked for a complete overhaul of their image – to include new logo options, which they said they would evaluate and if they liked anything, they would pay for the service. However, if none of the logos were to their liking, they would not be bound to pay any fee.

Having worked in a former life at a large national engineering firm as marketing director with direct responsibility for purchasing marketing services, I can fully appreciate the fear, and sometimes the reality, of hiring a consultant only to be disappointed with the results. Having also worked at a full-service advertising agency, I understand that the tremendous time and money spent evaluating, brainstorming and creating a new identity for a firm is no different than an architect designing a new office building with the fee 100 percent at-risk. Obviously, the secret to success here clearly lies in selecting a consultant that matches your needs and build a relationship.

Different Consultants Offer Varying Skill Sets
Not all marketing and advertising agencies are the same, and it is therefore essential that you match your needs with the core services and expertise of your chosen agency. For example, most full-service marketing or advertising agencies will work with you on branding efforts; create marketing, sales and advertising materials; as well as handle web site development and electronic marketing. Contrast these services with a graphic design or web design firm, both of which may or may not possess any copywriting expertise. And, while some agencies offer public relations services, another option is partnering with a firm that specializes specifically in publishing, technical writing and the PR process. Other options include market research, telemarketing, trade show, specialty giveaway or event planning firms.

Many of the firms I know that feel burned by outside marketing consultants were quick to explain that the firm they hired may have boasted a track-record in one service, such as brochure development, but they just couldn’t cut if for the particular service needed. Further, it is essential that your chosen marketing firm understands your industry. After all, why would you trust your marketing and branding efforts to a firm that knows nothing about your business? Your consultant may have won a variety of awards for television commercials, billboards and point of sales displays in grocery stores. However, if you have to spend hours explaining that your office is made of concrete — not cement — and that the ‘latest design trends’ does not refer the fashions on a New York runway, be careful.

Understanding the Cost of Services
Adhering to the same philosophy you probably present in your sales efforts – that owners should not select a design or construction firm or product based on low-price alone – don’t select a marketing firm with cost as the only criteria. Further, it is important to fully understand how your consultant charges for services. Many agencies will propose a retainer basis, which is ideal if you are working on a variety of projects and want to move forward without the constant back-and-forth with contracts and project estimates. A retainer also will give you more pull in terms of schedule delivery, as the agency will allot time to your account. However, be sure to ask for an accounting of hours each month, as well as goals for the upcoming month, to ensure you are on the same page with your consultant.

Lump-sum project fees also are common. Expect to pay for a portion of the contract upfront and be sure to review standard costs that are typically passed onto the client, such as camera-ready artwork, film, couriers, overnight shipping, as well as stock photography and images. Also be sure to discuss and finalize who owns the final product. For example, many design firms retain the rights to their graphic concepts and such ownership would permit you from using the artwork for purposes other than original intent or with another consultant.

The Selection Process
With a strong understanding of the services you desire, as well as the type of firm you need, you should begin your selection process with the same vigor and commitment you would give to hiring a new high-level executive for your firm. For branding, strategic planning or other large marketing efforts, an RFP is completely acceptable, while interviews may suffice for smaller projects. Regardless of project size, be sure to speak with other clients they have worked with, and obtain all estimates in writing with a detailed scope of work.

Finally, it is advisable to ask your consultant for an exclusive agreement that permits them from working with your competitors. After all, you will need to share your marketing strategy, goals and objectives with your consultant to arm them with the information they need to create success. But this information would be catastrophic if leaked to your competitor. Further, regardless of confidentiality, it is not realistic for an agency to serve two competitors honestly and equitably at the same time without comprising someone’s success.