[IMGCAP(1)]Hiring a marketing agency for your firm doesn’t have to be overly complicated or expensive.

Finding the best marketing agency is a similar process to hiring IT help or any other professional service

It isn’t that difficult if you follow a few simple steps.

When do you need outside help? Typically there are a few triggers that spur a firm to look for outside marketing guidance.

•    Revenues are flat and you are not sure why.

•    You are considering selling the firm or acquiring another firm to grow a specific niche or service area.

•    Your firm has partners who will be retiring soon.and you’ll need to replace their book of business.

•    You feel like your firm’s brand is unknown or not exactly inspiring to prospective clients.

•    You know there are bits and pieces of marketing “things” you’ve attempted but you’re not sure if they’re all pulled together to generate new business.

•    You don’t have an in-house marketing person or don’t have the budget to support a full-time marketing professional.

•    No one in the firm consistently tells the firm’s brand story.

•    Your in-house marketing director or manager recently left or perhaps is a great doer, but doesn’t have the strategic skills that you need.

Whatever you believe the reason is to hire outside expertise, it’s critical that you gain a really clear understanding of what your business challenges are.

Before you begin identifying a consultant or an agency, you need to do a little more homework:

•    Do you have buy-in from the partner group? Is everyone in agreement to proceed and understand the core challenge? Do you have the green light to proceed?

•    Is your firm ready for a long-term commitment? Clients don’t hire you to fix an accounting problem overnight, and neither should you expect an agency to fix your branding issue or get your firm on the front page of the local newspaper right away. It takes commitment over several months to see results. Depending on the size of your firm, it can be easier to have a small marketing committee that can devote time and energy to working with the agency. The rest of the partnership has to trust in their recommendations, but it cuts down on a lot of wasted time and energy.

•    Do you have administrative people who can work with the agency? Depending on what the project is, an agency may need access to client information, setting up meetings or an extra pair of hands to do simple things like sending out mailers to a prospect list.

So once your partners are on board and are ready to look for help, if you have no experience working with a marketing agency, what should you look for?

•    Consulting experience. With the downsizing trend hitting the marketing and communications industry hard, there are plenty of wannabe consultants who have opened practices just in the last year or so. Ask how long they have been in the consulting business. What types of clients do they work with? Ask then to show you examples of their work, explain the problem, the solution and the results they have generated.

•    Accounting industry experience. We encourage firms to find an agency that has accounting and consulting experience. It’s perfectly OK to ask an agency about the firms they work with. Do they know the difference between FASB and LIFO? Can they communicate with accountants? Do they truly understand the dynamics and politics of flat, partner-driven organizations? Are they sensitive to understanding the needs of a firm from the partner to the staff level? Is most of their consulting experience working with other kinds of businesses that are very different from accounting firms? An agency that works with other accounting firms is going to know what works and what doesn’t.

•    Referrals. Ask for referrals or look at professional associations like the Association for Accounting Marketing, a national organization of in-house marketing professionals, consultants and agencies. Ask referral sources what their experience was with the firm and to describe their communication skills. Did they deliver on what they said they would do?

•    Client agreements. Are they willing to structure an agreement that works for you? Agency work is done on either a project or hourly rate.

Once you have identified a marketing agency, what should you expect in the relationship?

•    Getting to know each other. A good agency will take a broad view of the firm, asking tons of questions to get to the “nut” of the issue. They will ask you to articulate your vision, goals, and dreams for the firm and what gets in the way (remember we talked about articulating the core problem?)

•    A well-written, understandable proposal. You should ask for, and expect, a clearly articulated proposal with specifics on how they will help you reach your goals. Just as you sell your intellectual capital, an agency too is selling its time and expertise. Does the proposal address the key business issue? How does the agency intend to solve your business issues?

•    Budget. That can vary depending on the location, business challenges and time frames. Agencies will usually add a markup on external hard costs like printers, web production or media placements they bring into a project. And that’s fair. There is a cost to managing others who are involved in a project. It’s also fair to ask how they arrived at the number.

•    Communication. Do you receive regular updates or a recap report of where the agency is with a project? Are they demonstrating ROI on what they said they would do?

•    The extras. Does your agency go above and beyond to bring value to the relationship? Are they savvy enough to identify problem areas and bring them to your attention in a politically sensitive way? Do they have connections in the community to help your firm build referral networks? Do they naturally make introductions to prospects and referral partners for you?

•    A good agency is authentic. Authentic behavior means the agency puts into words exactly the situation at hand and can clearly tell you what the challenge is and propose ideas on how to solve it. The best agencies are the most adept at digging, asking questions, speaking up, and knowing how to navigate a firm’s political situations.

•    Confidentiality. Experienced agencies won’t bat an eye at signing an NDA or other written assurances of keeping the firm’s information confidential.

With those assurances in mind, your firm is well on the way to marketing its services more effectively.

Kristin Wing is a principal at AccelerAction. She can be reached at kwing@AccelerAction.com.

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