How does a startup choose an ad or PR agency?

You’re an entrepreneur. Or at least have an entrepreneurial idea. You’ve done your homework on the category. You think you have a winner on your hands. You’ve put a little money together. Now it’s clear you need a good name, identity and marketing plan. Maybe some initial materials and a website so you can attract more investment or simply start selling product. You’ve decided that you could really use a good agency to do it right.

How do you choose?

Strikingly, the questions a startup should be asking in many ways mirror those an agency would ask when considering working with a startup, but with a few important differences.

  1. Passion:  Does the agency demonstrate innate passion for your idea?

Agencies can have notoriously short attention spans. It’s in our nature to jump from one creative project to another, and we like it that way. And we have our own agenda in many cases. Certain award shows. The desire to impress our senior management or parent company (if there is one). Keeping our finicky creative people happy. Did I mention award shows?

Your idea needs and deserves sustained attention, especially from senior people at the agency. If you’re offering a sufficiently competitive budget, then you have the right to demand senior attention and some kind of demonstration of passion and understanding for your idea. It doesn’t have to be in the form of a huge dog and pony show. It could simply be something like showing up at one of your first meetings having done real homework on your category and audience, with some insights you didn’t even have.

  1. Trust: Do you feel genuine chemistry? 

In addition to passion for your idea, you want a team that you enjoy being in a room with. Startups rarely have marketing departments, and in many ways your agency will act as your outsourced marketing function. Make sure you’re a good fit. Or, as one of my old bosses used to say, “If you don’t want to slow dance with them, don’t take them to the prom.”

  1. Startup Literacy: Do key members of your agency have experience with startups and launching entirely new ideas? 

Doing the branding and marketing for a startup idea is a very different skill set from working with an established brand. There’s no track record, zero awareness, no experience (which comes from trial and error), no consumer usage and attitude information. It’s a blank slate in many ways. Startups require both a higher degree of intuition/instinct and a stronger skill set when it comes to evaluating business plans and translating them into marketing plans.

Ask the agency explicitly if they know how to work with startups and entrepreneurs, and ask them for some evidence.

  1. Strategy:  Are they good at strategy?

At no time is strategy unimportant. But it’s never more crucial than in the beginning, before an idea has hit the market. Generally speaking, you have one chance to get it right. You don’t have the luxury of a big marketing budget where you can afford missteps. And your investors are likely breathing down your neck, expecting results fast.

Do your homework and find out if the agency you’re considering has strategists or a planning department. Ask them for some case studies and to show you their methodology. They should be able to answer these questions with confidence and zero hesitation. If not, move on.

  1. Truth:  Are they willing to speak truth to power?

I’ll add one more thing. As an entrepreneur, you have no time for beating around the bush. You must have smart advisors who are willing to tell you the truth from their perspective, respectfully but without hesitation. Hearing wise counsel after the fact is worthless. A good agency will put your business interests above seeking your praise or approval. A good agency will give it to you straight.

– W.