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When Does it Make Sense to Hire a PR Agency?

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This guest post is written by Liam Fay-Fright, CEO and Founder of Common Industry and formerly Director of Communications at iconic agency Mother and Head of Communications at D&AD. In 2012 Liam was named by Forbes Magazine as one of the world’s top 30 young marketeers. In this article Liam addresses a common question we hear at Seedcamp – “Should we hire a PR agency?”

Google ‘Should my startup hire a PR agency’ and you get a mixed bag of responses. Mostly, computer says ‘no’. You are the founder of your brand; its greatest ambassador; its most eloquent evangelist. Why entrust your baby’s reputation to someone external, when your own channels and networks may well be sufficient to getting the word out?

As the founder of a communications shop that specialises in startup, you might expect me to contradict this. But I know first hand how protective we feel about our businesses; the money, sweat and late nights we pour in to them, and letting go can be hard. The truth is, not every business should – or is ready – to hire PR support. And not every PR agency is suitable to work with startups.

Great communications can be the difference between the rapid acquisition of customers and fast growth, or the slow death of your idea as it is pecked to death by more agile competition. It can help your leadership establish itself as the top players in your sector and place your products and services in the trend-setting position you think they deserve. In the days of social capital, we all know the endorsement of an influential peer or a journalist we respect is worth 1,000 intrusive ads.

But hiring an agency is a smart move only if you have clear objectives for your business and resource to support your investment in consultancy…

 

What are my business objectives?

Sounds obvious, but if you don’t know where your business is going, you’re not in a position to start shouting from the rooftops about it. Get that right first, know your product, know its place in the market. Even if this is aspirational and even if you pivot it out of all recognition from its first iteration, have conviction and a plan. Without either of these, you’ll come apart under scrutiny.

A good PR or marketer will assess your business objectives and help you shape a communications plan that will support them.

Do I need access to a larger network?

If we’re good at anything in startup, it’s collaboration. Your own networks and channels should form the foundation of a community around your business. But when that network reaches its capacity to deliver what your business needs – user acquisition, finding talent, differentiating yourself in a noisy marketplace – the right agency could be the answer.

What you’re buying is a network of quality relationships in your sector that extends beyond your own, and strategic expertise on how to the make most of them.

A good communications agency is a brokerage between your brand and the media.

It understands the needs of media businesses and the people who work in them as well as it knows your objectives. The agency’s job is to spend its time working out how to bring them together in lucrative ways for both parties. The benefit of great relationships is the ability to audit ideas; just like bringing an MVP to market to see if it works, an agency with really strong ties to media can test a campaign idea to see if it will fly – before you waste time and effort on something that won’t work (we call this ‘hacking communications’).

We worked with the guys at lostmy.name early on, and discovered fast that our strategy of targeting trendy parents in the creative industry via lovely looking design blogs didn’t give us scale. So we learnt – fast – how to talk to mums and aunties around the world, by providing great content for online parenting communities. Lostmy.name went on to become the most successful Dragon’s Den investment ever (I am still kicking myself for not taking points!) But beware the flipside: a critical mass of users is only worthwhile if the product is robust, as Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning no doubt learnt following the high profile, celeb-packed launch of the ill-fated Airtime.

A modern agency can offer a suite of services including media relations, social strategy, content strategy and production – often described as ‘below the line’ marketing, or earned media. Broadly, it’s about getting influence and recommendation from a respected third party: in the news, on twitter, from the podium at an event. The alternative is paid (‘above the line’) media, which is traditional advertising – TV, outdoor, etc. You may well need a mix of both.

Should I go agency or in-house?

You might decide that what you really need is in-house support, someone close to the day-to-day of your business. This can be the perfect choice for a business with a very specific communications need – someone who is honed in B2B in your sector.

Alternatively, for the same cost you can probably hire a whole team of smart minds tackling your problem. Again, good communications is about networks. Networks in the media, among other businesses, and in culture. So hiring an agency with a bunch of smart, connected people can hugely increase your chance of making useful connections with partners. You might not think of Red Bull (everyone’s favourite in-house PR machine) needing support, but when Red Bull Music wanted to build a network of startups to enhance their user experiences (online and offline), we worked with Sidekick to create an incubator programme that introduced them to the music tech community – we got over 150 applicants and Red Bull made some friends they’d had no idea how to reach.

Ready? Not yet…

If you decide to take the plunge, remember hiring a communications team is the same as taking on any consultancy – chemistry is key. Who is on the team? Are the people in the pitch the actual people you’ll work with? Do they understand your sector in depth?

And in the first meeting you have with them, just make sure they know your business: if your prospective PR starts waxing lyrical about Italian football when you bring up Series A, politely cut your losses.

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