Unlocking the Value of Outside Marketing and Communications Agencies

Communications.pngWorking with outside marketing and communications agencies can offer many benefits – greater industry perspective; scalable, on-demand, on-call resources; and access to industry specialists, to name just a few. However, these relationships can sour, and firms can spend years under-utilizing outside professionals and agencies. What, then, are the keys to a successful firm/agency pairing?

Author’s note: Before we delve in to these issues, I should mention that I spent the first five years of my career as an in-house legal marketer. Since, I have spent the next five-plus years as an outside marketing and communications consultant.

Openess to Collaboration

The reasons for first engaging with an outside marketing and communications agency should be explored and developed into short and longe range plans. If the desire or need is overly broad, such as a general “want to change things” or to leap-frog from writing in trade publications straight to being quoted in The Wall Street Journal, expectations will be difficult to meet. In addition, marketing and communications as disciplines generally require a build process that, after a foundational period, fuels longer term results. This should be factored into the firms planning.

Opening discussions with outside agencies should be grounded in honesty and reality. Firm leaders need to express what is desired, note potential pitfalls and provide access to helpful resources. Agency representatives should provide candid feedback and ensure expectations are in the realm of the doable. For instance, “Tom sounds like a great source for environmental issues. We’ll work on building his media profile, which may include the need for him to develop byline articles to establish his thought leadership and to fill out his bio/LinkedIn with evidence of his work in this area. After that, we will have an easier time working to connect him with national media, including The Wall Street Journal.

What will doom a firm/agency relationship is a firm philosophy of: “We are great, and we really don’t want to change much, but we want better results.” Similar sure-failure can be found when an agency unrealistically promises the world – delivered in six months.

Communication

Two scenarios that play out all the time are:

  • a major verdict and client-win is reached, the principal attorneys or firm marketers sit on the news for a week and the project is then kicked to an agency with outsize media coverage expectations.
  • a website or marketing/ad campaign is launched (with contracts signed), discord and unhappiness with the service provider/results ensue and an outside agency – with zero involvement previously – is brought in to rescue the initiative.

In the first example, the outside agency will likely generate little media interest as the matter is now too dated. In the second case, firm leadership is often shifting unhappiness from one outside group to another, as it can be tough to come in without the originally shared background, and with what amounts to half a building already having been built.

A domino effect can happen when communication breaks down. The failure of one project can lead to the dismissal of an outside agency, purely to satisfy the desire to mete out consequences. And, agencies can resign accounts if the only projects they are receiving are toxic and likely to impact their reputation in the industry.

Avoiding Death-by-a-Thousand-Cuts

At times, outside consultants feel that the “n” and the “o” on their keyboards have been purposely removed. This is an intentional business strategy and philosophy: outside agencies should  be eager to work on a wide-range of diverse projects. What should also be considered, however, are the volume and value of outgoing requests from the firm.

Most marketing and communications agencies are selected to work on a mix of initiatives, oftentimes dominated by involved, long-term projects. The success of these “big ticket items” is crucial to demonstrating value. In between, firms frequently make minor requests – tweaks to logos, help with technical issues or tracking down articles. Taken individually, these tasks are eminently reasonable; however, when they are a constant deluge and distraction, they are detrimental to the success of major projects. It simply is not worth the cost to have an outside agency handle a large volume of, oftentimes, administrative tasks, and it leads to situations where firm leaders ask, “What do they even do for us?” Faced with this question, both the marketer and the agency are at risk.

Understanding the Specialist

Law firm marketing is, thankfully, moving more-and-more away from the philosophy of stocking departments with only generalists. Born of its industry roots – whereby paralegals and executive assistants were tapped for marketing functions – this modus operandi created departments where professionals were truly jacks-of-all-trades and masters-of-none. Today, departments are increasingly structured with greater emphasis on defined, discrete tasks, and the generalist role is the domain of the summer intern.

Related to the concept of overwhelming outside marketing and communications agencies with low-impact, time-consuming tasks is not understanding and playing to an agency’s root strengths.

In the communications arena, firms often have attorneys that “go rogue” and write entire (and often lengthy) articles without any gauge of placement potential or reader interest. Or, they are contacting media outlets or reporters independent of the marketing department and its resources. Clearly conveying that the firm has PR or marketing capabilities can help attorneys be more strategic in their efforts, lead to increased targeted media activity and ensure that brand messaging exists and remains consistent.

Firms sometimes bless or give little thought to personal blogs or other passion projects that have professional reputational impacts. Similarly, they request that attorneys craft marketing plans – often including deliverable requirements (e.g., byline article) – and then fail to share these blueprints with outside agencies whose specialists can play an integral role in setting the effort up for success.

Real Relationships

Outside marketing and communications agencies need to know the firm and marketers with whom they work in-and-out. This knowledge needs to include everything from style guides – including single spacing after a period (for those still holding out) to first, second and even third reference for the firm’s name (e.g., “Xavier Yazitz Zelloff, LLP;” XYZ, LLP;” “XYZ.”) An outside agency team member should be able to recite their client’s boilerplate and elevator speech – in their sleep.

The goal for firms and marketers is seamless integration. Firms should truly feel that consultants are part of their firm team and an extension of their internal marketing departments.

Personality and personal preferences are also vital. Agencies, in building intra-personal relationships, should know birthdays, likes/dislikes previously revealed, and, in turn, share a little of what makes them tick. Liking the person with whom one works is proven to be mutually beneficial. If an agency knows little of a firm and makes little effort to be personal, as well as professional, they likely do not consider that client a high priority.

Budget Safety Belt

Outside agencies offer firms resources that can be difficult to acquire and are hard to justify in tight fiscal times. 2008 offered the clearest evidence that marketing and other non-law functions are first to be trimmed when budgets are squeezed. Firms, by slimming down or eliminating departments, lose institutional knowledge and have to start anew in terms of their brand-building when hiring resumes. In contrast, outside agencies offer greater stability and flexibility via options such as reducing or suspending the relationship. With agencies, leadership remains relatively constant, preserving institutional knowledge – almost akin to a vault for the firm’s brand. And, in prosperous times, outside agency teams can be expanded with ease.

The Salesperson and the Marketer

Finding success with an outside marketing or communications agency is not something that happens overnight. In the constellation of service providers with which a firm partners, every relationship should be based on trust, openness, honesty and mutual respect.

A key distinction is between the “salesperson” and the genuine “marketer.” The salesperson will litter the conversation with industry jargon and promise results that are not necessarily within their control – such as “three-times search engine optimization,” an editorial in the New York Times and “incredible social media engagement.” Nine-out-of-ten times they are nothing but hot air and a detriment to the industry. And, these salespeople often push seemingly miracle, quick-fix products, bringing to mind the industry curse-word “vendor.”

Real outside consultants are interested in long-term outcomes and open about process. They are product agnostic and tell firms when they may need to make a change or if a service offered will really lead to the desired outcome. Outside marketing and communications agencies should always be looking to partner with firms not just today, or this year, but for life.

By Michael Bond, Senior Media Director, Blattel Communications

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