Choosing a Marketing Consultant

In a previous column, I talked about managing expectations when you hire a marketing consultant or agency. Being clear about why you’re hiring a consultant and ensuring that everyone in your firm understands those expectations will get the relationship off to a good start. 

But how do you go about choosing the right marketing consultant for your needs? First, Beware the Brother-in-Law! So many law firms find their suppliers through their families. In-house marketing staff cringe when they hear the words, “My brother-in-law can do that.” That choice is being made not because of what is best for the firm, but what is best for the family relationship. (Actually, it’s usually terrible for the family relationship too. Bad idea all round.)

Do you need a large firm or a sole practitioner? That decision is just like choosing a law firm. If you need national coverage on a large volume of services, or you have frequent bet-the-farm issues, you likely need a large firm. Chances are you also need to issue a Request for Proposal, but that’s a subject for another column. If you want a single point of contact who can take all of your marketing needs off your shoulders, advise you on what to do, and manage other marketing suppliers, an experienced sole practitioner will be your best bet. 

A business person looking for legal advice generally asks colleagues and other advisors like accountants, insurers, financial advisors, who they use and why. That’s not a bad way to choose a marketing consultant either—at least as a start. Ask other professional services firms who they use and what the results have been.

But don’t stop there. Here are some questions to ask of your prospective candidates:

Has the consultant done this kind of work before, for this kind of firm?

Big agencies will tell you that it doesn’t matter whether you’re selling legal services or laundry detergent, the principles are still the same. Yes, but the way you apply them is completely different. I’ve seen really good agencies crash and burn over law firm clients. They’re used to being the experts and calling the shots. When they’re marketing a law firm, the product talks back.

Can the consultant provide references?

If so, check them out! Ask particularly about the consultant’s or agency’s role. Did they handle everything on the project or did the firm have to find their own suppliers for parts of the work? Ask if they’re still working with that agency and if not, why not?

Can the consultant provide all the services we need?

Perhaps the most important service you need is a marketing plan that will tell you what you should be doing to market your services. Be clear from the outset whether you want your consultant to provide both the plan and its execution. No one can do everything, but can they marshall the resources needed? How well connected are they in the field? What industry associations do they belong to? If the consultant is a sole practitioner, can he/she pull in a graphic designer, web developer, photographer, or translator at a moment’s notice? Ask them what they wouldn’t take on. Anyone who professes to do everything is going to do some of it badly—perhaps the bit that’s crucial to your firm.

Some consultants/agencies are great all-rounders; others are great at one aspect. I once worked on a new publication for a client that used a terrific design company for its marketing materials. They were great at the initial design, but once we moved into production of each issue, they couldn’t cope. They were used to having total control and they weren’t used to all the changes that take place as a magazine is readied for publication. They quickly recognized that this wasn’t the business they wanted to be in and passed us on to a very competent independent production person.

Maybe you will eventually need a marketing staff in house—can the consultant/agency help you with that?

Does this agency have experience in all the media we want to use?

Marketing methods are in a state of massive change. Even two years ago, it was a novelty to find a law firm on Twitter. Now most major law firms have Twitter accounts. If the agency you’re considering shows you beautiful brochures but can’t tell you about any social media campaigns they’ve done, you’re looking at a print specialist. If that’s what you want, great. If you want to be advised on what marketing tools you should be using, chances are this isn’t the agency for you.

How long have they been in business and how well do they appear to be doing?

There’s a lot of turnover in the marketing field, so consulting is sometimes regarded as what you do while you’re looking for “a real job”. But executing one-off projects on an outsourced basis is just freelancing, not consulting. There’s a big difference. A consultant should be able to advise a law firm about its entire marketing effort. Anyone who’s made a reasonable living as a marketing consultant over a sustained period of time is doing something right. Ask how long they’ve been working with their regular clients. 

Similarly, agencies spring up fast and can fade away just as quickly. I once had to use an agency where the principal was a personal friend of the CEO. (Remember: beware the brother-in-law!) I didn’t get a good feeling from the agency right from the first, but the CEO was insistent that we give them the business. In the 18 months that I was dealing with these people, they changed the name of their agency twice. When I asked why, their answers were vague. I wasn’t surprised when they disappeared overnight and we had to scramble to find another agency to take over in mid-campaign. 

What are our dealbreakers?

Know what you can’t do without. For example, if an important part of your marketing is done in French, your consultant/agency should at minimum understand the complexities of working in two languages, even if they don’t speak French themselves. They should know that a tagline or slogan must be tested in both languages and can’t necessarily be translated literally. They should know (and allow for) the fact that French text usually runs longer than English text. They should be able to work with your translators and/or provide excellent translators themselves.

Would we like working with this consultant/agency?

Chemistry and trust are very important. Marketing is a very subjective area; it’s not like providing a legal opinion. Has the consultant been a client at some point? Working on both sides of the client/agency relationship gives insight into forming a productive relationship. Read what they’ve written: is it full of marketing jargon? Will that drive you crazy? Then don’t go near them. I don’t suggest choosing a consultant solely on the basis of personal preference, but it’s really important, once you’ve determined that they have The Right Stuff. Your marketing consultant or agency should make you feel good about yourselves, hopeful about developing new business, and excited about marketing initiatives. 

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