Why Start-ups Shouldn’t Pretend to Recruit Agencies

In the Entrepreneurial Marketing class I teach at the UW, we talk about how start-ups need to be scrappy with their money. Without aa lot of money to spend, we need to make every dollar stretch. We talk about the fact that we often can’t afford to hire an agency.

One of the ways to temporarily sidestep the need to hire strategic services from an agency is to look at campaigns you find compelling, and model your own plan after them. If you’ve noticed a company, it may be possible to reverse engineer their thought process (or their agency’s) and generate similar success. Emulation is a form of flattery.

However, one thing we DON’T advise students to do is “pretend” to be hiring an agency, send out a bunch of RFP’s, and have them do free work for you. Yes, this seems like a scrappy thing to do. Submit your problem and solicit proposals and ideas from 10-20 small to mid-range agencies. You’ll get a few hours of free consulting and brainstorming from each one, and get to form an overall strategy out of the ideas you like best.

Your VC and investors may think this is a fabulous idea. $10,000 in free consulting is a huge win, right?

But I’d argue that long-term (and even short-term), you can do your brand a pretty large disservice when you do this. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. As a Start-up, your plan is going to involve Influencers and Thought Leaders. When an agency tells you they can recruit “Thought Leader X,Y and Z,” they are saying they have a personal relationship with them already. When you get free work from the agency and then tell them you aren’t hiring anyone, you’re not creating a neutral relationship with the agency world, you’re building a negative one. These Thought Leaders you need to recruit will already have heard about what kind of company you are from the people whose time you wasted.
  2. When you become successful, you will get a larger VC round and have more money to spend on marketing. Then you really will have a budget in which to hire an agency.  But this time when you send out your RFP’s the good agencies will remember how you treated them in the past and decline to participate. Yes, you will get responses to your RFP, but you’ll be getting them from companies that need the work.  You want to hire agencies that turn down work, not the ones who can’t keep it.
  3. You are going to work at other companies in your career. When you are a junior person and your CEO sends you out to burn a bunch of cycles from the agencies, he/she is sending you on that mission so they don’t sully their own name.  We agency people are horrible gossip hounds. We’re going to share stories about the person who sent us on a wild goose chase.
  4. And finally, it’s just not good start-up karma.  Most agencies are like little start-ups.  They have to be scrappy themselves to go get the next piece of business. They have to balance how much staff to have on hand because they always either have just a touch too much work or a touch too little. Their teams are usually either overworked or worried they are going to be laid off. So it’s just bad to make these people do free work for you. As a start-up, do you want to have customers with no intention of buying your product to burn your salespeople’s time? No.

So start-ups of the world, I suggest you resist the urge to get free work from people under the guise of an RFP. If your CEO and VC are making you do this, pause and think what kind of nefariousness they are committing themselves. Is that the kind of company you want to hitch your star to?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *