Jim Stevens walked into the offices of HyperCreative Advertising feeling like one of the biggest frogs in the pond. He'd budgeted $100,000 for his new advertising campaign, and he was sure that HyperCreative would welcome a chunk of business that big.
Jim Stevens got a rude awakening.
An agency account executive explained patiently to Jim that $100,000 really didn't mean much to HyperCreative. "Ordinarily an ad agency retains 15% of the money a client spends on magazine, newspaper, and broadcast advertising," the account executive explained. "With a budget of $100,000, that leaves only $15,000 for the agency to spend on creative and administrative work. To make your account profitable for us, HyperCreative would have to tack on a hefty monthly fee, plus production and other charges.
"And even at that," he added, "I have to admit you couldn't count on getting the services of any of our senior people."
"But I just need a few ads made up for our trade magazines," Jim stammered. "Nothing complicated, I promise. Why should that cost even $15,000?"
"Let me show you," the account executive said. He led Jim on a tour of the agency, past offices occupied by art directors and copywriters, media researchers, billing clerks, and public relations specialists. In one room, a computer hummed quietly; in another, market researchers were interviewing consumers about their reaction to a new detergent.
Back in the lobby -- decorated with framed awards and an antique bubblegum machine -- the agency man summed up Jim's problem."It doesn't matter whether you use all of the services we have. They're part of the overhead, and we've got to charge you a fair price for that overhead."
Considerably disheartened, Jim Stevens walked out of the offices of HyperCreative Advertising. By the time he reached the sidewalk, he realized he had a new problem. If a full-service ad agency didn't want his business, who was going to produce the materials he needed for his $100,000 campaign?
In fact, Jim Stevens has an option that has worked successfully for lots of small company manager: He can buy his advertising services a la carte. Instead of working through an advertising agency, Stevens can work directly with independent copywriters and art directors -- and get the same quality of services at a price that doesn't include computers, bubblegum machines, or other overhead he doesn't need.
There's a tradeoff, of course. To be successful at buying a la carte advertising services, a manager needs to invest some time in locating the people he wants, negotiating terms, and deciding whether the finished product does the job. That can be an intimidating job for the neophyte, but it's not impossible. You can sample various a la carte services until you find what you like.
Depending on your specific needs, here's what you can expect when you take the a la carte route:
* ART DIRECTORS AND COPYWRITERS. The two professionals whose jobs are essential in advertising are the copywriter, who creates the language of an ad or brochure, and the art director, who translates the words into an effective visual presentation. Lots of talented copywriters and art directors -- including many who hold down full-time jobs -- are available on a freelance basis for small projects. Often, a copywriter or art director can also help you with many of the other arrangements you may need to make, such as placing ads, buying printing, or hiring other specialists.
It's worth spending a fair amount of time screening freelance copywriters and art directors, because skills in these fields -- like any other creative work -- vary widely, and you should feel comfortable that your advertising is in the hands of people whose competence and price are right. Referrals by other small company managers can be useful, but an even better way to build a list of candidates is to ask the creative director of a large local advertising agency for the names of a few freelancers whose work he respects (remember, though, that you're asking for a favor, and respect the fact that the creative director may not always have time to talk to someone who isn't an agency client).
Other sources for good names are regional and national advertising publications, such as Adweek and Advertising Age. Freelancers often advertise their services in these publications. You may also decide to run an ad of your own.
Once you've put together a list of names, the next step is to interview your candidates and review their portfolios. Look for a reasonably close match between the work you need done -- say, a product brochure -- and the things the freelancer has done in the past. (When you look at an art director's work, though, you should realize that his or her job is primarily to provide concepts, create layouts, and select typefaces. The art director will probably bring in a photographer or artist to assist in executing the concept.)
You can expect to pay art directors and copywriters by the hour, at a rate that typically runs from $35 to $75, depending on the art director's skill and reputation, and on how difficult the project is. Some creative professionals prefer to price their work on a project basis, which helps prevent cost overruns. But creative work is notoriously difficult to price, so most professionals prefer to start by asking you to give them a budget range. Since an art director has to make decisions about how much to spend on photography, illustrations, typesetting, and other outside services, being candid about your budget is essential for good planning.
One area that's negotiable is whether the individual art director or copywriter will produce some rough concepts for you on a speculative basis. These roughs can be a great help in deciding whether you've found the right person, but many professionals don't believe in handing out free samples to sell their services. If you're serious enough about a candidate, it may be worthwhile to buy a couple of hours of creative time before proceeding with a major project.
* GRAPHIC DESIGNERS. The distinction between art directors and graphic designers isn't always a sharp one, but designers are more likely to specialize in producing so-called collateral materials -- brochures, catalogs, newsletters, and logos -- which supplement the advertising materials that an art director creates. Graphic designers can be a big help in giving a company a consistent image; they also will provide expertise in working with printers, typesetters, and related kinds of suppliers.
Designers, unlike art directors, don't usually moonlight from full-service agencies. Instead, most operate their own studios, which are listed in the Yellow Pages and in various trade publications.
* PHOTOGRAPHERS AND ILLUSTRATORS. You can turn over the task of selecting a photographer or illustrator to the art director you've put in charge of preparing your ads, but it can be handy to have a few specialists on call for an occasional public relations photo or new product sketch. Here, it is most important to look carefully at individual portfolios, because photographers and illustrators are definitely specialists. But you don't need to search blindly until you find someone whose style fits your needs perfectly: You can refer to the annual Creative Black Book ($40 prepaid, from Friendly Publications, 401 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016). This useful reference contains the names and addresses of hundreds of creative specialists, by region, as well as reproductions of the work of many of them. Even if you don't use a photographer or illustrator who appears in the Black Book, the book can be a handy source of examples and styles that will help you in conversations with an art director about the images you might want to use.
Photographers, and to a lesser extent illustrators, base their fees in part on the use to which you intend to put their work. Advertising in big-circulation magazines commands a higher rate than the same job executed for a small-circulation trade magazine; multiple uses (for example, a product photo) may earn a higher fee than work that will appear only once. Though this system may sound illogical, photographers do feel that pricing should partly reflect usage, so you need to establish clearly at the beginning of any assignment what rights you expect to purchase. A useful guide to rates and terms for photographers is contained in The ASMP Professional Business Practices in Photography, rev. ed. 1981 ($19, from American Society of Magazine Photographers, 205 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10016). For illustrators, similar guidelines are found in The Pricing and Ethical Guidelines, 4th edition ($13.80 prepaid, from The Graphic Artists' Guild, 30 E. 20th St., New York, NY 10003).
* MEDIA-BUYING SERVICES. There's no great trick to qualifying as an "in-house" ad agency that can earn the standard 15% discount that most magazines, newspapers, radio, and television stations offer to independent ad agencies. You'll need to provide professionally produced materials, pay your bills on time, and perhaps create some stationery and insertion orders with your in-house agency name. It's that simple.
Operating an in-house agency is a reasonable choice, especially when you or your company managers have a clear idea of the publications in which you should spend your advertising dollars. But if your media decisions begin to be more complex, or if a lot of your money is going to be spent on consumer-oriented media, you may want to add another a la carte service -- an independent media-buying firm.
Media-buying services offer a lot of specialized skills in building schedules, negotiating rates, and evaluating the effectiveness of various media. Full-service ad agencies, of course, also offer media-buying services, but only the larger agencies are likely to buy as much media research or have the kind of staff experts that you can expect from a specialized buying firm.
The cost? You may have to pay a percentage fee (15% is common) or a negotiated flat rate, depending on the difficulty of the schedule you and the media-buying firm come up with. But an independent media buyer should be able to demonstrate how this investment will pay off in a more sharply focused, efficient use of what is usually the largest part of any advertising budget.
* MARKET RESEARCH. Another service that you can buy independently of a full-service ad agency is market research. It's hard to create advertising with real impact if you don't know why your customers buy your product or services (or even who those customers are). Market research firms are specialists in getting feedback from the people your advertising is designed to reach and influence, and can tell you pretty accurately whether all that hard-earned cash in your ad budget is doing the job.
One of the most common tools that market research firms use is the focus group, a panel of 6 to 12 people who are representative of the market you need to reach. The group will be led by a trained, neutral leader who can keep the discussion on track without giving away the sponsor of the session.Most focus group facilities also offer two-way mirrors, so you can observe the proceedings secretly. The total fee for arranging such a session is about $1,200.
Market research firms can also produce mail surveys, conduct telephone surveys ($15 to $20 per interview), or set up product demonstration interviews ($20 to $25 per demonstration). Once the data is collected, moreover, they'll help you interpret the results.
* PUBLIC RELATIONS. All kinds of promotional techniques come under the heading of "public relations," and many can be handled with the help of the a la carte services of photographers, copywriters, and occasionally art directors. If you're looking for a more elaborate campaign, though, you may want to draw on the services of an independent public relations consultant. For either an hourly fee or a flat charge per project, a public relations specialist can handle such assignments as a new product launch, a special event, or a broad effort to increase your company's visibility. Be realistic about your expectations (and the promises a publicist makes): You may pay for sending out news releases and for contacting editors, but you have no guarantees that editors will find the material worth publishing.
If you'd rather handle the work of sending out news releases yourself, your best bet is to get a copy of the current issue of Bacon's Publicity Checker, a mammoth two-volume summary of business, trade, consumer, and farm magazines, plus all daily and weekly newspapers. Bacon's ($112.80 prepaid, from Bacon's Publicity Checker, 14 E. Jackson Blvd., Chicago, IL 60604) gives you the names of editors to contact, and neatly organizes the types of publicity material each periodical accepts. Their computerized mailing service is also available to provide lists of editors by industry or business.
* PRODUCTION HOUSES. Television and radio commercials, as well as most audiovisual shows, are big budget items that small companies rarely tackle on their own. A slick TV commercial, for example, can easily cost upwards of $50,000 to produce, before a single dollar is spent on buying air time. Still, it's possible to deal directly with various kinds of production houses that can give you help on scripting, photography, sound recording, graphics, and even voice talent -- at a modest price. But if you're really looking for economy in production, your best bet is often to ask for help from local radio or TV stations. Especially if you're planning to buy air time from the station, they can offer some of the best a la carte bargains around.