By Alice Lankester, Head of Marketing, Balderton Capital
Raising a Series A round is a huge moment for any startup. It represents a significant validation of the whole team, the company’s strategy and its future. And it’s often a company’s first moment in the mainstream media spotlight.
Given that many startups do not have a full-time communications expert in house, the Series A moment may also be the right time to hire a communications agency. Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you want your story to reach important audiences or stakeholders through online, broadcast or print media, that you aren’t currently reaching?
- Are you facing a very busy period, where there are lots of new chapters to your story that you want to tell in a coordinated ‘arc’ through the media?
- Are your competitors getting more than their fair share of attention in the media, even though you have a better story to tell?
Alternatively, you may be receiving a little too much ‘unwanted’ media attention, or be engaging in controversial activities that require influence through the media.
If you answer ‘yes’ to any of these questions, it’s time to think about devoting spend to an agency.
The right agency adds reach, relationships, and counsel. They’ll get coverage for your company, but should also be able to challenge embedded thinking in a positive way.
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Steps to selecting an agency
Before you begin to talk to agency candidates, you’ll need to set goals for what you believe communications can do for you. Think about the specifics of building awareness of your product – who exactly should know about it? Do you want to reach customers, brand partners, business leaders, government stakeholders, venture firms, talent, or even acquisition targets? What do these people read? Who do they listen to? What do you want them to hear about you?
Thinking specifically of what you want to achieve will help with writing the RFP (Request for Proposal) – a brief document, no longer than 2 or 3 pages, that invites agencies to pitch for your business.
A good RFP will broadly cover a high-level overview of what type of agency partner you’re looking for, a summary of your company story and history, if any, with media to date, the start and duration of the engagement, and the main goals you want from the first year. Think: what will make me a happy client?
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The RFP is effectively a ‘test’ for whether an agency is paying attention. If the agency ignores your goals and decides they should be something else altogether, it’s a red flag.
Before sending out the RFP, make a shortlist of no more than six agencies. To do this, ask people you trust, look around your ecosystem. Who is always getting media mentions or handling tricky media well? Find out who their agency is either by asking the company’s head of marketing, or trawling past releases for contact names.
There are definitely pros to choosing a large, multinational agency (broad skill set; geographical reach; large and experienced teams; high profile relationships) or a boutique agency (you’re a more important client to them; super experienced senior people working for you directly; personal attention).
However, your budget usually dictates the size of agency you choose. With 15K a month, you can get the attention of a boutique agency, but not of a large multinational agency. If your budget is sub- 10K a month aim for a boutique agency, or a sole practitioner with a good list of contacts.
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From shortlisting, make contact with the agencies by phone or video call. This cold call is to check if there’s a conflict of interest and if the agency has the capacity to take on your workload. Smaller firms may be too busy to give you the love you deserve.
Online interviews can save your precious time and you can explore just how the company would achieve your goals, and whether they have any similar accounts or carried out work similar to yours this way.
When you’ve reduced your initial list down to three agencies, spend time face-to-face. During the pitch, which should be at your office, they need to focus on what they’ll do for you, rather than presenting case studies of their work. You should be meeting the people who would actually be working on your account.
Does the pitch they bring with them speak to what you want? Would you enjoy working with them? It makes sense at this point to talk about how you would manage the relationship: your expectations for meetings and reports, and include what tools they would use to track projects.
Finally, they should help to define what would be included in a reasonable budget, at this stage. Agencies are usually paid a baseline ‘retainer,’ just to be on call to you. They usually look for a minimum six months commitment. Some agencies will accept project work, to get their foot in the door. However, you’re unlikely get the best results from this manner of engagement.
Finally, do you click? Will you enjoy working with them? Does your gut tell you that you can rely on them in a crisis? Chemistry matters!
To forge a winning relationship, always think of the agency as an extension of your internal team. Keep them in the loop, and give them the unscripted narrative. They will help you find the story and the right journalist to tell it. Also, give them plenty of access to senior team members — those who hold the heart of your company in their hands. That’s where the story gold lies.