‘Bad PR agencies can kill a startup before it has a chance to succeed’ – so says Colin Jordan, an in-house PR man, in what will be a widely read and widely shared opinion piece for TechCrunch. It’s a solid bit of clickbait, as it goes*.
I run this here agency, and have worked with a bajillion clients. Here’s my lukewarm take. (It’d make sense to read the TechCrunch piece first).
*Cracks knuckles and puts on oh-so-serious face*
As with all good opinion pieces, Jordan starts off strongly, dubbing the practise of startup PR support from agencies a ‘multi-million dollar con’.
He reckons that public relations agencies charge startups “anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000+ per month for their services”.
Bear in mind that a large number of TechCrunch readers will be startup owners, or work in one. To say that agencies charge ‘anywhere from $10,000’ (roughly £8,000) per month; implying that that’s the least they’ll pay is untrue, although that could be Jordan’s experience.
I, like many other agency owners, don’t like to talk about what we charge too publicly given the fact that every client is different and requires a different level of service, but perhaps we should. Even my best-paying retained agency client pays a good deal below £8,000 per month. As I say, mine is a small agency, not yet 2 years old, but I have a pretty good view of the industry and even when I worked at bigger agencies than mine is at the moment, an £8,000 a month client is a decent-sized client, and NOT in on entry-level pricing.
If I pitched most startups I’ve worked with, asking them for £8,000-£80,000 a month, I’d get laughed out of their office. To quickly put this into a context TechCrunch readers might understand, I worked with a leading takeaway food technology company at my first agency and I can tell you now, again without getting into it too much, they did not, as a relatively successful but still young (at the time) startup, pay us close to £8,000 a month.
‘Blood in the water’
“The minute a startup receives a new round of funding, it’s like blood in the water — PR agencies start circling the water to get the opportunity to take a chunk of flesh right out of them”.
OK – but it hardly stands up as a criticism, does it? I’ve seen my fair share of investor decks and, almost without fail, marketing and PR costs are in there as a cost. Add to that the fact that, by the time most rounds are publicly promoted, the startup likely already has PR, and I’m not sure this point means all that much.
OHAI straw man I was expecting you
It’s when Jordan starts out with his hypothetical scenario things start to verge on the silly.
I understand that the piece refers on numerous occasions to ‘bad’ PR agencies, but without one single word on the good a decent agency charging decent prices can do for startups (granted, it’s an already long piece and negative pieces share better), it might as well not bother. It’s telling startups ‘hey, there are so many like this, so…’, and to jump ahead to the end of his piece, ‘…don’t bother with agencies, hire in-house instead’.
That’s his advice, after telling readers that PR agencies [could] steal tens of thousands of dollars/pounds for a ‘ramp-up period’, junior staff time and lots of dithering that will result only in a paid-for Forbes piece (as per his example). He also says that the startup will have to provide the agency with ‘something newsworthy’, as if this startup has given its account to an agency with literally no proposed PR plan.
Taking aside the fact a dodgy Forbes contributor is far cheaper than Jordan’s $2,000-5,000 estimation – a contributor asked a member of my team for £300 earlier on this year – I can’t think of one business I’ve ever worked with where they’d be ‘happy’ spending, in Jordan’s words, $40,000 for two months’ work for one bloody measly Forbes or Huffington Post piece. Not one. This fictional client, with the patience of a saint and the chequebook of a sultan, just does not exist.
‘Raking in billions’
According to the piece though, this is how, as an industry, we ‘rake in billions’, and can create a multi-million dollar business by simply multiplying the above scenario with ‘10-12 clients’. As if it was that easy, in any case, to find a dozen clients with that sort of money to spend.
Jordan says ‘startups need to know the truth’, as if this is the only, or indeed ANY sort of a version of it. I could be being incredibly naive but – how long could an agency survive charging those amounts and achieving so very, very little without it being called out?
Even if agencies somehow survived this cycle of ‘conning’ clients from a reputational standpoint, if a client is ‘happy’, as they’d apparently be with a Forbes piece at the end of two months having spent $40,000 – well, you know what they say about a fool and his money (see the Kanye headline above).
All that said, I just don’t buy it. Not only does the article create an apparently monstrously inept Scrooge McDuck of a straw man to justify its existence, it fails to acknowledge the work a good agency can do.
Here’s a measurement-conscious example of what PR can do on a limited budget. Yes, it’s something we did. We is experts. (*Said begrudgingly*… there are plenty of other great agencies out there doing similarly good work).
Where Colin got it right
I think Colin’s piece has gone for the worst-case scenario in order to warrant inclusion on TechCrunch (and a nice company link to boot), though of course, I could be entirely wrong. I’ve no experience with how west coast US agencies actually run with such a lot of funding floating around, but this just isn’t the industry as I see it.
(FYI, Jordan’s assertion that you should run if an agency does any of the following is exactly right:
- Overly emphasises the need for ‘ramp-up time’
- Changes the team they promised you
- Doesn’t give you a PR plan or any form of a strategy
- Measures their success with one article
Agency selection is a minefield, exactly as in-house hiring can be, but that doesn’t mean startups should buy into this ‘conspiracy’ that agencies are out to fleece them).
*As if I’d do similar