What To Do When You Can’t Afford An Ad Agency?

What To Do When You Can’t Afford An Ad Agency?

One email we received recently left me reminiscing. I thought my people were a little harsh to dismiss the writer as a cheapskate.

Hi Vivienne

I have met you twice and during the 2 occasions, you unselfishly and unreservedly pointed out the areas of improvement I should make on my press advertisements and marketing materials. Honestly, I did not expect a free analysis and a free recommendation. All the advertising experts I have met before you gave me a general overview of what my business needed and duly left a quotation for my consideration. You were different. You were awesome. I salute your professionalism.

Much as I value your knowledge, experience and service, I’m on a shoe string budget. I’m wondering how I can afford your services – from marketing strategy, creative concepts, design execution to the whole spectrum of production work.  In fact, I’m wondering how a start-up small business like myself, who clearly need expert help, can afford professionals like yourself. Many of us usually hire freelance designers and run to a nearby quick-print shop to get things done. We do not have the benefits of marketing and advertising consultancy. Our ads and marketing materials are mostly pretty layout – they are not constructed with marketing objectives and end results in mind.

I’m in a dilemma. I know I would like to engage you and Versa but I really need to look at my numbers first. I thank you for your time and I will definitely give you a call within 2 weeks.


Employees probably cannot  understand the magnitude of the financial struggles most start-ups face. Seeing the cash literally “flow away” is nightmarish. This gentleman was not a cheapskate. He was being realistic. I have been there, way back in 1998. When I founded my company during the Asian Financial Crisis, I had less than $3,000 in the bank with nothing to fall back on. My first check came in at a whopping $117.00 which did not even cover the fees for me to register and set up my own company. Yet, that was the sweetest hundred-odd dollars I ever had. With that kind of income, I could only do guerrilla marketing. I also leveraged on my friends network of industry experts for copy writing, design and printing. I was fortunate.

Today, start-ups and small businesses are much more fortunate. Thanks to technology and the Internet, we have one-stop online shops that provide full-fledged design and printing services. These companies have the full works online, from explanations and instructions, design templates and product templates (for brochure, catalog, business cards, calendar, etc) to payment mechanisms as well. Without heavy overheads on rental and manpower, they can afford to offer very friendly prices. To illustrate, online shops like PsPrint charges USD10 upwards for business cards while bigger print jobs like poster printing starts from USD240. The money you spend with such online shops is a lot less compared to full fledged advertising agencies or design firms.

Sure, you might have to spend many sleepless nights reading books, checking out magazines, talking to people to come out with a great campaign idea. And then you spent countless of hours doing and re-doing your own artwork, only to throw in the towel eventually. Actually, all of that is not necessary. You could “make-do” with one of the many in-house design and product templates available online. Going to an online shop is a breeze yet you might still have some reservations.

You might not enjoy 100% convenience. You might not enjoy a 100% customized product. You most probably will not have an experienced account executive to meet you in person to strategise, conceptualize and execute your marketing, advertising or promotion campaigns from scratch. You also would not have a co-coordinator to update you daily on the project progress. You would not enjoy credit terms and must pay up-front via credit cards or PayPal for every job. However, the above inconveniences cannot be considered as problems if cost is a key concern.

My ex-boss used to said “You can’t have good, cheap and fast all in one go. Consider it a great bargain if you can get two out of three.” If the mom & pop shops can get their products sold with a hand written message on a cardboard or a piece of paper, going to an online design cum print shop is certainly a luxury. These people are professionals in their own right too. They have their design experts and printing specialists in place, and they have also a great system in place to track your order, payment and delivery. You just don’t get to meet them to have a face to face experience.

You might prefer more support, but it may be tough for you to retain a full service ad agency now. Start marketing, advertising and promoting  in ways you can afford and track your results carefully. Persevere with what works and ditch those that produce poor results. When your sales soar and your income starts rising, you can sit back and “iny-miny miney moe” if you like BBDO, McCann Erickson, M&C Saatchi or Versa Creations to be at your beck and call. By the way, we are no way near these top agencies in terms of pricing. We are actually quite reasonable.

6 Replies to “What To Do When You Can’t Afford An Ad Agency?”

  1. Hi Vivienne,
    Great post with a case in point.
    I really liked what the client said…”you unselfishly and unreservedly pointed out the areas of improvement I should make on my press advertisements and marketing materials”.
    You really helped him/her with an indepth analysis and insights to better their business.
    That clearly puts you in an experienced professional niche…
    Wishing you all the best!

  2. Hi Solomon
    As in buying anything, the buyer wants to ascertain the value before taking money out of his wallet. By doing what I did, I’m just helping him to make the buying process a little easier.When he knows I know my business, he will feel more comfortable in engaging our service. I believe in Value before Money.

  3. You provide some good advice. You are right when you say “You can’t have good, cheap and fast all in one go.” When I have started new businesses, I have always looked for the best value for my marketing dollar. That’s not necessarily quantity, but what I thought could get me the best results. I tend to measure everything in terms of return on investment.

  4. It is the other way round with some people- they never have guts to tell the client the futility of their marketing communication.

    Someone with conviction only can tell the client where he is going wrong. That comes through professionalism and foresight.

  5. Hey Vivienne,

    Long time no comment! How is life with you? I have been pretty busy (plus also went for a short survival break recently).

    I think you have done a great job in showing that giving away free advice doesn’t necessarily mean jeopardising your business. I think your potential client was also extremely frank and forthright in his confession to you.

    The value of advertising agencies and marketing consultancies shouldn’t lie just with a fancy creative design or wicked copywriting. It must come from an intimate understanding of the client’s business – what works and what doesn’t. I think the greatest good which agencies can do in this day and age is to be bold and offer performance based fees. From my conversations with 4As and IAS, this is probably the final frontier here although agencies in Europe are starting to go there.

    Oh yes, and we really need to do coffee soon. ;)

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