I had a nontraditional start to my career in tech. I spent my early years working in the fashion and beauty industry and thought I’d live out my 20s in New York City à la Carrie Bradshaw. Instead, I moved to San Francisco and became a hoodie-wearing tech bro. I started reading The New Stack and getting conference socks as swag instead of luxury skincare products (there are pros and cons to every career move).
Although it took me a little while to learn the ins and outs of Kubernetes and DevOps, my early days in the fashion and beauty industry gave me a unique perspective on how to market to a niche audience like developers. Other people on my teams pitched webinars, e-books, and Meetups. I pitched live-tweeting talks, writing bylines, and gifting Crocs as swag. We learned from each other and created marketing programs that pushed the boundaries of traditional B2B practices but didn’t become so abstract that they wouldn’t resonate with a technical audience.
During this time, I managed a ton of agencies ranging from branding and web development to technical writing and PR. I learned a thing or two about how to find the right agency for the job and how to make the most of your engagement once you’ve signed.
How to Find an Integrated PR Agency
Craft a Smart RFP
A request for proposal (RFP) is traditionally used to get vendors to “bid” for your business. I’ve seen them used in tech startups as a project or program brief to help potential partners understand what you’re looking for and to get a feel for how their agency thinks. Don’t make this exhaustive — use it to outline your requirements, budget, and selection criteria. Include it in your initial email to vendors you’re interested in working with to reduce the back-and-forth and weed out ones that aren’t a fit. If an agency is a potential fit, it can respond to your RFP with a presentation or discussion about how it can help you reach your goals.
Make Sure There’s Chemistry
An agency is an extension of your team. The most successful relationships I’ve had are ones in which the people on the vendor side and the client side have complete trust in and respect for one another and collaborate on projects. That level of trust can take time to develop, but it starts with good chemistry and compatible communication styles. Spend some time getting to know the team during the RFP response and ask yourself if these are people you’d enjoy working with and would be proud to have represent your company.
Involve the CEO
In most startups, the CEO is the face of the company. They must be willing to dedicate time and energy to public-facing programs like PR, brand, and content marketing because their name will be attached to a lot of it. It’s important that they have chemistry with, and trust in, your agency, which may be ghostwriting for them, scheduling interviews or public speaking engagements on their behalf, and training them on what to say — and what to avoid — when talking to media. These are mission-critical activities that will not be successful if the CEO doesn’t have confidence in the suggestions. On top of that, the CEO is the one who will socialize the importance of the initiative throughout the company to get others to amplify the work across their own networks. If your CEO doesn’t vibe with the agency, keep looking.
How to Have a Successful Vendor Relationship
Create a Strategy
Once you choose an agency, use the RFP that you gave it to create a strategy. If this is a project-based agreement, you can outline the strategy for the entire engagement before you begin working together. If it’s a long-term relationship, outline the first quarter in detail and establish some big goals for the year. If you’re working with an integrated content marketing and PR agency like Look Left, this might include the number of bylines the agency writes for you, how many media placements you get, and an increase in ranking keywords and organic traffic to your website. These initiatives should be centered on tentpole events like funding announcements, product releases, or customer case studies.
I don’t care if you use KPIs, OKRs, or any other goal-setting acronym so long as you have a way to measure success. Remember that success metrics can be tactical, like the number of media placements you got, or anecdotal — did the agency tell a good story or nail the CEO’s tone of voice? Having this framework in place and setting a cadence for discussing goals helps keep you and your agency on the same page. I’ve seen many instances in which people work with a vendor and don’t have a strategy or a framework for talking about performance. It often ends in miscommunication and one party feeling like their needs aren’t being met.
Use the RFP process to gather feedback from a range of vendors. If you set out to rebrand and launch a new website in one month when every vendor says that it will take six, that’s a good indication to adjust your expectations.
Once you’ve chosen an agency, share a set of realistic goals and a set of stretch goals. Do you want to be on the front page of The New Yorker? Tell the agency. But listen when the agency tells you if that’s within your reach now or in the future. If The New Yorker isn’t the best outlet for your audience, ask what your white whale should be and go after that. Remember, you chose this agency because you trust it — it’s an extension of your team, and it gets you and your business.
Don’t Be a Bottleneck
Once you’ve found the agency that’s the best fit and created a strategy, it’s time to execute. Although your agency is like an extension of your team, it doesn’t have institutional knowledge or access to classified business information. And it probably doesn't understand the intricacies of your product just yet. To be successful, it needs collaboration and approval from you and your team.
Assign a single point of contact from your internal team and one from the agency to communicate with one another. They should be able to answer most questions, and if they can’t, they’ll be the ones to get the information or necessary approval.
Should You Build an Internal Team or Hire an Agency for Your Startup?
Having been on both sides of the desk Zoom, I know that there are a lot of factors that go into this decision. I’ve spent my career working in-house at startups and am now at a content marketing and PR agency that works exclusively with tech startups and scale-ups. For these businesses, it’s very hard to build an internal team that has the breadth of knowledge, experience, and connections that an agency will provide — especially for the same price as a retainer. The flip side is that most agencies won’t know the ins and outs of your product and culture the way an employee does.
That’s why it’s essential to choose an agency that feels like an extension of your team. It has to live and breathe your brand, sport your swag, and say your name in a crowd of influential people. I’ve managed a lot of vendors, and the ones that deliver this are rare. I’m proud to represent one of them now and am honored to be the chosen hype girl for some of the tech industry’s most influential companies.
About Look Left Marketing
Look Left helps disruptive enterprise technology companies break through with insight-driven integrated programs that combine earned, owned, and paid media to seize mindshare, drive market definition, and fuel growth.
We’re different from other agencies you know. Look Left isn’t in the business of rinse-and-repeat tactics sold off a menu. We deliver smart, insight- and experience-driven stories and strategies that match market, buyer, and bot needs. Learn more about our services, or find your hype team by sending us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.