Why this exciting start-up thinks you should fire your marketing agency

Do it yourself! The Oppo ice cream founders learned the hard way. Here’s a candid explanation of why they believe for start-ups, you should avoid external agencies

There has been a trend towards outsourcing pretty much everything in a business, especially in marketing. Experts tell us that without them or their services we won’t be able to grow as effectively.

When we launched Oppo (with an ice cream that disrupted the category by being awarded a Great Taste Award while containing less than 60% of the sugar and calories in regular ice cream), we thought so too. There was no way we had the skills or the time to launch Oppo to the press properly.

And we were right. But we were wrong about the solution.

Fire your PR agency

We brought on a big, well respected PR agency, who put two of their most junior people on the account and generated a paltry two media articles in three months.

At the same time we happened to meet Plum, who was looking to escape a PR role at another large city PR firm. We took her on to do our PR, and two years later Plum is now our head of marketing. She knows more about our market, product and the stories that the media will find interesting than a PR agency ever will.

You are the expert when it comes to social

There are loads of impressive social media agencies who capitalise on business owner’s fears about doing the wrong thing on social, and suggest that using Facebook or Instagram is more complicated than it is.

You just need to find out where your target customers tend to hangout, and create a dialogue with them. If you know that social is not about selling, but rather about entertaining and inspiring, you can do it yourself. It will always be more authentic than getting an external party to do it for you.

Struggling with some of the more technical aspects? Google it. Don’t spend thousands on experts when you could use the time and money to create content and conversations that resonate.

Build a team of Ambassadors to rave about your brand

If you do lots of events or in-store sampling then you may be tempted to use an external agency.

In our experience, the costs of staffing agencies make it almost impossible to achieve ROI and, more importantly, the people representing your brand are unlikely to have the same level of knowledge or passion as one of your team members.

At Oppo we have hired and trained a team of 40 brand ambassadors who are already fans of Oppo. They only work an hour or two a week, but they are part of the team and they love the product.

Yes, we might be able to scale more easily if we used an agency, but the real value comes when our ambassadors are not working. Our ambassadors spread the word for us to their friends and family. They check the shelf when they’re in their local store because they care. So even when they’re not officially working a shift they are always looking after Oppo.

The same goes for brand design. Sort of.

Our first pack designs were created by a big agency, for free. Every start-up’s dream. They let their creatives run wild and the packaging won two awards as a result. But it didn’t sell. The tubs just didn’t look appetising enough for someone in a rush with a brimming trolley and late for the school run.

So a few months later, we re-did the designs ourselves using a pencil, a lot of late nights and help from some friends who knew their way around a mac. Sales jumped.

But here’s where we’ll deviate from our original argument…

We started Oppo to create an iconic brand. Social Media and PR are skills you can learn on the job (with the help of Google…). Creating and understanding the mechanics of a truly iconic band requires experience and design skills which take years to truly master. Years we did not have.

So when Path, a London based creative agency got in touch, we were dubious but invited them for a meeting. They demonstrated such a good understanding of our challenges and goals that we took a punt.

If you’re especially eagle-eyed, you might notice that the logo now sits in an overlap between two circles, like a Venn diagram. Oppo owns the sweet spot between the ‘opposites’ of health and indulgence. This is a design element we can own as we grow the brand. We wouldn’t have been able to create this ourselves.

So why did this relationship work? Because from day one we were involved in every creative meeting, they were just a few miles down the road from us, and we assisted with the creative process. We were fully bought in, and they knew they were working exactly to our brief.

The bottom line

If you’re running a start-up, agencies or external specialists should only ever be used where you absolutely need some specific external expertise or extra people for a very short time – and when you do, make sure you stay as close as possible.

Agencies are not a magic bullet. If you do decide to use one, make sure you hire them like you would a member of staff. It’s not enough that they’re good at what they do. If they’re not on board with your mission and your values it won’t work.

You know more about your business, your market, and your products than almost any third party will. Trust that, and trust your gut, always.

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