Don’t get caught out by the miss-selling of advertising directed at your SME

May 2019

Although a fair chunk of my work is one-off projects such as reviewing a client’s marketing and leaving them with a strategically-led plan, I also support a few clients on an on-going basis. This sort of relationship typically suits SMEs who aren’t quite big enough to justify a fulltime marketing director or senior marketing manager (though I have a good track record of helping them get to a size where they actually can), but anyway still need input to their marketing effort at an equivalent level.

A specific task I usually carry out for such clients is vet each and every approach they get from a host of publishers, radio stations, event organisers etc., all of which want to sell them advertising. SMEs are a rich target for the sales people who operate for these providers of media, because a) there are a hell of a lot of SMEs, and b) unlike larger companies they’re a relatively soft touch because there’s rarely the same level of expertise to know if what’s on offer is worth taking or not. And here’s a spoiler alert: it generally isn’t.

For much larger companies, the task of media buying is often outsourced to an agency, but whether it is or is managed in-house, it’s fairly safe to say that if what’s being offered isn’t aligned to delivering one or more marketing strategies, then it isn’t going to happen. For the SME clients I help on an ongoing basis, exactly the same can be said.

The level of bullshit pedalled at SMEs by advertising sales people is truly astonishing. The fundamental problem is, though, that I know it’s bullshit but the SME owner, director or manager often doesn’t. To them it may well sound like a great deal and the immediate answer to achieving a boost in sales or even longer-term growth. Let me give you an example . . .

A few months back the joint MD of one of my longest-standing clients (a kitchen manufacturer and retailer), forwarded me an email thread he’d had with a sales person, with his view being that the offer was something he wanted to take up. The sales person worked for a magazine publisher – and I won’t shame them by revealing the title but will say that it’s concerned with homebuilding and home renovation – and was offering an apparently great deal, with this essentially being full page ads in special regional additions of the magazine to coincide with consumer shows in Edinburgh and Glasgow (with the same name as the magazine). My client would be having a stand at each of these consumer shows (and were doing so because it was part of the marketing plan to deliver a strategy I’d put in place for them), so supporting the show stand with full page ads in each of the special addition magazines made a whole lot of sense. Except it didn’t, because:

· When I took up the mantle to look at what was being offered in more detail, it turned out there was no special regional additions of the magazine – it was the same UK-wide distribution but simply published ahead of each show and also sold at each show.

· Although my client does operate across the UK in a different market, for the showrooms they own and retail kitchens in, their market is solely Scotland. So basically, they’d have been pointlessly also adverting to readers in England and Wales.

· What’s more and when pressed, the sales person was not able to provide any circulation and readership figures for Scotland (let alone the two cities the shows were in) – just UK-wide, with England logically representing by far the biggest share of readers.

So largely a complete waste of money, because the ads would be irrelevant to the majority of readers.

I went back to my client with the facts, and straight away he could see that he was being miss-sold the advertising. I also took the opportunity to point out the outrageous extent the sales person had tried to pull the wool over his eyes – all of which was documented in the email thread.

I’d like to tell you that such approaches are rare but unfortunately they’re not and it happens all the time. I actually don’t blame the sales people, as they’re clearly under pressure from their employers – so it’s the employers I have the issue with and whether they’re a magazine publisher, regional press publisher, radio station, digital provider or whatever.

So how do you avoid wasting money on advertising which isn’t right for you? My top 3 tips are:

1. Start out from a viewpoint of suspicion, and never trust what you’re being told on face value. Ask for facts and figures – e.g. independently verified circulation and readership if it’s print (or access these yourself – Google ‘JICREG’ and ‘ABC figures’) or listeners if it’s radio. If it’s anything digital you’re being offered – e.g. banner ads, social media advertising or retargeting – then NEVER sign-up to anything without getting an expert view first (this particular market is absolutely stuffed with charlatans and conmen).

2. If the offer passes point 1, then next ask yourself if what’s being offered is really in-line with delivering your marketing strategy and therefore should be part of your marketing plan, and if the answer is no then reject the offer then and there. (And if you don’t have a marketing strategy and plan in place, then don’t talk to anyone offering you advertising until you do.)

3. If it passes point 2, then consider if, despite the good alignment, you could actually spend your (perhaps limited) budget on something else better. If no, then go ahead. If yes, then don’t go ahead.

On a slightly lighter note, I can’t deny that catching these dodgy sales people out and sending them packing is often very good sport and indeed can lighten my day.

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