Budget – the elephant in the room

As you can imagine, we have many chats with prospective clients. Most are with marketing managers who are experienced at working with an agency and who come to us with a well prepared, signed-off brief and budget.

Others, generally business owners who haven’t worked with an agency before, often rely on us to help formulate a brief with them, which is great until we get to the ‘b word’.

It’s amazing how many are taken aback when we ask if they have a budget in mind.  The conversation tends to follow a similar pattern.

Always some introductory talk about life in general (latterly, lockdown).  Then a deeper discussion about their business, the challenges they’re facing and what they’d like to achieve in the future. 

In return, we outline what we do and how the combined skills and expertise of our various teams, could help them achieve their goals.  At this point, the conversation gets pretty animated and we’re able to illustrate how we’ve helped others by taking them through a couple of relevant case studies.

They love what they hear and ask us to prepare a detailed proposal. Invariably, the conversation then goes like this:

US: Of course. Do you have a budget in mind?

THEM: No, just tell me what it’ll cost.

US:  It would really help to know your ballpark so we can tailor something to fit.

THEM: Look, if what you propose helps my business, I’m happy to spend.

US: OK, if you’re sure.

We then pull everything together into a written brief and run it by them to check we’ve understood everything correctly. In the budget section, we put ‘agency to advise’.

Brief agreed, we pull a team together to take a look at the prospect’s current marketing activity and that of their competitors.  Armed with this (and lots more) we prepare a proposal. It’s worth saying at this point that RMS is a multi-discipline agency with a wide range of marketing skills in-house.  We have no vested interest in pushing one service over another and only ever present what we know will work.  All proposals are prepared with an “If it was my business, this is what I’d do … “approach.

Like most agencies, we put our hearts and souls into preparing proposals. There is no one size fits all – they are all different and tailored to that particular brief. We get excited and invest far more than just time.

Although we’ve been given permission to let our ideas fly because “budget isn’t an issue”, experience has taught us to never take that at face value.  When the big day to present our proposal arrives, we always have a range of budget bases covered.

Invariably, the conversation then goes like this:

US: … and that’s how you’ll achieve your objectives. What do you think?

THEM: Wow! That’s impressive and I really love your ideas.  I’ll be honest, though, the budgets are more than I was expecting.

US: Well, you did tell us you didn’t have a budget in mind which is why we’ve given you a range of activity from the ‘all singing all dancing’ to ‘the absolute essentials’.

THEM: Mmm, I hear what you’re saying and agree completely that we need to do all of this but we don’t even have enough budget for the basics.

This is so frustrating, not to mention demoralising. 

We’ve tried to understand why people are so reluctant to reveal what they have to spend and suspect it boils down to one of the following:

  • They’re tyre kickers who never had any intention of spending and have deliberately set out to fish for free advice and ideas.
  • They feel they’ll get ripped off by an agency keen to spend all their money in one go.
  • They’re embarrassed because they think their budget is so small.
  • They genuinely have no idea what constitutes a reasonable budget.
  • They already use another agency and are simply using us to ‘spook’ them or drill down their fees.

Clearly, we have strong views about each of these!  We’d love to hear if you have any other thoughts about this age-old agency challenge.

If you’re looking for an agency, please try and give them an idea of your available budget.  If you don’t have a figure in mind or simply don’t know what things costs, at the very least, tell them what you aren’t prepared to spend!

An open approach from the start will ensure you don’t receive any embarrassing surprises.  More than anything, your relationship will be built on solid foundations of trust and openness, which is in everyone’s interests.