Drew McLellan, over at the always excellent Marketing Profs, ruminates over the age old question – when does lending your vast expanse of grey matter, but limited time, to someone else’s business problems become a business transaction? When does that little bit of advice your friend, customer, partner, former colleague or whatever go from “friendly” to “billable”.
The esteemed Ronin Marketer, John Wall, has an excellent post that shows his personal dividing line between “lawyer” and “marketer”.
The BMBY take
There’s some old tired line referring to pre-marital sex which goes something like “why should (he) buy the cow when he’s getting the milk for free?”
Quite frankly, this sort of thinking should be consigned to the cultural dustbin along with the rest of the domestic stereotypes perpetuated since the 1930’s.
As a consultant personally and as an industry in general, we’re more than happy to give away some milk for free. Plenty of other industries do this as well.
Who else gives away free milk?
Retail banks also give sound advice on personal investing away for free with the understanding you’ll buy your investment products from them.
The telecommunications industry heavily subsidizes your mobile handset in order to tie you in to annual or even multi-annual contracts.
Investment banks publish research documents, prepared by expensive, star analysts that they distribute for free with the understanding investors will come to the bank for the actual trade if they want to move on the information.
Supermarkets bring you in with loss-leaders and up-sell you to higher margin products. Supermarkets will literally give away the milk to get you to buy a steak.
And that’s what we do too.
If you think the milk is good, wait until you try the steak.
Much of our best thinking, as an industry, is pushed to potential clients, usually in the form of proposals, with the understanding that, if they like the ideas, there is a moral obligation for them to use the firm who conceived the idea to execute them. I would hypothesis that this is the case even if you are an agency of record or have a longstanding relationship.
We also do, to stretch the analogy almost to breaking point and to really mix my metaphors, tasting sessions when we invite people to test drive our thinking.
But where should we draw the line?
My feeling, and this is just my feeling, is that once the conversation moves from the abstract to the concrete, any information worker or consultant should be able to charge.
From my perspective, I’m happy to talk until the cows come home about why you should do something and the best practices involved. There is an expectation that you will come to me if you want to actually put these theories and ideas into practice – after all, if you like my ideas that much, why do you think someone else will be able to execute against them more effectively than me?
However if you start asking me specific questions about how to apply that to your business, in a concrete fashion, well I should be able to charge for that.
For instance, it only takes a few moments for me to realize your Web site is suffering from a lack of Google juice and that you need to benchmark where your site is at compared to your competitors. It only takes me a few minutes to go through how I would do such an audit. You can have this for free.
But to actually compile those key words and search major search engines to see where you stand in the search engine results pages (SERPs), to actually look through your content, code, page build, folder structure and link building strategy, well that takes time. Time I have to charge for.
And if you trust me enough to ask my advice about search, why wouldn’t you trust me to actually perform the tasks I’ve recommended?
Trust has to go two ways and the agency has to show some good faith when looking to attract new business. If the client is expected to trust an agency with its budget, agencies must trust clients with their ideas.