Honest Truths About Working with Marketing Consultants

It’s that time of year when many school leaders take a hard look at their school’s enrollment and attrition and plot a forward-looking strategy. 

As we say in the independent school space, ‘tis the season for consultants to be hired. I founded Kalix Marketing Group 11 years ago this month to serve the educational community. One of Kalix’s core values is speaking truth to power. It’s the only way to create a marketing strategy that will move your school’s enrollment needle and reach your objectives. 

In talking with schools across the country post-Covid, I am seeing an interesting trend. The first type of school reaching out to Kalix right now has a strong enrollment, healthy endowment and clear understanding that investing in strategic marketing is a wise decision. The second group of schools are either facing an enrollment crisis or have a serious enrollment problem. 

Whatever your school’s category is, if  you are considering hiring a marketing or enrollment/admissions firm or strategist, I want to offer some objective advice. 

Local isn’t always better. All too often, a school will make the strategic misstep of hiring a local marketing firm, which usually begins with a board connection. I don’t want to imply that a local marketing firm can’t help you; however, I’ve seen far too many examples of local firms that serve a variety of industries and try to “sell” schools as just another widget or product. Beware of that approach. It won’t serve you well. Hire a deep subject matter expert. The national independent school community has a very strong cohort of marketing firms, consultants and specialists. Many of us are corporate supporters of AISAP, NAIS, TABS and more. We’ve made the strategic decision to serve and invest in the unique ecosystem that is the independent school world. Firms with expertise and/or exclusive focus on schools truly understand the unique marketing challenges of this field. 

Don’t be afraid to hear the truth. If the marketing expert or consultant you’re talking to can’t (or won’t) speak truth to power, run. I recently spoke to a head of school who is facing a very serious enrollment crisis. They told me they had to turn the enrollment around in the next year or possibly risk closing the school. I told them that from a strategic marketing perspective, it takes a multi-year investment to stem the enrollment decline vs. a one-year campaign. They seemed rather annoyed with my comment as if they expected some type of magic marketing plan that could do the unexpected. 

Budget transparency and authenticity upfront are key. When it comes to a marketing strategy budget, not all firms will be 100% frank about addressing costs in an initial conversation. Be wary of a firm that wants to “sell you” on what they can do for your school and are somewhat evasive early on about the amount of money it will require. A comprehensive, strategic marketing plan, customized to your school’s needs, is not cheap. I’ve seen firms quote a single large sum to schools that “covers everything.” You need to ask for an itemized breakdown by deliverable, so you are better able to measure your return on investment (ROI).

Be an educated consumer. Do your research. Vet firms by getting recommendations from colleagues in the independent school community. Get a few bids and compare them. And, most important, thoroughly interview the firms. In many ways, it’s one of the most important hires you will make. Ask the right questions. 

  •  At the first meeting, does the firm ask you what you’re trying to accomplish and how much of an investment you can make to move the needle? If not, they should.
  • Can the firm give you budget ranges on what every marketing deliverable will cost? Of course, they can, but they might not want to. Let’s be very clear. You can’t ask for an instant “quote,” but those of us who have been serving the independent school community for multiple years, can certainly give you broad budget ranges.

I recently presented an AISAP workshop on how to create a strategic marketing plan and annual budget. A fascinating thing happened during my presentation. As I was discussing the line item marketing budget and showing real-life examples, the Zoom chat lit up. Most participants said they had never seen an educational marketing firm share a line item budget like this before. 

All of us in the industry can do that, but clearly most don’t. If you would like a copy of my annual marketing budget model, just ask. Feel free to email me at joleisky@kalixmarketing.com, and I would be happy to share it with you.

Marketing is an investment that you can’t afford not to make. Your level of investment directly correlates to your enrollment growth or decline. Make sure that your marketing partner is the right fit for your temperament and school community. And insist that the firm speak truth to power. You can’t get where you need to go without it.

Let’s talk. I am always happy to help any school leader think through how best to solve your marketing challenges. 

President’s Notes
Jonathan Oleisky

Jonathan Oleisky

Read the latest post from Kalix President Jonathan Oleisky.
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