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November 28, 2007

FIELD STAFFING: Cost should not be the issue

When innocent first launched its drinks range it broke one major industry tradition by employing university students to work in its full-time field staff team. And this may well have been one of the secrets of its success. By employing an in-house field staffing team, the brand was able to ensure a consistency across its experiential activity that is difficult to emulate in the more traditional approach of hiring field staff in from a staffing agency.

Good quality, responsible, on-brand staffing remains one of the perennial problems for the live marketing industry. While there are a large number of professional field staff – or brand ambassadors as they are now known – out there, these people still move from campaign to campaign and from agency to agency in the course of their careers. Although many agencies would like to follow the innocent model, the reality it that it’s just not sustainable for most of the industry.

“Our ideal would be to employ our own full-time team of brand ambassadors, but we just cannot guarantee the level of work necessary to justify this,” says Doug Smith, head of field marketing at integrated agency Momentum. “If we could do this it would benefit both us and our clients. Everyone would know where they stood and we’d be able to train our staff to our own exacting standards.”

The increasing commoditisation of field staffing is further compounding the problems for the staffing sector. The combination of pressures from procurement departments and the fact that there are companies out there that will offer staff at very low prices, means that fees are being pushed down. Procurement slashing an extra £10 per person per day from staffing budgets is getting passed straight down to the brand ambassadors themselves. The real danger is that with prices dropping, so too is quality.  

Thou shalt not measure on price alone
“The staffing industry is becoming incredibly competitive with lots of companies claiming to be able to deliver staff at very cheap rates. It’s certainly nothing to do with decreasing overheads, so it must be that they are paying their staff less,” says Mark Meurer, director of PeoplePeople the staffing division of the RPM group. “Field staff are an incredibly important resources and we shouldn’t be measuring them on price alone.”

Meurer is concerned that by cow-towing to this hammering down of prices, the industry will just descend into a free for all. He believes that companies need to understand that these people are going out into the public domain and being the face of their brands, and that under trained or unreliable staff can have a damaging effect on the power of the campaign that they are part of – and even on the brand itself.

“Companies also need to understand the pressures these people are under,” he continues. “It’s not easy task to go out there and keep smiling and talking to people all day. Increasingly, brand ambassadors are an asset that becoming incredibly undervalued.”

Meurer suggests that there should be much more important issues to consider than price. “Companies and agencies need to make sure the agency they are using are responsible employers. For example, there are serious considerations in terms of whether they meet statutory requirements for employment. Companies also need to make sure the agency they are using has proven quality of staff. PeoplePeople invests a considerable amount in meeting, interviewing and training its staff to the highest levels to give companies the best guarantee that they are going to get the best quality staff.”

Controlling quality
Momentum’s Smith echoes Meurer’s concerns over quality: “We tend to use regular bookers as this hopefully guarantees us as much as possible that we’re going to get good people. If they want to continue working with us then they are not going to send us bad people. However, really they still have very little control over this issue.”

The reality is that it’s easy to say that you’re a staffing agency, but this doesn’t mean that companies are going to be getting the best field staff for their brand.

Finding an agency that spends time matching field staff to both a brand’s personality and target audience is essential as it will lend credibility to and deepen the customer interactions of any activity.

“Imagine an experiential campaign for a nappy brand that is targeting mums with small babies, and glamorous young promotional staff have to try and relate to the nappy issues faced by mums,” says Shaz Smilansky marketing director of Staffwarehouse, the staffing division of Blazinstar. “Inevitably you will not have a genuine connection between the brand ambassador and the consumer, this is an example of how bad staffing can result in the consumer feeling that the brand, through the staff, does not understand them or their needs.”  

Match making
When staff are effectively matched up with a brand the results will speak for themselves. It creates interactions that stimulate a genuine connection between brand ambassadors and consumers; they resemble a personal recommendation from a trusted source. “This leads to word of mouth, and word of mouth leads to exponential growth in the reach of a campaign, which justifies the spend, generates brand advocacy and ultimately increases sales,” says Smilansky.

Regardless of the pressure marketers may be under to be more effective and efficient, hammering down the price of brand ambassadors is very much a counter-productive measure. These people are the front line of any brand experience. Cut corners here and brands run the risk of seriously devaluing the activity itself and even damaging the way a brand is perceived within its target audience.

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