If you get what you pay for, the cost may be to your business.

As an incentive to get more businesses to advertise, the majority of local and regional newspapers and magazines offer “free” advertising design to their customers. The idea of free advertising design can be appealing to business owners who have just signed up to pay hundreds of dollars for ad space in the publication, but as the popular phrase goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

For any business owner that has spent time and money creating a brand, accepting free creative services from a publication is like Jack Nickolson’s obsessive/compulsive character in “As Good As It Gets” using a restaurant’s silverware instead of his own bagged plastic flatware; there’s simply too much risk involved. For a certain amount of time, that ad is the face of your company, representing everything your company stands for. A poor looking ad is the equivalent of having a salesperson go to a client meeting and begin the presentation by picking his nose. A poor impression from that ad on a potential customer can be just as lasting as an encounter with a hygienically-challenged salesperson.

This is not to say that there are not talented designers at local and regional publications who have the ability to create very good ads, because there are. Do you want to take the chance that your ad will be assigned to that particular designer? And if you advertise in multiple publications, each one will turn out as different ads muddling your branding.

In-house designers at publications have varying levels of training and ability, but they share some common bonds. They are generally overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated because their work does not directly generate revenue. Their motivation may be to create great looking artwork, but unlike advertising agencies, in-house designers are not dependent on the client’s happiness to keep receiving a paycheck.

Many small business owners are very supportive of other local business owners and often go out of their way to purchases locally-made products or use locally owned service providers. It may come as a shock to the small business owner to learn that the latest trend in advertising design at publications is to outsource the work to designers in India or elsewhere. Large newspaper companies including Media News Group (57 daily papers), The McClatchy Company (30 daily papers), Sun-Times Media Group (95 publications), and Gannett (85 Daily papers/900 publications) are all sending at least some of their advertising design to India. The distance and time change issues involved not only reduce the ability to communicate exactly what you’d like your ad to look like, they also reduce the ability to make last minute adjustments when an ad proof isn’t right.

It may appear that using a publication’s free design services is a good deal, but when compared to the cost you are paying for the space, is it? The results are likely to prove otherwise. Since you can use the same ad, or slight variations of the same ad in any publication you choose, design by an advertising agency provides the best and most consistent image for your business. Great design that leads to increased sales is a much better value for a business than “free” design could ever be.

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