ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) — Some local businesses say what started as a move to grow their brand, turned into a costly hit. Now, they’re warning others to be careful before buying into social media marketing.
That marketing company says not so fast.
Thomas Bledsoe still has pages of documents for the marketing plan he signed up in July 2020, what he now calls one of his worst business decisions.
Bledsoe hired Drive Social Media, a St. Louis-based social media marketing company that opened in 2012.
“All the good promises they had, and you don’t get any of it,” Bledsoe said. “This thing can almost put your business under.”
Bledsoe runs TNT Elite Credit, a credit repair business in North County. He said he wasn’t looking for help until a Drive rep reached out to him.
“They had a good salesperson reach out to me,” Bledsoe said. “Mostly all my customers come from a social media avenue.”
Bledsoe signed a contract, where “responsibilities” include creating “4 targeted Facebook ad campaigns quarterly. The contract does not mention results or make any guarantees.
Bledsoe acknowledges this but still questions the sales pitch.
“They will continue to sell you, and sell you, and sell you, and promise you things that will happen that don’t happen,” Bledsoe said.
Bledsoe’s contract with Drive is clear, he can only end it with “30 days notice” and if he “paid half of the remaining funds.”
“They didn’t give me nothing but one lead,” Bledsoe said.
Bledsoe admits he stopped paying.
“I’m giving Drive way more money than I’m making throughout the month,” Bledsoe said.
Drive Social Media sued Bledsoe arguing he “breached the contract by failing to make payments” all while Drive said it held up its end of the deal.
“How can I pay them without them producing?” Bledsoe questioned.
He’s not alone. Barbara Chappuis owns Bee Naturals, a skin care company that also runs a spa and store in Maplewood. Chappuis’ company was also sued by Drive.
“There was no return on investment and the pressure increased to pay the monthly bill and I got to the point I did not have the money to pay for that bill,” Chappuis said.
Drive sued saying it met “all obligations,” Chappuis hadn’t paid, and she owed $18,900.
That case settled out of court, the terms are confidential.
“It’s like they got what they wanted, I didn’t get what I needed and that’s exploitation as far as I’m concerned,” Chappuis said.
Drive decided not to speak with News 4 Investigates but provided the following statement:
“Drive Social Media (DSM) is dedicated to giving small and medium sized businesses across the globe a competitive advantage on digital platforms. DSM was founded here in St. Louis in 2012, built with the belief that small businesses are the backbone of any successful community and our growth is directly tied to the economic prosperity of the small business owners in the cities we live and serve. We are entrusted daily by each and every client we partner with to work towards a collaborative goal of pacing 3x ROI by the end of the first year’s engagement.
To accomplish this goal for each of our clients, it requires maximum effort from both our team and our clients throughout the partnership. In 2021, 91% of DSM partners were meeting or exceeding their ROI goals with over 80% renewing their agreement beyond the initial term. And though we cannot comment on any specific customer relationship due to our commitment to keeping client information confidential, there is public record specific to these cases showing Missouri Court judgements in favor of DSM. All partners are given an extensive onboarding process where we work together to set goals specific to each client, build customized core metrics and align how success will be measured and reported. In every instance, we will not allow a new engagement to move forward without both the metrics and reporting having mutual consent and complete alignment.
Over the past 10 years, we are proud to say that Drive has helped generate over $100 million dollars in revenue across more than 3,000 partners, receiving recognition for our proprietary strategies from some of the nation’s top experts in marketing and advertising – including Facebook, Ad Week, Forbes and Harvard Business Review. We continue to remain true to our mission of elevating small businesses around the world, especially here in St. Louis, home of Drive’s headquarters and over 200 proud employees and growing.”
Drive’s website boasts working with more than 2,000 clients, helping them earn more than $171 million in revenue in 2019. The company has also sued numerous clients, all for contract issues.
News 4 Investigates searched Missouri court records and found in eight years Drive sued 39 businesses, claiming it was owed more than $765,000. Records show most cases settled out of court. Others led to judgments where Drive was awarded the full cost left on the contract, plus interest and sometimes attorney fees.
Stephen Foley is one dissatisfied former Drive client who never ended up in court.
“Ultimately there was no results, bottom line, we just got absolutely nothing out if,” Foley said. He told News 4 he paid about $5,000 to get his carpet cleaning company out of its contract.
“I think we might have gained about $150 worth of work out of the thing,” Foley said. “Our investment was over $20,000.”
Missouri court records show one company counter-sued Drive for “fraudulent misrepresentation.” The company claimed a Drive “sales team employee” said they’d see “an increase in new customers and retail sales” enough “to cover the cost of hiring.” Months into that contract the company said its sales saw “no identifiable increase.”
Drive argued it doesn’t make “performance promises” because there are “too many outside factors” which it can’t control.
The judge ruled in favor of Dive and dismissed the false misrepresentation claim.
Still some customers point to Dive’s website, where the company says its mission is, “to bring a minimum three times return on investment to every single partner, by any means necessary.”
Michael Wall is a Professor of Practice in Marketing and Entrepreneurship at Washington University St. Louis.
“Marketing on social media is not a silver bullet by doing it doesn’t guarantee success,” Wall explained.
Wall recommends companies use a testing period to try to figure out what does and doesn’t work. He stresses expectations need to be realistic.
“If you’ve been investing money for three months and you’re not seeing returns, I would definitely adjust,” Wall added. You need to be working with someone who can help you realize what’s possible with that money.”
Bledsoe didn’t make it to court to fight the suit and ended up with a default judgment against him. He’s been ordered to pay Drive nearly $30,000.
“They should not bother small businesses, period, they need to stay in their lane,” Bledsoe said.
He hasn’t settled that debt and said he’ll keep fighting, claiming Drive made him promises and didn’t deliver.
Before this story aired, Drive sent News 4 Investigates a second statement:
“I’m extremely proud of Drive, a business we founded 10 years ago in St. Louis that is still headquartered here today. Like any organization, we are disappointed when a customer feels their expectations were not met, but also understand it happens for various reasons from time to time with every business. Our A+ rating with the Better Business Bureau shows an overwhelming majority of our 3,000+ clients recognize our level of work provided over the years. Our team of over 200 employees remain as dedicated as ever to the growth of the local economies we serve by helping small and medium sized businesses thrive.”
Drive has been accredited with the Better Business Bureau since 2019. Its A+ rating is in part based on Drive’s response to complaints and if those complaints are marked as resolved. The Better Business Bureau says the size of a company compared to the number of complaints also factors into a company’s rating.
Drive expanded out of St. Louis and now also runs offices in Nashville, Miami, and Atlanta.