On Choosing A Creative Agency

Real Talk:

We work in an industry where anyone with a laptop and a Creative Cloud subscription can call themselves a “design agency.” The barrier to entry is low and when basic skills can be learned on YouTube or outsourced for $5 per file, it can be tough for clients to distinguish who’s worth hiring and who’s just got a sweet side gig going on. There are people who are going to say they represent agencies with fast-growing revenues and robust teams. There are going to be people who will tell you they’ve worked on projects 100 times larger than they actually have. There will be people who tell you that “only they” can solve all your design and marketing problems. You’d never hire a contractor to work on your home without first checking them out, making sure they’re an actual viable business, seeing what previous clients had to say. The same is true when you’re thinking of hiring a creative agency. You’ve got to do some stalking. Because if you don’t, the damage to your brand, and possibly even  your wallet, can be irreparable.

Hiring A Creative Agency Is No Small Task

Whatever product or service you are hiring them for, at the core of the transaction, you are hiring them to make an impression for your brand. The work that they do has a shelf life, and depending on what you need them for or how successful (or unsuccessful) they are, that shelf life can vary. If you’re thinking of hiring a creative professional, you’ve got to exercise your due diligence to separate the pros from the amateurs. You’ll know you’ve found the right fit when things feel more like a partnership and less like a vendor/client relationship. In our experience, the stronger the partnership, the better the collaboration... and the more successful the work. Design trends may come and go, but having a trusted creative pro as a partner will help you navigate the road ahead for your brand.

It’s About Compatibility

Searching for a design agency is similar to searching for a new employee. Compatibility is as valuable as the merit of the agency’s work, because ultimately you have to work with that agency, and they have to become a functional member of your team (as expanded and remote as they may be).

Here’s a look from our perspective: We look for compatibility when we talk with prospective clients. We do this because we know that no matter how clear the scope of work may be, if we aren’t on the same page in terms of style or if we communicate in entirely different ways, it will be difficult for us to effectively develop the best solutions for their needs.

Conversely, look at this way: If you don’t feel 100% comfortable with the creatives you hire to solve a challenge for your brand, how are you ever going to completely communicate the scope of that challenge? How are you going to be able to provide constructive feedback if they miss something vital, or miscommunicate your goals? Similarly, you should be able to trust them enough to expose vulnerabilities in your brand.

Compatibility is as important as the merit of an agency’s work because you are hiring partners as much as you are commissioning a service or a product. For some amount of time, those creatives are your remote design/marketing/web/PR/social team and the right agency will feel like a natural extension of your team.

 
If you don’t feel 100% comfortable with the creatives you hire to solve a challenge for your brand, how are you ever going to completely communicate the scope of that challenge?
 

That’s Not To Say Merit Isn’t Of Value

Being able to work well with your creatives is of the utmost importance, yes. However, be sure to double check that they are worth their salt. It’s easy to get caught up in the hype and drawn in by industry buzzwords and lingo on an agency’s website and feel really good about hiring the people who seem like they can deliver a solution . . . but can’t.

Stalk the agency (or solopreneur) you are thinking about hiring. Read their website. Contemplate its design and features. Find them on social media and dig into some of the posts they’ve created and how they interact with the people who comment on them. READ REVIEWS on Google, Facebook, and even on sites like Yelp. Feel free to jump on LinkedIn and take a glance at the people who work for the agency.


Thinking of hiring a solopreneur or freelancer over an agency?

This is definitely an option that may work well depending on your business goals and/or budget. First things first, beware the ambiguous “we” because that really means “myself and Google.”  Some freelancers refer to themselves as “we” on their website but work from their basement in their jammies and never see another person. If that level of professionalism and commitment to their industry works for you, fine - just know what you’re signing up for. (Side note: read some of our thoughts on the value of authenticity.) Beyond how they refer to themselves, you can evaluate their merit just as you would a full-fledged design agency: by stalking their digital behavior and their body of work. It’s more than appropriate to ask for references or details on how they work through projects. Just know that no solopreneur is the same. There is a difference between a recent college grad trying to forge their path as a newbie to the design industry and an established professional who rents a studio downtown. The difference will be clear in their communications, their work, their timeline for delivery, and most noticeably in their cost. There can  be pitfalls. A solopreneur has no team to  lean on when the going gets tough or when you have a deadline for a project that happens to not coincide with their personal schedule. Depending on how organized they are, they may not have established systems to deal with possible snags and may lack relationships with others in the industry to be able to help you most effectively solve branding problems that are outside their expertise. They may lack other structural requirements that make doing business safe from a legal and insurance standpoint. Long story short, a solopreneur or freelancer can be a good option if you’re just starting out as well but special care needs to be taken when vetting the right fit for your brand.


Any creative worth their salt will have a portfolio of some kind. If you are looking to hire an entire agency this may show on their website as “work” or “case studies.”  Dig into these as well. The level of detail they disclose will tell you a lot about how they felt about the work.

Don’t be afraid to go as far as to contact a former client of theirs and ask for a general reference. This might seem out of bounds, but remember: many creatives, including agencies, operate on referrals. They want their past clients to share their stories, and in turn, help someone like you decide to hire them.

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The Pitch + The Process

You can determine a lot about your compatibility with a creative agency when experiencing their pitch and learning about their process. The pitch should be focused more on personalized outcomes for your business than as yet another place where the agency talks all about themselves and their “unique process.” Above all the proposal you receive should be flexible! Beware agencies that have a one-size fits all solution for the many common challenges that brands face. No brand is the same. Your brand is not a clone of another. It has its own strengths, weaknesses, and quirks. The same can be said for your audience. It’s not very creative for a creative agency to sell you a cookie cutter solution, and so if they are inflexible in both their pitch and process, take note and be concerned.

Be Aware Of Who Holds The Keys

Most creatives agencies - large and small - genuinely want their clients to thrive. They understand that by solving the challenges their clients started out with, and empowering them to manage any future concerns regarding that challenge, that when the client comes back to them it’ll be to solve a new challenge, not patch up the first one. The operative word here is empowerment. Unfortunately, some clients have been burned in the past by agencies that are more concerned about maintaining control than their client’s success. Ultimately, they are afraid that they’ll work themselves out of work! So if an agency pitches work that doesn’t empower your brand to grow and operate on its own, think twice about commissioning them in the first place. Similarly, if the agency creates a design for you, or something such as a website and access to that product isn’t in the terms and conditions of their work: think twice.

 
Any creative worth their salt will have a portfolio of some kind. If you are looking to hire an entire agency this may show on their website as “work” or “case studies.”  Dig into these as well. The level of detail they disclose will tell you a lot about how they felt about the work.
 

Some agencies operate on a business model that relies on their clients naivete about the work that they do. They leverage this to lock them into subscription/retainer model agreements that leave the client paying for months, or years, for relatively simple work that could be done on a more efficient project-based model. These agencies hope and pray that you never discover that they’ve made what they do sound unnecessarily complex so that you feel like you have no chance in succeeding unless you pay them every month.

The right agency won’t make you feel dumb or inferior just for not being an expert in their field; again, you should feel like you’re bringing someone onto your team to focus on design or marketing activities so that you can focus on what you’re really good at. In many cases, a retainer to manage ongoing work makes sense after you’ve built a great relationship with an agency and know that you’ll work well together over a period of time. To avoid being held hostage by this type of arrangement, just insist on clarity when it comes to deliverables. If you are going to pay monthly for services there should be a standard by which you can measure the outcome of this expense over time.

Do What Is Best For Your Brand

Finally, do what is right for your business. You are ultimately who is responsible for the value of your brand and its survival in the marketplace. Your intuition and intellect are the only two attributes you can hold accountable in your decision-making and quality of brand management. Sadly, there are lots of faux agencies out there that turn those who need branding and design work the most away from the entire creative industry, whether because they’ve been wronged before or because they’re just not sure how to go about picking the right creative professional in the first place. Fortunately, with a little research and intuition, you can save your brand from experiencing anything other than a productive creative relationship with the right agency.