How to select a creative agency

Building and growing your business will surely involve working with design agencies at some point.  They can be critical in giving you the edge to stand out in a cluttered marketplace.  But, for you to get the best out of the process, there are a few pointers to bear in mind.

Before you start

  • What sort of creative work are you seeking? Be very clear about the nature of your project and type of work that you are looking for. Is it web design, point-of-sale, brochures, brand identity, advertising etc.
  • Define the project. If the project seems too big, it probably is. Consider breaking it down into smaller projects to allow specialists to become involved. You’re likely to get more satisfying results than when using a one-stop shop agency.
  • Have a clear brief at the outset. Take time to write a good detailed design brief. The better the brief the better the outcome. Avoid writing the brief with the agency - you know your business and your objectives better than anyone. See here for details on how to write a good design brief.
  • Ask around for recommendations. These are stronger than picking a name from a list or googling in the dark.

Start the dialogue

  • Select a handful and set up meetings with them. Eventually, you’ll want to obtain at least 3 quotes, so allow for the inevitable fall-out.
  • Be clear about what you want out of your first meeting. Without direction some agencies will happily spend an hour showing you ALL their work. Not necessarily the best way to spend your time.
  • Ask them to send through examples of their work. This can help build your shortlist as well eliminate those that aren’t suitable.
  • Note how they are in their dealings with you and how this fits with your company culture. Are they efficient, friendly, professional etc

That first meeting

  • You may want to set an agenda or go free flow. Depends if you want them to prepare anything. You choose.
  • Ask them to present to you what they think your business does in 10 minutes and who your main competition is.
  • You will get more out of an agency that knows your industry and understands your product and company vision, so ask questions to test.
  • Ask them why they think they can do better than anyone else or what their USP is.
  • Ask them what they think they’re good at and what their area of specialism is. They will tend to be best at this, not the stuff they hardly do. This might be the same as the above point. It might not.
  • Ask them to detail their creative process. It’s surprising how uncreative an agency can be in their approach to a creative task. If you’re looking for creativity and innovation, you won’t find it in a process that resembles an MBA framework.
  • Look out for chemistry. You will need to get on and enjoy each other’s company to get the best out of any creative brainstorm sessions. It’s also key for those managing the project from both companies to get on.
  • Ask them what their most challenging client has been and why. Watch and listen how they respond.
  • Always review their past work for sector knowledge and creativity, not to mention conflict of interest.
  • Ask them on what basis they like to pitch. Some agencies are happy to do some work for you while others will not do any work until you give them the project. Beware: it can get tricky if an agency does some work for you, and you go with another, but you liked their idea and want to use it somehow.
  • Some agencies have their own briefing documents. Ask about these, as you will need to fill one in, in addition to your own brief.

Inviting the pitch

  • Having made your shortlist, send out your brief for them to quote against. Make sure you are clear about what you are asking them to do.
  • Depending on the nature of the brief, you may want to hold a briefing session with them. For larger projects this might be very helpful for both parties.
  • Avoid giving verbal briefs, unless they are accompanied by a written brief.
  • If you haven’t specified a date you want to receive responses by, ask for the timeframe they are working to.

Reviewing the proposals

  • Ensure the quote is broken down to include all the stages - concepts, design, artwork,
  • Ask about these hidden nasties that aren’t always included, but you end up paying for; despatching artwork to the printer, photographer’s and illustrator’s fees, photographic rights, ownership of illustrations, fonts & photography, burning artwork to CD etc.
  • Check how much involvement you are getting from the senior member of the creative team. What other projects are they working on? Are you getting the creative minds working on your project you thought you were getting?
  • Ensure there has been an allowance for amendments. You’ll want at least 3 sets of amends. More if your company likes to make decisions by committee.
  • If the agency is providing printing quotes, ask them to submit 3. This is a nice place to hide additional margin. Otherwise, if you have a print buyer, just hand it to them.
  • Look for the payment schedule and ensure you only pay for each stage as and when you have signed it off.

Making the decision

  • Be clear as to what is important to you and stick to it.. Is it cost, creativity, speed of turnaround etc?
  • Agree costs up front to avoid surprises.
  • Check that the account handler will remain for the duration of the work (as far as possible).
  • And finally, make sure you decide to go with an agency that feels right.  If it don’t feel right, it probably ain’t!

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