You may be thinking that asking for samples of their work and assessing their creativity is the first priority when choosing a design agency, and in some ways you are right. But really creativity should be a given, in the same way we expect our accountants to be able to add up! Just as we expect more from our accountants, business guidance for example; it is right to expect more from a design agency. You should expect a more complete service that helps you get on with your job of managing the marketing.
Question one: Do you have a collaborative approach?
Running a marketing department is challenging enough, so what you need are suppliers who work in partnership with you and support you. If, after working on several projects with you, they feel like an extension of your team, rather than an external resource, the agency understands collaboration (and you can relax). What you definitely don’t want is an agency that forces their pearls of wisdom on you. Of course you want to use their expertise, that is what you are paying for, but do they consult, listen to your opinions, and really understand your needs?
Some agencies have account handlers and some don’t. The best collaborative approach is one where you have clear project management so you always know your baby is being looked after, but one where you can also speak direct to the designers working on your project or even the creative director. This is the best way to achieve great design. By being able to discuss the project and be involved in the creative process. Some really big agencies only roll out the ‘big guns’ and directors for the initial pitch, but if someone is giving your project creative direction you need to be able to chat with them, discuss and work together, not wait for their ideas to be passed down the chain.
Question two: Do you have knowledge beyond just design principals?
Yes of course your agency must understand brand guidelines, but can they really understand your business and industry, what it is you are actually trying to achieve? It would be naive to think everybody at the agency can sit and talk to you about the bigger picture – the clue is in their job titles, juniors are at that level from lack of experience. But there should be people within the team that can talk about your business as a whole and truly understand where design fits in to your business goals.
Design, branding, marketing, all aspects of the creative landscape, should be grounded in the real world. This will benefit the projects in so many ways. For example they can then offer the best advice, which may be completely different to what you initially thought you needed. This could save money and/or time, but the most important thing is that they can then work with you long term, helping you to achieve your goals. If the design agency can see the bigger picture it will make working with them so much easier and more relaxing for you.
Question three: How can you demonstrate transparency in everything you do?
Design is not as simple as delivering an off the shelf product, where the price is fixed and the solution is instantly available. Wherever possible you would expect your agency to quote for every project, but sometimes it’s impossible to deliver a fixed price if the brief has variations. The design agency should keep you abreast of the budget and talk to you about all cost implications at every stage. This can be when a project needs some extra work and therefore more budget, but it can also be when a project is under budget and there are cost saving opportunities. How do they manage project costs transparently?
The expected role and services offered by a design agency are constantly changing. But another key to transparency is knowing what services they offer in-house, what services they outsource, and are there things they can’t offer at all? There is pressure on agencies to gain new clients and win projects, so it is worth asking some searching questions that may go beyond the list of ‘what we offer’ on their website. The best agencies know what they are good at, but also know over stretching themselves just to win or keep a client always ends badly.
To be honest, you are right to expect transparency in everything, but this is particularly important in the areas of timings and deadlines. How does the agency manage their workload and schedule? How do they juggle multiple projects for different clients, all with urgent deadlines? How are their staff resources allocated? Is their team stretched? Do they use freelance staff? This can work well, but how do they ensure such temporary workers share the same values and ethos as the rest of the team?
To conclude, these are three important questions born from the many years experience I have had working with clients large and small. But it is not an exhaustive list, you will probably have many others. However these three questions can be critical in making sure ultimately you get the kind of service you need as a marketing manager – beyond of course good quality design and creativity. We would love to hear from you about your experiences as well, suggestions of other important questions we have missed. After all we like being collaborative, transparent and are always keen to learn something new.