Choosing the Right Design Firm Partner for Your Brand

Design firms create tangible value, from managing your brand’s identity to pinpointing consumer behavior. Here are some tips to form an ideal working relationship.

You’ve just established a juicy new design project, and now you need to find the right design partner for the task. Some brands need a big agency, and sometimes a boutique agency fits the bill. But how do you know which is most appropriate for you?

Large companies and brands have myriad resources at their disposal, including design managers, marketing directors and senior management with plenty of expertise and usually larger budgets. Even if your company has substantial internal resources, a case can be made for retaining external agencies and design firms. Volume of work is one reason, but more importantly, retaining an external firm provides high levels of expertise, focused attention and new, creative ideas that can help grow your brand. 

Small- to mid-sized companies may also have internal resources but require external, specialized agencies to provide guidance, strategy, breakthrough creative and overall management. Start-ups may attempt to manage creative brand work on their own, but often need to bring on an external agency to minimize headcount and maximize impact.ADVERTISEMENT

Design firms and agencies are specialized in the craft of managing a brand’s identity, including strategy, positioning, research, design, marketing communications, digital design, brand planning and identifying white-space opportunities. They are adept at understanding the intricacies of target audiences, channels, consumer behaviors, delivery methods, cultural dichotomies and local and global implications. They create real, tangible value.

Selecting a design firm is as much about chemistry (emotional) as it is about scope of work, budget and chops (rational). To begin the consideration process, I recommend creating a decision-making tree to keep the process organized, formal and objective.

Identify the Size of the Brand or Company

Are you a small, regional brand that markets two or three products? A major consumer packaged goods brand that’s distributed globally? A corporate brand with a specific trade audience? Compose a detailed explanation of your brand or company, its mission and its audiences.

Define the State of Business

Is your business in good health or does it face significant challenges, such as waning relevance to its legacy target? Does the brand need a revitalization? Do you seek a new consumer relationship, such as a different generation or lifestyle? 

Define your white-space opportunities to better leverage the brand in unfamiliar categories and to new audiences, identifying and understanding consumer segmentation strategies. This degree of definition will help prospective agencies understand the successes, challenges and opportunities of your company or brand, and whether they may be the right fit for you.

Determine Scope of Work and Level of Partnership

Do you need a firm to support ongoing or sporadic project work? Ongoing collaboration with a firm creates a stronger sense of partnership. The firm will know your business more intimately, be more likely to bring you new ideas and continually observe and audit relevant categories of business. It’s tougher to engage agencies on less frequent work, as they don’t tend to remain as invested in your brand and need time to get up to speed on your business, making them less agile and potentially less creative in their work output. The more committed your agency partner is, the more likely they are to provide 24/7 access, if that’s a requirement.

Identify a Short List of Agency or Design Firm Contenders

Throughout my career, I’ve found great success tapping into peers for references and referrals of professional services. Trustworthy peers can provide first-hand experiences working with creative agencies, which can help narrow down your list of prospective candidates. Referral sources can also provide insight into candidates’ day-to-day relationships, communication styles, creative output and strategic thinking.

Agency Size Matters (Sometimes)

Small or boutique agencies tend to be scrappier—more willing to do whatever it takes, faster and more fiscally responsive. However, smaller firms may not have all the capabilities bigger brands need. Larger firms vary in size, scale and personnel layers. They can be global powerhouses with the bandwidth, extensive capabilities and local or cultural expertise that multinational brands require. 

Determine Budget and Payment Structure

Knowing your budget helps you understand what’s realistic for the type of firm you’ll select. Budget estimates also help agencies understand whether they’ll have the appropriate staff for the relationship and whether the budget meshes with the work required. 

Retainer-based relationships are rare in today’s agency and client landscape, so understanding compensation at the onset is critical. Will the agency bill you for project-based work as accrued or will the compensation model include fees and performance-based rewards (i.e., an equity stake or a percent of sales compensation tied to business results)? 

Set Staffing, Communication Preferences and Relationship Expectations

Some firms will send the A-team for the pitch, but will use the B-team for projects once they score the business. Inquire about the account lead, regular contacts and creative team lead. Clarify your preferred mode and frequency of communication. Also determine level of access: If there’s a burning issue at 8 p.m., will a call to the agency lead feel like a natural step or an annoyance?

Hold a Paid Pitch ‘Shootout’

You never know what it’s like to work with a firm until you’re engaged with it. If budget permits, narrow your list to two to three contenders and ask the firms to compete on a real project. 

Your company may have other considerations, such as an agency’s location, specialized expertise or specific market segment experience, but one thing is certain: If you are purposeful about the process and invest the time, you can create a winning relationship.

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