How to choose a creative agencyMarch 2019
The possibilities are endless, so it’s expected from you to make the right choice. Yet, you have limited time resources and the information you have to process is too much and too complex. Have you been there before? This article’s goal is to reduce your stress and provide you with a clear roadmap for such situation.
Before you start the quest
A well-posed problem is half the solution. So take a moment to reflect and set your goals clearly, prioritize what’s core to your success and separate what is only ‘nice to have’. By the time you start searching the web you should be absolutely clear of what you’re after.
Making this decision right will need some time, be sure to book yourself some of it in the calendar!
Now that your goals are set it’s time to investigate. We envision research in three phases: the Geek, the Psychologist and the Judge.
On the first pass it’s advisable to consider several agency options, but focus only on your core goals for now, so you won’t go nuts with too much information. Understand their service offerings. Be as methodic as you can. Create a matrix comprising your key goals and your preselected agencies’ services. You may even add score and weight to each of the quadrants to help you assess the degree up to each agency option is a good match or not.
You should consider if your candidates have a proven record of success case studies for similar projects and brands, and perhaps add a column to your matrix.
Now, beyond the scores there’s some essential qualitative information you need to get hold of. Will the future relationship be full of hi-five moments or will it become the next great exercise for your patience? Take some time to call the 3 best ones —the number varies according to budget and time limitations— and ask questions regarding their service offerings. Be very attentive to the way they handle communication because this first contact is likely to be a small sample of what future interaction could be like. Were they promptly available? Are you satisfied with the way they answered? Did they provide an easy channel for communication? Was their agency presentation well structured and backed up with relevant project case studies?
By now you should have a refined list of 2–3 finalists. Send them all the same brief. Yes a proper, well structured brief, there’s no better way to start owning a project than writing a brief. And remember Einstein’s famous quote: “If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.”
You’re fair, you’re transparent. A good way to enter the partnership is by disclosing to them they’re not alone in the game. They’ll be thankful.
Don’t waste your time —or theirs—. If you have any budget limitations now is a good moment to disclose this too. The proposals you’ll get will be closer to matching your expectations.
They come back with their proposals. You’re almost there. Review the documentation carefully. After skipping directly to the costs section —you know you will— take some time to evaluate if the requirements, goals, deliverables, project plan and other considerations are well articulated. This is the best reflection you’ll ever get of the project deliverables to come.
Big or small?
Big agencies tend to aggregate many different capabilities sourcing from disparate ends in the map, such as consultancy, creative and back-end development. So if what you’re looking for is to delegate a whole set of your activities and free some mindspace to do something else (improve your product, invest in your team...) this may be your best option. Just keep in mind that the fact that a large agency offers all services doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re good at all of them. Response times are usually slower too. Because of their large, vertical structures, there’s usually more people involved.
In contrast, small agencies tend to be very specialised in a set of capabilities. Interaction tends to be direct and personalized. Processes tend to be agile. In contrast, proven record and authority need to be carefully inspected and validated. Small doesn’t necessarily mean boutique. It’s fair to say that smaller agencies tend to demonstrate more passion about what they do, and it’s passion that moves the world, after all.
If you have sufficient leg within your organization, you may prefer to manage a few small agencies and fill in the gap between them with value and cohesion added by your own team. In my opinion this is a better strategy than allowing a big giant to manage your business. As a rule of thumb, you want to stay in control of your core strategies and delegate only the parts that you can’t do.
An extreme case here is that of huge global brands that work directly with freelancers —something we are seeing more and more of each year—. They have sufficient internal resources so they can afford to. Seems like a paradox but what they do is simply to cut out all the grease from agencies and hire only lean talent.
Here or there?
Back in the day, local agencies offered the great advantage to be able to meet in person. Is nowadays this still valid? In my opinion, there needs to be a moment when you meet your clients in real life to strengthen the relationship; but 99% of the operational decisions can be made through our beloved virtual channels. So as long as you’re on a similar time zone and unless you really mind hopping on a plane to visit your provider once a year, you should be ok with your creative agency based within 3000 km of your office.
Unsuccessful people make decisions based on their current situations. Successful people make decisions based on where they want to be. When choosing an agency, ask yourself if you need it just for a one-shot or if you want establish a long term collaboration. Think strategically, the moment to ask yourself where your business is going is now. Try to envision yourself in the future together with the agency, what do you see?
All this said and … sometimes it’s a just gut feeling that will guide you, because you simply know. So you may trash all of the above and trust your heart. Just make sure it’s your heart speaking and not your brain tricking you to take a shortcut.
1. Did you set your goals?
2. Did you prioritise them? Can you highlight your key expectations?
3. Did you consider enough options for your research?
4. Did you assess the degree in which each option should satisfy your key expectations?
5. Did you meet with your finalists? (VC counts!)
6. Did you write a clear, well structured brief?
7. Did you thoroughly evaluate the proposals beyond the cost?
… then you’re choosing wisely.