Learn why specializing will ultimately determine the success of your agency.
It’s not easy buying design.
Agencies are hired by brands to solve a unique business problem using design. We try to help you and your business by partnering with you, learn more about you and provide our professional services. But too often we agency folk have to deal with difficult clients because:
- We didn’t do our homework and vet the client enough. *Our bad*
- The client didn’t do their homework because they don’t know what they want or how to ask for it.
To future clients buying design, allow me to help you help us.
I’ve been running DBNY for some time now and have dealt with our fair share of difficult clients and one common attribute remains consistent, lack of education. Too often we deal with uninformed clients.
Let’s change that.
Things You Need To Know.
Fit & Culture
Is this agency the right fit for your company? Sure they may understand your business goals and have relevant work experience but consider this, do you see yourself working with their team for the next 3–6 months or even longer? What’s the agency culture like? Are they a bunch of stiffs? All legitimate questions to ask while vetting. Find an agency that understands and respects the vision for your brand.
Simply put, people like working with people they like.
Work & Process
Find out how their team works. Don’t get bogged down with what project management methodologies they use. It’s not Waterfall vs. Agile. It’s important to have a solid process and structure in place but don’t let that dictate how the project gets done. Teams should be flexible. In our experience anticipating and adapting to expectations throughout the project has helped us complete more successful projects. Find an agency partner with a strong collaborative process that involves the client team early on.Simply put, people like working with people they like.
Case Studies & Portfolio
Browse around the agency website and explore their work but this should not be an opportunity for you to critique on past designs. Past designs dictate almost nothing and rarely influence the outcome of your project. Instead, focus on their case studies and in depth analysis of certain projects. Learn about their approach and how they tackle unique business problems. It’s worth reaching out if you find that the case studies and work to be comprehensive, thoughtful and align with your needs.
Expertise & Experience
Steer clear of full-service type agencies who lack a deep understanding of a particular niche or focus. Industry relevance is helpful; you wouldn’t hire an agency specializing in SEO marketing when you need to design an eCommerce store to sell lifestyle products online. Each technology platform has its own set of advantages and disadvantages in terms of scalability and customization. Work with an agency that will help you identify and architect the best platform for your project. For example, our team at DBNY specializes in building eCommerce experiences on the Shopify platform but we don’t always recommend it to all clients. A good agency partner takes time understanding your business goals and technology needs before making the appropriate recommendations.
Key questions to consider:
- Do they have a proven track record in the industry?
- How deep is their expertise?
- What verticals have they worked in?
- What technology platforms and tools are they most proficient in?
Support & Service
Digital agencies tend to have a transient relationship with clients. It’s the nature of the agency business model where projects can last anywhere from 3, 6 or even 12 month terms. Don’t let that deter you. Look for an agency partner with a proven track record of outstanding service. Ask for past client testimonials or success stories. Seek out an agency that is willing to establish a long term relationship with your brand and continue to provide value long after the project completion. Ask if they provide retainer work services for ongoing maintenance and support, especially crucial for eCommerce brands.
Where To Find Us.
Agency Spotter: A database of agencies of all sizes and specialties to filter through by annual budget spend, expertise, market, location, etc.
Direct Referrals: You don’t go to Yelp to find a quality doctor so why should you do the same for design? Ask a friend who you trust that has bought design services before. In fact, receiving referrals from past clients, friends or family members is the best way to work with an agency because people like working with people they can trust.
Agency Blogs: Start following agencies on your shortlist and read through the company blog. Often you will find quality content on the company blog discussing industry insights, thought pieces, How-To guides and more. This will give you a solid understanding of how they approach their work and their level of expertise in that domain.
RFP: If you plan on submitting an RFP expect to get mixed results because there’s no direct relationship between a client requesting an RFP and an agency submitting an RFP. The response rate will vary from agency size and expertise. You’ll end up with quotes and timelines from opposite sides of the spectrum. San Francisco based design studio Mule Design provides a great guideline on how to create the perfect RFP for your next project.
Things You Should Not Do.
Asking For Spec Work
Don’t expect free work and be cautious of an agency willing to accommodate. Here’s a great video from Adweek explaining why you should never ask or expect agencies for spec work in order to win your business.
Not Sharing A Budget
Being honest and realistic about your financial expectations allows agencies to assess the viability of the project. Even a ball park range is helpful. Knowing budgets early on allows us to point you towards the right direction with suggested solutions based on your price range.
If you think hiring a professional is expensive, wait till you hire an amateur.
Not Sharing A Timeline
Be honest about your deadlines and share what is driving that expectation. A good agency will guide you through a typical project lifecycle and explain in detail why certain projects take longer than others and how this may influence your project. This also helps the agency properly plan and resource staff accordingly. Don’t expect a rush job.
Not Involving Stakeholders Early On
The best way for an agency to stick to timelines and budget is to make sure all the stakeholders are identified and involved early on. Having a major decision maker come in midway or towards the end of a project can have serious consequences and can often delay projects. Be upfront with your agency partner with how many of your team members will be involved and in what capacity.
Thinking You’re A Designer
It’s okay to provide design feedback, in fact that’s a requirement but you should avoid prescriptive delegation at all costs. Ultimately you’re hiring an agency because they are proven experts in their domain and are providing professional services to help your brand. There’s a distinct difference between collaboration and dictating design. Find an agency that is willing to listen to your needs, understand your company vision but not easily bend to your will. If your agency says no frequently within reason, you’ve found a good partner.
- Find an agency partner with the right fit and culture that aligns with your brand.
- Find an agency with a specific domain of expertise relatable to your industry or product.
- Understand how they work and approach projects.
- Understand their strengths in technology platforms.
- Be upfront about cost, timelines and expectations early on in the vetting process.