How to choose a design agency. Tips from the Third Floor.

22 January 2020

How to choose a design agency. Tips from the Third Floor.

What to look for in a design agency? What a question.

I always tell clients that I feel sorry for them having to pick an agency. It must be incredibly daunting. We were contacted recently by a potential client who was completely honest with us and said, ‘I’ve never written a brief for an agency before, I don’t even know where to start.’ I think 99% of businesses looking for an agency are utterly overwhelmed. We could all be more approachable and supportive to clients. So while this article really homes in on how to choose a design agency, it’s also a window to our world.

1. Look for an agency that thinks first, acts later

If you’re looking for a really decent agency, then expect to take a step back or at least put the brakes on for a minute. A good agency should be scrutinising every aspect of your brief and the impact that it will have on your business. If that’s not considered then it’s a very poor show on the agency’s part. It’s a problem solving process. Then, when you’ve got completely clear vision of where you want to be and how you’re going to get there, you can really go and do some wonderful work together. It’s almost like the design is secondary to that process. It has to be underpinned by strong thinking.

2. Get your bearings

All companies have a lifecycle and knowing where you are on that journey can really help focus the brief. Launch, grow and change is a narrative Third Floor uses to help clients consider where they are on their own journey. Many new clients bring a box fresh product or brand. We have start-ups come to us and say, ‘We need to be in a position to be able to stand in front of investors and talk about the market opportunity, and about what makes our brand so worthy of their attention.’ Once we’ve helped them with that, then they’ll come back to us to go through the full branding process.

3. Know your ballpark

Be realistic about roughly what you’re willing to spend and exactly what you expect for your money. A good agency will use this not to exploit you but to establish what’s possible before crafting a realistic proposal. It might be that you’ll need to spend much more or possibly even less than you first thought. Just be wary of a figure that’s suspiciously close to your budget, for obvious reasons!

4. Remember you’re unique

So many businesses that approach Third Floor get far too wrapped up in pointing to a particularly piece of design work and saying, ‘Wow, I really like what you did here’ without realising that their appreciation is just because they happen to like the broader product, be that cider or desserts. We have to be clear that it’s not necessarily what we’ll do for you because, for us, there is no one-size-fits-all. Every client’s different.

5. Be wary of people pleasers

There are a lot of agencies that will just churn out design work. Whatever you ask of them, they’ll do it because for them it’s a quick win. At Third Floor we call these ‘cheque burn agencies’. You really don’t want an agency that will do absolutely anything for you. You should expect to be challenged, and for all the right reasons. For instance, clients often come to us with a strong idea of what they want, when what they actually need turns out to be something completely different. For instance, you might think you need a new website, when in fact your website’s great and it’s just underperforming because people don’t understand your brand.

At Third Floor we’ll never just sit and nod. We’re not afraid to ask questions. We’re going to challenge you because that’s how we’ll arrive at the very best solution.

6. Size matters

The buzz of a big agency and the reality of working with them can be polar opposites. First, there’s a danger of being neglected by an agency with big names on its roster because you’re further down the pecking order. Would the likes of Adidas and Nike get more attention than you? Probably. The really scary thing is that big agencies can be full of people who have very little idea about what they’re doing. Do you want your brief to be handed to an intern cutting their teeth the moment you’ve signed the contract? Probably not. That simply isn’t possible in a small agency, where the process is much more visible.

But equally skip the niche agencies, which can be a bit of a sausage machine. Instead you should be looking for an agency that’s expert in helping you reach your goal, whatever that may be. For instance, if you’re a start-up looking for funding, work with an agency that’s done that before because you’re going to need some help with it. The requirements will be very different to a larger corporation going through a rebrand.

7. Check the credentials

When you look at an agency’s back catalogue you’ll know right away if it’s just spitting out logos. It should be talking about the brand itself and the brand journey. Ask yourself, what have they done? Have they been visionary? If their case studies are a bunch of logos, be wary.

If not, then delve deeper into the case studies and, in particular, look for examples of work that are similar to your requirements. How has the agency approached the brief? Have they been smart about it? Is there a clear rationale? An agency should be able to demonstrate work with good reason and purpose, not just design for the sake of it. Also, look at the team’s blogs and any published articles. An experienced agency should be talking with a level of authority on the industry as a whole, while also being clear on its own approach.

8. Name droppers deserve to be challenged

So many agencies exaggerate. They’ll use big brands to impress when they’ve done very little, or someone in the studio has worked with that brand in a previous job role. So if you find an agency claiming to have worked with some big names then really dig deep to understand exactly what the involvement was. Sometimes it’s the smallest of jobs!

We had a very loose link with a leading supermarket years ago; it was through a client who was doing some print work for them. And we vaguely worked with a global coffee brand too; we put some artwork into a promotion pack. We wouldn’t claim to have worked with them and we wouldn’t even dream of putting those logos on Third Floor’s portfolio. So again, and I can’t stress this enough, probe a little bit. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If the agency is making big bold claims then it’s your right to challenge them.

9. Find a common language

Largely when people walk away from an agency with a positive impression it’s because they understand it and they can see what it would do for their business. Miscommunication and under delivery can cost in the thousands. So my first question would be, do you understand the agency’s process? If your first experience of an agency is full of jargon and waffle, then don’t be afraid to walk away.

10. Find like-minded people

People work with people. So regardless of if you like the style and quality of work, you’ve got to have a good rapport. Once you’ve chosen your agency, you’re going to be spending a lot of time together. Are they the sort of people you want to spend time with?

Want to hear more?

At Third Floor we see it as our responsibility to make sure we get a clear brief, by asking you the questions that all agencies should be asking, before we even begin talking about budgets and deliverables. If you’d like to see a briefing template example, email Hannah at [email protected], or contact us now.