So, you've decided to work with an agency. Here's your primer for success.
Hiring an agency to handle your branding and marketing efforts can be a huge win for your business. You get specialized, high-level expertise; don’t have to tackle the work yourself; and often, it’s more cost effective than hiring an in-house team. But it’s not as simple as saying to your account manager, “Okay, here are the keys. Drive our program for us.” That almost guarantees you’ll either end up stalled in the parking lot, or worse, completely lost. For any outsourced marketing investment to pay off, you’ll need to be more like, “Here’s where we’ve been. Here’s where we want to go. Let’s look at the map together and figure out a plan.”
As a seasoned team of creative professionals, Bolder has had its share of stellar client experiences as well as some that fell short. In all situations, once a project is complete, we do an AAR—an After Action Review—where we can discuss as a team what worked, what didn’t, and what changes we want to make going forward, always fine-tuning our approach.
And wouldn’t you know it? Consistently, the aspects that characterize our most successful projects (things like clear expectations and open communications) are the same ones whose absence often cause frustration for both us and our clients.
So, we might have gotten a little misty-eyed with gratitude when, at a recent re-branding kickoff, a new client asked us, “What can we do on our side to make this process run smoothly?” The discussion that followed prompted us to put together our thoughts. (For the record, if you’re asking that question, you’re already well on your way to having a great experience with your agency.)
Here’s a rundown of what we’ve learned over the last 20+ years—things that may not otherwise be obvious for those entering (or reevaluating) their agency-client relationship.
1. SPEND TIME THINKING ABOUT YOUR BRAND.
We give every client a questionnaire to help jumpstart or refine their thinking about their brand’s true essence and place in the market. It’s not multiple choice, and one-word answers won’t cut it. The questions require you to find a quiet place and really think about your answers. The more you do, the deeper and richer your responses will be, and the truer our creative work will be to your vision.
We don’t expect you to have definitive answers. Instead, we will comb through all your responses to tease out the themes and nuances in your thinking. That’s what gets translated into your overarching brand strategy.
2. DIVE IN HEADFIRST.
We love working with clients that are excited to be an active partner in what’s ahead.
Surprisingly, that’s not always the situation. In fact, there have been times when we've wondered if we were more invested in producing a strong brand for our client than they were. Even if it’s just a perception, when we struggle to get adequate background information and source material, timely answers to questions, or clear and constructive feedback, it seriously hampers our creative momentum, which in turn, makes it difficult to produce the highest quality work.
Our account managers are masters of communication, letting you know exactly what we need and when we need it. All you need to do is follow their lead and respond, even if it’s just to report back that you don’t have what we’re after. That way we can figure out a plan B.
3. TIMING REALLY IS EVERYTHING.
This one goes hand-in-hand with #2. Please know, we totally get it. You’re trying to run a business and have so many plates spinning, you’ve barely got time to sneeze. And…we still need timely responses and feedback.
Remember that creative momentum we just talked about? Nothing kills it faster than letting days or even weeks pass before responding.
In some ways, an agency in like an assembly line. Work is always moving forward. If one project timeline gets clogged because we don’t have what we need, we have to move on to the next project. And unfortunately, restarting, isn’t as simple as flipping a switch.
4. TELL US WHAT YOU WANT WHAT YOU REALLY, REALLY WANT.
Most of the time, a client has a sense but not a clear idea of what they’re looking for in terms of a new logo, visual style, and voice. In a few cases, we’ve worked with clients that, it turned out, were pretty set it in what they were looking for; they just hadn’t shared it upfront.
We’ll ask questions about your competitors and other brands you admire to tease out what your brand’s general aesthetic should be, but if you already know—maybe you even have a back-of-the-napkin sketch—share it with us! It doesn’t mean that’s the only direction we’ll pursue. If we think there’s an alternative worth considering, we’ll present that, as well.
5. DECIDE WHO DECIDES.
Before kicking off a project with your agency, build your internal team. Even if it’s a team of you, yourself, and you, it’s important to know who should be involved in the process, who is empowered to provide feedback, and who makes final decisions.
To that end, carefully consider who you invite to participate. Team members should understand and share your vision upfront. They should be just as excited about where you’re going as you and your agency are.
Does that include your President/CEO? Should they automatically be part of the review team? The clear answer is…maybe? While sometimes that decision is out of your hands, you should try to hold any leadership participants to the same standards highlighted above.
And once you have a direction you feel good about, it’s ok to share designs and allow feedback. It’s just that input from those who haven’t been participating in the process should carry substantially less weight than those who have.
And let’s not forget, it's important to set up a process. Ideally, one that resembles this:
• Gather all background content and source materials for project kickoff.
• Be available and responsive to questions from your creative team.
• Work with your account manager to develop a schedule for creative presentations, feedback, next round presentations, final approval—and stick to it.
If there is a particular deadline requirement, i.e. board meeting or an upcoming tradeshow, have your account manager work backwards from that date.
6. TRUST YOUR GUT. DON'T TRUST YOUR GUT.
Yeah, you read that right. It may seem self-serving, but here’s our take on when you’re seeing first-round identity/logo concepts:
- If you see something that’s love at first sight, it’s probably the right choice.
- If you don’t see anything you like, sleep on it. Give it a thoughtful second look the next day.
Here’s why. While there’s inherently some subjectivity to brand development, evaluating concepts shouldn’t be a “beauty contest”. Successful identity work is born from solid strategy, and there are very good reasons for why your designer made the choices they did.* In fact, you should ask them about it. Often, hearing what informed a concept’s creation gives our clients that “Ah, now I get it” feeling.
By contrast, if a logo design generates a clear and overwhelmingly positive emotion, it’s tapping something deep and meaningful about your brand’s essence as it lives in your heart and mind. That can be powerfully persuasive, especially when you’re trying to reach potential customers.
Look. What this all boils down to is that your agency relationship is just like any other human relationship. You both need to be invested in making it work. Ground rules, as expressed through a clear expectations and solid process, are a major help. Good communication and honest dialogue will always be at the heart of it all. These are the same standards to which we hold ourselves as an agency, as individual professionals. We wouldn’t ask anything of our clients that we wouldn’t require of our own team!
Does Bolder sound like a good fit for your business? We’d love to hear from you!
*This is why, if you care about your brand, and your budget is more than $99, you should avoid trusting your identity to online logo generating sites. Their designers may be skilled, but creative work that isn’t informed by larger context or strategy will never be the strongest option.