How to Work With a Design Agency
Over the last four years, Here’s My Chance (HMC) has worked with nonprofits of all shapes and sizes on a variety of projects. From gala videos to full rebrands, we’ve used compelling designs to help our clients achieve many goals. Along the way, we’ve learned a thing or two—small things like fuchsia is not everyone’s favorite color, and big things like what works and doesn’t work in navigating the agency-client relationship.
Before you can reap the benefits of an agency partnership, you have to make the big decision to bring in an agency. How do you know you’re ready? When is the right time? While every organization is different, we’ve found that there are a few universal reasons to start the agency search.
First, when you look around the room and realize no one has the skills to produce what you need, it’s time to call in the big guns. In the long run, it’s better to work with an agency of experts than to have an intern try to learn how to build a website. (We’ve all been there—and it’s not pretty.)
It’s also great to partner with an agency when there’s a leadership change at your organization. New leadership often brings fresh energy, and an agency can match that energy and help move the organization to new heights. Sometimes, it doesn’t take an organizational shift like this for an agency partnership, but the launch of an innovative program can be cause to seek out agency guidance.
Overall, when making the decision to hire an agency, it’s important to look at the task at hand and ask yourself, “Will an outside voice and creative thinking help make this successful?” If the answer is “yes,” it’s time to start the agency search.
Selecting a Partner
While budget, project scope and experience are all important factors when selecting an agency, the most important thing to look for in a partner is compatibility. We don’t mean to sound like eHarmony, but compatibility really is the most important thing in selecting an agency partner.
Throughout the project, you will be providing feedback and going through multiple rounds of revisions. For these discussions to be successful, you need to be open and honest, and if necessary, feel comfortable saying, “I don’t like this.” That’s why it’s absolutely necessary that you find an agency team that puts you at ease during this dialogue.
Annette Duranso, president and CEO of Philadelphia-based Valley Youth House, nicely summed up the benefits of this type of relationship. “Here’s My Chance staff have been incredibly open and receptive to all of our feedback. We came to HMC because we don’t have the internal expertise to undertake the project ourselves, and their staff has been patient in explaining the process and their reasoning without technical terms,” she said. “Our team has felt very comfortable giving feedback and it is clear that HMC is committed to ensuring that we love, not just like, the final product.”
In addition to compatibility, you want to hire an expert—an agency that knows what it’s doing, has a track record of success and can offer opinions based on experience. What you don’t want, however, is an agency that offers those opinions in a condescending tone or uses its expertise to sell you a boatload of services you don’t need. You’re looking for a partnership, not a hierarchy.
And remember, no project proposal is ever final. At HMC, all of our proposals offer our best recommendations, but we always encourage clients to provide feedback before signing off or moving on. If the agency missed something in its response to your request for proposal, let them know and they’ll add it. If their pricing doesn’t match your expectations, talk to them and they’ll work with you in the best way they can. The proposal process is a great way to get a glimpse at how an agency uses its expertise, how well it listens to you and your needs, and how flexible it is. Use it as a sort of test run.
HMC has been fortunate enough to experience the full breadth of a great agency- client relationship (attending events, sitting on boards, volunteering, collaborating on more than just contracted work, etc.), and we just want to share the love. Sure, it takes work from both parties and requires honest communication, but what strong relationship doesn’t? By keeping these tips in mind when selecting and working with an agency, your partnership will bring your organization great results. And that’s exactly what everyone wants.
Five Tips for a Successful Agency Partnership
Once you’ve engaged with an agency, it takes effort on both sides to make it a successful partnership. Here are five tips for making it work:
1. Start With Why
At HMC, we’re big believers in Simon Sinek’s philosophy of starting with “why?” When nonprofits come to us asking for a product (an infographic, for example) we always ask them, “why?” We do this because we don’t want to start with the product; we want to start with the need. We don’t just want to make something pretty—we want to make something useful.
When asking” why?” we often uncover other, more appropriate solutions. So, when you begin your partnership, don’t focus on what you think you want the agency to deliver—focus on why you hired the agency. That’s where you’ll make the most relevant discoveries.
2. Be Open to Change
Once you understand your why, you’ll have some ideas on what you need to support it. Our advice? Keep an open mind and be receptive to change. Any good agency will do its research, which may uncover other avenues and insights you hadn’t previously thought about.
Maybe you came in thinking you needed a new logo, but agency research shows the market knows your logo—just not what you do. Those results are going to change the project scope. Remember, you brought the agency in for exactly this reason: to bring a new, expert perspective. Use it, trust it and see where it may take you.
“Both client and agency should have a clear, mutual understanding of the project needs before any work begins,” said Julianne Mesaric, director of annual fund and special events for Gesu School, Philadelphia. “As a client, once you communicate these needs, sit back and remain open to the creative vision of the agency.”
3. Always Tell the Truth
We know, we know—we sound like nagging parents. But seriously. If you walk away with nothing else, at least leave with this: Agencies always want to know how you really feel. This isn’t a trick. This is gospel. We want to hear everything—feedback on our work, changes in timeline or budget, internal struggles that are a barrier to success, etc. Lay it on us.
We want the truth and we can handle the truth. Our goal is to provide you what you need, when you need it, so let us know if we need to wrap things up quicker or if you don’t like the lime green we used. We would much rather give you what you want than leave you with something you only kind of like. We’re genuinely not happy unless you are.
“Remember that you’re all on the same team,” said Cassandra M. Bailey, president and CEO of Slice Communications, Philadelphia. “Give feedback openly and often. Gather all edits from every stakeholder before sharing with the agency to increase efficiency.”
4. Follow the Leader
In an agency-client relationship, there are two leaders: your internal leader and the agency. While internally there may be multiple levels of directorship, it’s important to identify your key decision-maker on agency projects. This helps alleviate any internal conflict, provides the agency with a go-to person, and makes the process run a lot more smoothly.
As for the agency leader, we simply mean that the agency is leading you through this process and, as the experts, should be trusted. Every board has someone who “works in marketing” (you know who we’re talking about), but you didn’t hire them—you hired the agency. Trust the agency.
5. Keep It Going
When you build a positive relationship, don’t be afraid to keep it going. You may have only hired an agency to do one project, but continuing to stay in touch can lead to opportunities you never saw coming. At HMC, we love it when clients tell us about upcoming events or new programs, because it can lead to possibilities our clients may have never thought about. We get excited. They get excited. It’s a whole thing.
There’s always an opportunity for further creative collaboration, so don’t be afraid to stay in touch.
Elliot Cowan is creative director for Here's My Chance, a creative agency based in Philadelphia. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.