Santa Cruz Tech Beat


How to Select the Right Design Agency

By Eric Ressler
Cosmic, Creative Director

November 7, 2017 — Santa Cruz, CA

Practical steps based on years of experience on the “other side.”

One thing we’ve heard over and over again from our clients is that finding and selecting the right design agency is really hard. Often, they’ve never gone through this process before. Or worse, they’ve hired an agency in the past and things didn’t work out.

It doesn’t have to be such an intense or frustrating process. We’ve worked with everyone from startups to established global brands, and through each of these experiences, we’ve learned what helps and hinders our clients in the agency selection process. Here’s our advice for how to find and select the best agency for your needs, based on years of being on the agency side of this process.

Finding agencies to consider

There are many ways to find agencies, and you may want to try multiple directions by casting a wider net at the beginning. Unless you already have a particular agency in mind, you can start with a general online search for design agencies in your area. Creative directories such as Dribbble, Behance, or are really useful for narrowing your search as they allow you to filter by location, capabilities, and other specific criteria.

If you’re having trouble finding an agency that meets your standards, you may want to reach out to your network to ask for referrals. This approach also lets you find out what the experience was like working with the agency, allowing you to go into the relationship with a bit more trust.

Review their work

When reviewing agencies, the first thing you should look for is examples of past work that meets your standards. This is probably the part that you are most likely to do intuitively, but it’s important enough to mention here. A few things to consider:

  • The work doesn’t need to be exactly what you are looking for, or even within your industry.
  • The work should clearly exhibit the expertise claimed by the agency’s capabilities or service offerings.
  • The work should show a variety of styles and solutions, not a one-size-fits-all approach.
  • Assume the work on their site is the best work you are likely to get. (Don’t expect to hire a C-grade agency and get anything better than C-grade work.)

Don’t RFP, RFM

Many times, more established organizations will launch an RFP (Request for Proposal) process to help “streamline” the agency selection process. I say “streamline” because in our experience, it actually makes the process significantly more difficult for both the client and the agency.

We have an entire article planned to discuss why the RFP process is broken, but for now here are a few reasons why we’d recommend staying away from this approach:

  • The RFP assumes you already know exactly what you need, which in our experience is almost never true.
  • Creating proposals is a lot of work, and you’re asking multiple agencies to work for free for a chance to work with you.
  • Many of the best agencies simply won’t even respond to RFPs, so you’re missing out on opportunities to work with the best in class.

The biggest flaw that we see in most RFPs is that the scope of work is already defined. Sometimes, RFPs will define goals rather than scope, and that’s a much better approach in our opinion. Here’s what we’d recommend instead of sending out an RFP. Send out an RFM (Request for Meeting):

Hi Agency,

We’re Company X, an innovative company in the outdoor recreation market that provides products for hikers and backpackers looking to travel lighter with more convenience. We are trying to improve our brand identity and resonate more with our target audience in order to increase sales next year. Here are some more detailed goals we’d like to work towards with an agency like yours:

  • Goal 1
  • Goal 2
  • Goal 3

We have set aside a budget of between $100-150k for this year, and we’re open to your thoughts on how to best make use of our budget.

Does this sound like something you could help us out with? If so, we’d love to schedule a short introductory call to discuss if working together would be a good fit. 

This approach gives the agency enough information to determine whether or not the opportunity is a good fit, and it provides the opportunity to talk in more detail about the project to see how to best move forward.

Give them your budget (range)

One thing we see all the time is clients playing poker with their budget. A lot of clients come to us and say, “We don’t really have a budget, just tell us how much this project would cost.” The problem with this is that for most creative work there are infinite different ways to approach a project.

Secondly, there’s no point wasting hours on the phone and in meetings with an agency that’s going to come back at double the budget you can afford.

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