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How to get the best from a creative agency

6 Mins

In the course of my career, I’ve worked with dozens of creative agencies ranging from “boutique” design consultancies to top ten global advertising agencies, but my experience is that the same principles apply to all if you want to get the best from them.

Set clear objectives

If you don’t know what you want to achieve, you can’t expect an agency to know either. Before you pick up the phone, you need to be clear what success will look like and how you are going to measure it. 

For example, if you are developing an advertising campaign, you need to define who you want to talk to, what messages you want to get across and exactly what you want your audience to do as a result.

Hold a beauty parade

Even if you’ve worked with someone before, or the managing director is a friend of your neighbours’ aunt, it’s always worth meeting several agencies before deciding which one is right for you. 

Pull together a shortlist of three to five that meet your criteria (eg relevant sector experience, location, quality of work, etc) and then set up a preliminary meeting with them. 

This is an opportunity for them to sell their agency to you, and I recommend holding it at their offices rather than yours, so that you can get a feel for the culture and what resources they have – ask for a tour. This is also the time to give them an overview of what you are looking for and how much you want to spend.

Write a brief

The operative word here is “write” – don’t rely on a verbal brief that is open to subsequent misinterpretation and memory lapses. 

In it, you need to provide an overview of your company, your customers and the market you operate in, the objectives for the project and what you want the agency to do (but try to avoid telling them how to do it, that’s what you’re hiring them for), what your budget is and timescales.

You should then schedule a meeting with the agency or agencies that impressed you in the beauty parade and talk them through the brief in person, this time at your offices.

Ask them to respond with a written proposal outlining how they will approach the project, who will work on it (if these aren’t the same people who were at the original meeting this should set alarm bells ringing), how long it will take and how much it is going to cost. Only when you are happy with this should you hire them. 

Finally, most agencies have standard terms and conditions, make sure you read them, in particular the sections relating to IP and who owns what.

Have regular progress meetings

Agencies are often wary of sharing work in progress with clients for fear that they will mistake it for the finished article. 

This is a risk, but it’s far worse to arrive at the great unveiling only to discover that you hate the creative and the launch date for your new product is now in jeopardy.

Encourage your chosen agency to show you the work as it evolves, even if it’s rough (these are known as tissue paper meetings in the trade), that way you can intervene early if things are going off track. But remember you will need to use your imagination –many a scribble on the back of a napkin has gone on to be an award-winning campaign.

Keep an open mind

When you write the brief, you will often have an idea of what the end result will look like. 

However, if your agency is any good, the chances are that they will come back with something different, and ultimately (although there may be a few false starts along the way) better. 

This is why you are paying them for – if you want someone who will simply execute your ideas, don’t hire a creative agency, hire a freelance designer. 

When you’re judging creative, stay focused on the message: does it communicate what needs to be communicated in a way that is compelling for your audience? The best way to find this out is usually to ask them.

Explain yourself

One of the most frustrating things for an agency is when a client says they don’t like something but can’t explain why. 

If you’re giving feedback, you must be able to articulate the thinking behind it, otherwise it will be impossible for them to address your concerns.

And finally:

Have fun!

Many of the highlights of my career have involved working with good creative agencies. Get it right and you will find the same. 

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