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10 Golden Rules for Getting Great Work From a Design Agency

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Partnering, open communication, collaboration and celebrating success... sounds like advice for any perfect relationship.

Well, it is. Only, in this case, that relationship is with your design agency.

Building and maintaining a trusting relationship with your agency is key to project success. Many relationships with agencies fail because clients treat them like vendors instead of partners. They don't value agency advice when they really need to get a fresh perspective in solving a communication challenge.

You can learn that lesson the hard way—becoming battle scarred in the skirmishes with your design agency. Or you can follow these 10 golden rules—and find great teamwork and stronger results in the end.

To get great work from your design agency...


1. Build mutual respect

Treat your agency like a partner and value its perspective. Sometimes, you are so close to the project that you can't see how your own customers perceive it. Work as a team; it will make everyone's life more pleasant. Similar to any long-term relationship, it takes a lot of hard work and clear communication to make a strong relationship.

2. Define your goals

Brief the agency with the key players on both teams. Hopefully, this meeting takes place in the same room or (second best) over the telephone. Start with a communications/design brief and make sure that everyone agrees with the objective for the project.

Sometimes, the smaller projects seem like they don't need this type of communication. Those are usually the projects that get derailed, because not as much thought is put into the project up front and people have not agreed about direction. Even a shortened version of a brief is very helpful

3. Set the brand parameters

Set the brand and creative parameters up front. Does this project need to fit within strict guidelines, or is this an opportunity for the agency to explore creative ideas? Make sure everyone on your team, including your brand identity partner, agrees with your direction, and clarify the parameters.

Many times, work is reviewed that is totally off brand. And it is not always the fault of the agency; it may have gone astray due to the direction it was given by the client. However, there will always be folks on both sides who don't understand the importance of consistent branding.

4. Define the background details

Give the agency as much background detail as possible on the project, and clearly define what you are trying to accomplish.

It is incredibly helpful for the agency team to understand the thought process behind the assignment. It will also give them an opportunity to ask questions, make sure they understand the scope of the work, and clarify the timeline and budget range.

5. Give a budget range; it can be a big timesaver

Share the budget information with the agency when you can. If the people at the agency know the project is, say, $50-75K versus $200-250K, it will make a big difference in what they propose to you. Otherwise, they could come back with a $300K design that you would never be able to afford.

People get excited about an idea or a design, and it is really hard to pull back and say you can't move forward due to budget issues. Trust me: if you are in this relationship with your agency partners for the long term, it is an incredible timesaver if you have this discussion up front.

I wouldn't suggest this approach in the case of a new agency that you aren't familiar with, but for strategic agency partners it shows a sense of trust that will be much appreciated.

6. If your budget is tight, be flexible

If you haven't had a budget discussion and the proposal you receive exceeds your funds, give the agency a chance to rework it now that it has more information to go on.

If you liked what it proposed and other work that it has done, have a discussion together to see if there are things you can streamline—or if you can start with the basics and add on to the project later when more funds are available.

7. Build a two-way relationship

Go the extra mile to establish a collaborative relationship in which you work together with the agency to solve challenges. Ensure that there is open, two-way communication and, when necessary, help the agency understand the politics involved in a situation.

Also, support the agency whenever possible when problems arise, and be available to help work out the issues. When push comes to shove, if you have a strong relationship with the agency team, they will bend over backwards to get work done for you even within an impossible timeframe.

8. Focus on the positive; it will pay off

When doing a creative review, include all the key decision makers. Always start with positive feedback, even if you have to work to come up with something constructive. It sets the tone for the meeting, and it is much easier for people to handle constructively critical feedback if they feel that you liked at least part of their design.

Never give creative feedback over email unless absolutely necessary; it is easy to misinterpret directions. And you lose the give and take of a discussion that would further the design thought process for both sides.

It is extremely important to understand why the design team decided on one creative direction versus another. Definitely have someone take notes and follow up with the changes you agreed to. But making the process interactive ensures the project will go much more smoothly.

9. Problem-solve together

It is also critical to engage in collaborative problem solving with your agency team. If there are issues, you need to put them on the table and work them through as a team. Don't try to determine your own solution without the agency's input, and don't decide that the only solution is to never use them again.

You can invest a whole lot of energy into starting over again with another agency. Getting them to understand your company's brand and how to work with your team can take six months to a year.

Most of the time, you can work through the issues with your current agency and come up with a stronger solution and better relationship moving forward.

10. Regularly conduct project postmortems

After each project, a review—even if short and simple—can be extremely helpful. It helps to identify issues and make sure that you don't make the same mistakes twice. Set up an agency review/scorecard once or twice a year where both the agency and the client review the projects that have been completed. Doing so gives you the opportunity to discuss what went well, what didn't go so well and areas for improvement on both sides. When the meeting is completed, the door will have been opened for making changes on both sides that make for a stronger overall relationship.

Also, celebrate your successes together. A note to the whole team saying how much you appreciate their hard work goes a long way. If budget allows, pull together a dinner/event including many of the folks you don't encounter on a day-to-day basis. Such an event has an incredible positive effect and creates a strong sense of teamwork.

* * *

Sometimes, you spend more time on a daily basis with your agency partners than with your own family. Invest in a great relationship, and you can accomplish some excellent work and make some awesome friends in the process.


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Mary Enderle is a brand identity/Web design consultant for Enderle Group, a technology advisory firm.

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