How to Select the Right Design Agency

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 Clutch.co 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. 

One compromise we recommend is to give the agency a budget range. On the low end, choose a number that feels like it would be a good deal, and on the high end give us the most you would be willing to spend. That way the agency can scope and prioritize their recommendations and efforts to provide you with the most value possible while staying within your budget.

Clients may feel this gives the agency the upper hand and that the agency will simply try to get the most amount of money they can for the same project. But good agencies will not try to get more for your money, they will give more for your money—more value—which is what you should be looking for anyway.

Don’t ask for a deal

Speaking of getting more value for your money, you should not expect an agency to give you a deal on pricing. If you need the agency to come down on price, you should expect the scope of deliverables or the value to come down accordingly. A good agency will not come down on price without also reducing the requirements on scope or value in return. If the agency is willing to discount price for nothing in return, it’s typically the sign the the agency needs work and is willing to sacrifice their profit margin to get it. As a client, you should be concerned by this—not excited.  

Understand their process

Every capable design agency should have a defined process. If you ask an agency to describe their process and they don’t immediately launch into a practiced speech, you should run away as fast as you can. 

An agency’s process is the framework they use to ensure their quality of work is consistent for every client. If they don’t have a process in place for this, they have no way to ensure they’ll meet your standards or produce the same quality of work you reviewed in their portfolio.

You should also consider how the agency’s process will impact your required work for the project. The agency will need you to commit your own time for attending meetings, reviewing work, providing feedback, gathering content, and rallying stakeholders. Be realistic about how this will affect your schedule and whether or not that’s going to work for you. You may need to shift your priorities or get help from other members on your team to get the agency what it needs on time. 

Make sure you get along

Throughout the process of interviewing agencies, you should pay attention to how well you gel with each one. You can learn a lot from an agency through this process, and you should expect their behavior throughout this process to reflect how they will work with you after the contract is signed. 

Although it’s not a requirement, we find that the best relationships happen when both teams 'click' pretty quickly and are able to align without much effort. 

Creative work can be extremely fun and rewarding, but at times can be difficult—even uncomfortable—as you explore new and unfamiliar grounds for your organization. You want to be sure to find an agency that will guide you through this uncharted territory with ease and expertise. 

Understand their terms

Most agencies will have standard terms for engagements, but there are different ways these terms can affect the work that you do together. Here are a few important things to consider when reviewing the agency's terms:

  • Payment terms: How much is required up front? How much time do you have to pay invoices? Is it NET 15, NET 30? Can your accounts payable department actually honor this requirement?
  • Licensing and rights: Do you own the work the agency creates for you or are you licensing it back from them? There is no right or wrong, but you should understand this clearly.
  • Cancelling the engagement: What happens if you decide to cancel the project half-way though? Who owns the work that’s been produced? Is there a kill-fee or cancellation fee?

Trust your instinct

After going through the above process, you will need to make a decision on how to move forward. Many times, by following the outline above a clear choice will present itself because you’ve worked out any reservations about moving forward. Congrats, you’re on your way to getting things in motion!

But sometimes, you may have two or more solid options and making the final decision can be difficult, if not paralyzing. At this stage, you need to do your best to remove emotions from the equation and go back to your goals for the project.

Here are a few questions to help you make the final decision:

  • Which agency has the most relevant experience that will help me reach my goals?
  • Which agency asks the most informed questions demonstrating they understand how to help organizations like mine?
  • Which agency’s process is the best fit for an organization like mine?
  • Which agency do I trust most to lead me through the design process?
  • Which agency would be a good fit for future engagements, in addition to my immediate needs?
  • Which agency has the most unique perspective on our goals and how to help us reach them?

Wrapping Up

Finding the right agency for your organization can be challenging, but by following the above recommendations it should hopefully be far less frustrating. Once you have selected an agency to work with, you’ll want to focus your efforts on getting the most value out of your agency. 

Update: Check out Part 2 of this series where we explore how your actions as a client can affect how much value you get out of working with your agency.

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