The third, best known, and most widely cited of Clarke’s three laws (penned by British science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke) states, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” When you first experience the transformation of a familiar organization, it can seem like a feat of magic. One day the digital experience is something you’re used to. The next, it’s very different. In the information era, it can feel like technology makes it possible with the press of a magic button.
The truth is, this transition is no magic trick. It’s the result of multiple hours and several months of strategic and creative work by the organization in partnership with a creative agency.
Social impact leaders who are ready to evolve their organization need to understand the nuanced relationship with the agency partner helping them move their mission forward. Like any relationship, you find the most success when everyone’s expectations align.
Let’s take a close look at how to establish a solid relationship with a creative agency, set expectations, and get the best results.
1. Look for a Partner, Not a Vendor
When you’re selecting a creative agency, choose one that you want to work with, rather than one you want to work for you. A working relationship functions best when professionals and experts collaborate. If you think of a creative agency as a vendor that executes your vision, you are missing out on leveraging their experience and expertise. A good creative agency is up to speed on the latest technology, trends, platforms, strategies, and methods in digital strategy, communications, marketing, and expanding awareness in the attention economy.
A creative agency’s knowledge of the digital space is an asset that is less likely to come to the fore if you demote them to vendor status. An agency that functions as an equal partner is free to make expertise and strategy-based suggestions that elevate the work you’re doing together.
2. Seek Collaboration and Commitment
Creating a transformative and mission-propelling impact story, brand, and marketing strategy takes work — and a lot of it. How this works with a creative agency is something that social impact leaders need to understand in order to be successful. Like any professional relationship, a creative partnership works best with mutual commitment.
Since we know our process best, we’ll share that perspective. A typical engagement with Cosmic involves a significant amount of back-and-forth. Our integrated branding process is built on a weekly sprint model that moves projects forward by having multiple aspects of a project happen at the same time. Logo/wordmark design, website strategy and design, overall messaging and website copy are all often being developed in parallel.
These intertwined processes demand cross-organization teamwork. Expect to put in as much work as your creative agency partner — maybe even more — and prepare your team accordingly. The real magic of creating a digital presence that breaks through the noise only happens in a deeply committed collaboration.
3. Assemble Your Team
Consider who on your team is needed for a brand and website project. Is it your entire leadership team? What about your CEO/ED and communications and marketing team(s)? Your social media strategists? Your board? How about your content marketing strategist?
Decide who on your team can provide the best input and will be most impacted by updated branding and messaging. An organizational evolution can have tremendous team benefits, so be sure to include someone on your team who can effectively communicate internally.
Be sure to determine who has input and at what point in the process. Whether your organization operates in a top-down fashion or functions with more of a flat hierarchy, getting input from everyone at each step of the way is inefficient and ineffective. Branding by committee is a surefire way to end up with a muddled and messy result that fails to meet your strategic goals. Find points along the way to get input so that everyone in your organization is heard and respected.
Have a single point person who is empowered to make decisions. Your relationship with your creative partner should be focused through this person. This allows you to have a unified voice. In our experience, this 1:1 approach to the relationship serves you best.
4. Be Ready to be Accountable
Our blueprint approach, component-driven design system, and weekly sprint format keeps projects moving. We deliver new concepts, designs, and revisions every week. Let your team know that they are going to have quick-turn-around feedback deadlines. To get the most out of the relationship, you need to meet your feedback commitments.
We admit that the process can feel overwhelming. But you might be surprised how often our clients have thanked us for holding them to the process. Some have even shifted their internal culture and adopted the sprint format as an ongoing internal structure.
We’ve found that the relationship runs smoothly when everyone understands the benefits of hitting their respective deadlines. Just like any relationship, moving forward with minimal friction is best.
5. Set and Stick to a Limited Timeline
Our sprint process is built to hit a launch date or window. Sometimes there’s a big event or milestone that creates a hard deadline for launch. But that’s not always the case, and we recognize that life happens and sometimes a launch date needs to slide a week or two.
Be cautious of a creative agency that gives timelines of one to two years for a rebrand and/or website update. We’ve had clients who went through this kind of drawn-out process with other agencies. Without exception, they describe the experience as both painful and expensive — and one that didn’t ever deliver results.
In our opinion, these types of transformation projects should have a firm and well-understood deadline. Depending on the scope of the project, the entire process should only take a few months. That’s not to say that it needs to be rushed. As we mentioned above, the choices along the way deserve adequate time to consider. But any project that’s in indecision limbo runs the risk of stalling and never getting over the finish line.
6. Seek a Supportive Guide
Acknowledging that this analogy may get a little corny, it’s not unfair to decide if a relationship is working depending on whether or not your partner is willing to guide you through a process, and if you are willing to be lead.
You are an expert in your cause and theory of change. You’re probably not an expert in digital platforms, Content Management Systems (CMS’s), content marketing strategy, or the tech stacks that form the foundations of websites. To feel comfortable, empowered, and in control of your digital presence and strategy, you might need a little hand-holding.
That’s where a good partner comes in. You should feel confident in asking questions. It’s reasonable to expect training on how to use your shiny new website. How do you upload photos, create new pages, and make changes to existing content? How does your action center or digital media hub work with your digital strategy? How do your new digital assets help you accomplish your goals? You should be able to get as far into the weeds as you like.
Ask up front if there will be training and ongoing support. We use Craft CMS to make it easy to update content, create new pages and articles, and connect with supporters and your community. We use the JAMstack approach to lower your digital carbon footprint and reduce the time and effort needed to maintain your site.
Any creative agency worth building a relationship with should be willing to support you as you get used to something new. We know that change can be scary. That’s why we believe in the power of a little hand-holding in creating a trusting and lasting relationship.
7. Be Willing to Have the Tough Conversations
We think a lot about branding — not just about logos, but about a complete brand experience from digital experiences to user interactions, action centers, community engagement, collateral, swag, and beyond. Along the way we’re often asking some variation of the question, “Who are you today, and who will you be in three, five, or 10 years?”
The truth is, you may not immediately have a solid answer to those questions. We work with a lot of companies and organizations that are in transition. And they don’t always know. That’s OK by us and it should be OK with any creative agency you choose.
Our integrated branding process is often instrumental in helping social impact organizations figure out exactly who they want to be — today and in the future. As we reach decision points along the way, we look at each aspect of the brand to determine if a certain bit of copy, messaging, or visual brand express is “on brand.” Making that determination often requires some organizational soul searching.
As much as you might like a certain color, you need to ask if it’s right for the organization. If so, it’s time to embrace it. If not, out it goes. That’s the nature of hard conversations. You may have to part with a color palette you personally like in order to get one that expresses your brand or a brand voice that helps you stand out in your issue area — in a good way. A quality creative partner is willing to have esoteric brand conversations with you — like how a logo is a container for meaning and how the branding process creates the best possible container.
8. Start With Trust, Build Deeper Trust
We trust that our clients understand their issue area and have expertise in their focus area and approach to doing their work. We also know that trust needs to go both ways in order for a relationship to be healthy. We’re not talking about blind trust. We’re talking about mutual trust between professionals who are experts in their fields.
From this foundation, deeper trust can be fostered as you work with an agency. We find that it doesn’t take long to increase mutual trust. If that’s not your experience, think more closely about the agency you’re working with. You need to know that you have each other’s backs.
Think of it like this: If you go shopping with a new friend and they try on a new ‘look’ they’re thinking of adding to their wardrobe, you have to be honest with them. This goes both ways. If you try on a jacket that doesn’t work with your hair style, your friend should tell you so. Even if you’re disappointed in their comment, your trust is strengthened.
When we propose a design direction and it doesn’t accomplish the strategic goals we’re trying to reach, we want to know. Nothing breaks trust faster than to be told something is great and to find out a month later that it wasn’t liked in the first place. That’s a month lost that could be better spent refining a concept that everyone can get behind.
Be ready to build an honest relationship with your creative partner. The point person should feel like they have the freedom to make suggestions and shoot down ideas without negative repercussions. That trust is core to creating a delightful working relationship.
9. Prepare to Launch
It may seem counterintuitive to be thinking about a launch before the relationship has even begun. However, if you’re working with a clear deadline and sprinting a launch strategy is a must-have.
Think of it like this: If you want to get married and you’re speed dating, you want to talk with people interested in marriage. You want a relationship that you both agree is building to the same moment. It’s critical to align on this core outcome and drive toward it together.
Same goes for starting a relationship between a social impact organization and a creative agency. You need to both be aiming for the day when you present the newly evolved organization to the world and take your relationship with your funders, supporters, and beneficiaries into the next chapter. When you’re picking your creative partner, look for one who thinks through the details but always keeps their eyes on the prize — launch day.
Think in Terms of an Ongoing Relationship
Revealing your transformed organization is the start of something new, rather than the end of a relationship. As your needs change over time, having a good relationship with your creative partner makes it easy to dial the relationship up from simmering to red hot and back down again.
We often work with clients on multiple occasions. Sometimes we jump back into an engagement weeks, months, or years after we launch our first project together. Regardless of frequency, when both parties enter into the relationship with long-term expectations, it’s much easier to jump back in where you leave off and find that collaborative magic again.
Social impact leaders understand the importance of strong relationships in achieving their goals. Knowing what to look for when choosing your creative agency is as important in the digital age as knowing which foundations are likely to fund your work. And while spending hours strategizing, building and launching a new brand, website, action center, and/or digital media hub isn’t created by the click of a magic button, it can be a magical experience when your engagement starts out as a solid relationship.