How to Get The Most Value from Your Design Agency

Over the years, we’ve learned that our ability to produce good work is directly impacted by our client’s actions. Clients who act in certain ways allow their agency to produce better work, while other clients unintentionally do the opposite.

Part 1 of this series, How to Select the Right Design Agency, examines how to find and select the best design agency for your goals. In this article, we’ll focus on how to get the most value possible while working with your agency.

Over the years, we’ve learned that our ability to produce good work is directly impacted by our client’s actions. Clients who act in certain ways allow their agency to produce better work, while other clients unintentionally do the opposite.

With this in mind, here’s our advice on how to get the most value possible while working with your design agency.

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Trust & respect your agency

Mutual trust and respect are a prerequisite for establishing any meaningful relationship. If either is missing in the client-agency relationship, there’s no hope for innovative thinking or creativity. If a client is second guessing their agency's abilities or intentions, the entire relationship is built on a fragile foundation.

You should trust and respect your agency by the time you hire them. After going through the process of talking with multiple agencies, you should feel confident that your choice is the right one. Hopefully, this decision is also accompanied by a sense of relief. If you don’t feel this way, you need to refer back to our first article and try again, or dig into why you don’t feel confident before moving forward.

Be honest

Another key ingredient to any healthy relationship is honesty. Sometimes, clients—and agencies—will try to avoid having frank conversations in an effort to be polite or to avoid hurt feelings. This is not helpful to either party. If at any point in an engagement you feel that something isn’t working well, speak up. A good agency will be grateful that you are giving them the opportunity to course correct before things get worse. You can’t expect an agency to address problems that you have not communicated to them.

Be open minded

One of the most valuable things you can get from working with an outside agency is a fresh, informed perspective. But to reap the benefits of this perspective, you have to come in with an open mind.

You may have a lot of things figured out. You may be savvy and innovative within your space. Maybe you have design and marketing capabilities in-house, and think you have this thing pretty dialed in—and you might.

But if you come in with the mindset that you’ve got it all figured out and you just need help executing your ideas, you’re missing out on the most valuable asset an agency can offer you: outside perspective and expertise.

Especially at the beginning of a new engagement, be open to fresh ideas, different ways of framing the problem, and unique, bold solutions. People pay attention to bold brands and ideas. They remember them and take the time to listen to them. Your customers have too many options to choose from for you to play it safe. They’re looking for remarkable, not mediocre. A good design agency can help you elevate your brand and make you truly stand out—if you are willing to let them.

Push your boundaries

One of our favorite engagements started by a client asking us to create a government website that didn’t feel anything like a government website. What a great way to frame the conversation! It immediately got us excited about an opportunity that could have been traditional and mundane. Throughout the course of our engagement, we kept coming back to this core premise of our strategy, and we produced an award winning brand and website, largely because our clients were willing to do something different and interesting.

Follow their process

Your agency should have a defined and clearly articulated process that they expect you to follow when working together. They should have walked you through this process during your initial conversations, and you should have considered whether or not this process would work for your team.

Following an agency’s process is how you can ensure you’re getting the most value out of them. If you don’t follow their process, you are forfeiting your right to expect the agency to produce the caliber of work that you hired them for. The agency is only able to produce their best work through following their own process.

An example of an agency’s process at a high-level is:

  • The agency sets up weekly check-ins with you where they present new work, go over the project timeline, and discuss upcoming milestones and deliverables from their team and yours.
  • They will share this information with you and any questions they have through a project management tool.
  • They will set a due date for necessary information or feedback.
  • You, the client, will get back to them by the due date (or communicate if it’s not feasible, which should only be an exception, not the norm) with any feedback on their work, or answers to their questions. Your answers should be in the same project management tool and should be thorough and on time.

Following this process gives the agency the information they need, by the time they need it, in the place that they’re expecting it. And all of this ensures that the project stays on schedule, allowing the agency to focus on creating their best work, rather than chasing down the client for the required information.

It’s in your best interest to follow their process—consistently and with enthusiasm. This goes back to trust and respect. Trust that their process is in place for a reason, and that it has helped them complete countless projects over the years successfully.

One point person

You should expect to have a single point of contact to manage day-to-day communications with your agency. Many agencies will require this (we do), but even if they don’t, you'd be smart to integrate this into your plans.

This doesn’t mean that other stakeholders can’t join meetings or have input throughout the project. (At Cosmic, we actually require all stakeholders participate during key points of the engagement to ensure that we’re not excluding important perspectives). But it does mean that you need someone on your team to collate feedback into a clear, consolidated format and manage the internal back-and-forth your team will have.

There’s almost nothing more awkward for an agency to deal with than trying to determine which team member to listen to when there are two contradictory opinions or directives on the client’s side. Help spare the agency of your internal politics or power struggles—it’s energy wasted that could otherwise be applied to their creative thinking.

Provide context, not solutions

A natural inclination when reviewing creative work is to provide design feedback in the form of specific solutions.

“That blue is too light, did you try a darker shade?”

“What if you just moved that section up above the fold?”

Although this feedback may seem clear and valid, this prescriptive design feedback is not helpful to the design agency. What the agency actually needs most is context, not solutions. Focus instead on what is and isn’t working, based on the strategy you’ve outlined at the beginning of the project.

For example:

“This design is hitting our goal of establishing us as a market leader by placing more emphasis on our unique strengths. But I’m concerned that the color scheme doesn’t support that strategy, as it feels too playful for us.”

“This information is really important to convey, and I’m concerned that having it down this low on the page may cause people to miss it.”

This approach allows the agency to understand the problems with their designs and context for what you are trying to achieve with your feedback. Without that context, the agency is left guessing about what you’re trying to solve, and it could create a lot more back and forth than is really necessary. It also communicates a lack of trust to the agency’s ability to do their job, even if that’s not your intention.

Without context, the agency is left guessing about what you’re trying to solve

Pay them. On time.

If you want to continue getting the most value out of your agency, be sure to pay them—on time—for the work that they do. Simple, right?

But for some organizations, especially larger companies that have accounts payable departments, it’s not uncommon for checks to arrive 10, 20, or 60 days past due. Not only does this place a burden on the agency, it just makes your company look unorganized and communicates that you don’t respect the agency enough to pay them on time.

What happens when your power bill is past due? Your energy company stops providing you with power. If more professional service firms took this approach, the industry-wide issue with payment would start to shift.

Your company may have policies in place around payment terms. That’s fine, but it’s your responsibility to address those with your team before agreeing to terms you can’t honor. And if your agency alerts you that a payment is late, walk over to your accounting department and have them promptly cut a check.

Last, but certainly not least: Have fun

Working with a design agency can be extremely rewarding and can fundamentally change the future of your organization. Come in with a good attitude, channel your creative side, and let it be a fun and playful experience. We find that our best work happens when we’re having fun, relaxed conversations with our clients. Keeping it fun cultivates openness and trust, and it allows the agency and the client to motivate each other creatively.

Some of our most business-critical engagements have been made more successful because our clients kept their cool, followed the advice above, and had fun throughout the process.

Now go out, find the right agency for your goals, and elevate your brand.

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