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What an SME should look for in a creative agency

6 minute read

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Having worked at both small and large agencies and studios during my time in the industry, it’s fair to say that like most industries, some companies are good, and some aren’t (to put it nicely). For an SME to pick an agency, especially if the design industry or that type of company isn’t something they work with regularly, it’s hard to know what to look for, and more importantly what’s a red flag. In this article, I’ll be discussing what are (in my opinion) some key things to review when selecting a new agency or studio.

Speed of communication

I’m not saying necessarily get your stopwatch out on sending an email and compare the results, but if it takes more than a couple of days to get a reply to something straight forward, then you’ll want to ask yourself if this is what they are like before you’re even a client, what’s it going to be like during the project. I normally say for myself, a general rule of thumb is if I have to chase a quote or information, the supplier is out of the running for the work. I still get the quote, however, as then you’ve got something to compare. To give them a bit of a chance though, as you may well be contacting them during a busy period, ask when you can expect to see a quote by. This way also highlights that if they miss this self -set deadline, then it potentially shows that they aren’t that good at understanding their own capacity for work, which isn’t particularly appealing.

A healthy filing history

The bottom line is you’re going to be handing over money to a business in order to fulfil a set of requirements and deliver work. You should never pay up front for all the project, but you may get asked to pay a deposit to act as a commitment. This is fine, and my studio asks this, but if the agency falls or goes into liquidation, that money will be gone. Even if you complete the project, if they’ve done your website, you may find yourself in a position where your website suddenly disappears, and you quickly need to find someone else to make another one. Most agencies and studios will be a limited company, and I’d always advise being diligent and looking up their filing history on https://beta.companieshouse.gov.uk. Don’t worry too much about if they haven’t made much money (as we’re all aware of our economy right now) but look for things like if they are late filing, have missed payments, lots of resigned directors. I do this with potential clients and enquires, and in one case I had what seemed like a really interesting project, but looking into the main director, they had had three other similar companies go into liquidation in a short space of time, so I walked away (politely) as it just wasn’t worth the risk of losing a time investment. If everything else checks out and they seem like the right agency, but this doesn’t show great things, don’t just rule them out, be honest and speak with them about it. Lots of agencies have a market they specialise in, and sadly when these markets struggle, the design budget is the first thing to go. I’ve seen this happen, and it wasn’t because that agency was doing anything wrong, it was more just finding the work.

People who do their homework

Before appointing an agency, it’s always a good idea to go for a face to face meeting if possible. While they may ask (and you should want to) give an introduction and background to your business, so they can hear it first hand, if it’s clear they haven’t got a clue what you do up to this point, they’ve simply rocked up to the meeting without preparing. At my last agency, whenever I had a designer or developer going in to a new business meeting, I’d allocate some time for them to read as much as they can about them and their sector, so they can go in armed with some questions. The really good agencies will also either have preexisting knowledge of your industry or show that they’ve read up beforehand. They’ll know how challenging the market is right now, who your competitors are, and what the current landscape of design is. This is all simply research, and good design is always research led. From research we can derive rationale, which means creating something fit for purpose rather than just a pretty picture, especially when it comes to web design and development. The practice of creating a website is more akin to product design than traditional graphic design. In this meeting ask about their design process and see how much of it is research led, especially in the early stages. Before they place one pixel in a design, they should be undertaking research, discovery and inspiration gathering.

Experienced and established staff

As mentioned above, we’d make sure the team going in to the meeting are prepped. Sending them in was important for three reasons. Firstly, it showed the potential client that they would have direct access (albeit managed) to the people that would be working on their project. It also meant we could showcase the skills and experience of the team members. Lastly, it gave the designers and developers a chance to ask questions in the run up to a project starting, so if it then got to a kick-off meeting, we wouldn’t be starting from scratch. While this is a positive if it happens, a good agency will be a busy one, so if they don’t have some of the production team (i.e. designers and developers) in the meeting, you should be asking about who might work on the project, what experience do they have and what their last project was. It’s also a really good idea to ask as a follow up how long have they all been at the company. Agencies always do have a higher than average staff turnaround, but if everyone is new to the company, it can be (but not always) the hallmark of a larger issue with the company that’s causing everyone to leave. Don’t take this and let it make the decision for you, but if it’s neck and neck between two, and one has staff who have been there 3+ years as opposed to less than a year, I’d go for the more established team.

Referrals

At the end of this meeting, or in the subsequent email exchange afterwards, ask for a list of clients you could contact to hear firsthand about what they are like to work with. Obviously, this list is going to be their preferred choice, so you can always just look at their portfolio and start contacting people who have had work done. I’m not a fan of this, as transparency is key to any working relationship, and if everyone is starting out being a bit cloak and dagger, it sets the wrong tone. With the list they give you however, ask what they did/do for each client and when the last larger project was done. Hearing what they are like to work with from someone who doesn’t stand to gain anything from it will clarify your decision either to go with them or to not. When you conduct this, try thinking about first what is important to you in a project (and feel free to use some of the sections in this article) and prepare some questions prior to contacting companies. This way you’ll get specifics, rather than just a “yeah they were ok”, and you’ll also be able to compare responses of the same questions.

Passion and drive

The last thing I’d always say to look for is a bit more qualitative and quantitative, and that is the feeling you get from them. I pride myself on being quite passionate about the work I do, and the projects I work on, and this tends to win me work, but it’s not why I do it. I’m passionate because I love what I do, and this translates into work that I’m proud of and that makes clients happy. I’m not saying I’m perfect, but look for these kind of people. The people that want to work on your project because they want to work on your project, rather than the money the project will bring. These are the people that will stay late to make sure typography is perfect, will make sure you have a meeting if you need one, and always send you work that is above expectation, rather than done within allotted hours.

Overall, as with most of my other articles, this is a guide and if you’re in a position where you either own or have been tasked to be the decision maker of an SME, you’ll have some common sense yourself to see if an agency is a good fit, as that’s what you’re looking for: a fit. While all agencies will have their strengths and weaknesses, it’s about how well they become part of your business and help to achieve your goals.

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With over eight years industry experience, Jon Dodd has worked with a range of clients, from government bodies to luxury brands, in the UK, United States and Australia, to create user-centred, accessible and end-to-end web experiences. Formerly Creative Director at the award winning digital studio Un.titled, he is the owner of a design practice called Alloneword, specialising in user experience, creative direction and digital strategy.

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