How to buy design services

Now, before I start, I want to make it clear. This isn’t a rant. I’m not using this piece to have a go at clients, the system, or any third party who has ever sought to influence how and where work is placed.

Things just are the way they are, and I know that there’s very little that I can do to change them. You just have to accept that received and conventional wisdom is so strong that it’s going to take a revolution of biblical proportions to change things.


The way things are seem so ridiculously senseless that I feel compelled to point them out. We’ve been through so many of these processes that we’re in a really good place to point out what works; what doesn’t, and how you could save a whole lot of time and money in finding out which is the right agency for you.

The prevailing mindset (what we see most commonly):

  • A brief which defines a problem in marketing terms only. (With no explanation of how this will link to the business in a wider commercial sense).
  • Sent to as many as five agencies. (Sometimes more – I remember one where we were one of seven. We didn’t participate).
  • No leadership or discrimination in the buying process. Reaching out to a long list of agencies, usually though the ‘info@’ contact point from the website.
  • Self-diagnosis of the problem and what’s required in terms of deliverables to fix the marketing problem.
  • A request for pitch creative. (Which betrays an inexperience, especially if the task is in any way brand related).
  • A pitch date which averages out at around 2 weeks from first contact.
  • No budget outlined. (So we’re asked to take a blind punt on an opportunity with no idea of what the potential pay day would look like, if we’re selected).

This is all in addition to what is just a huge effort all round. Primarily from the agency. (I think the accepted figure is a £10K average investment in a pitch). But it also affects the client too. A five-way pitch will take at least two whole days out of a client’s schedule, since you can’t really see more than three agency responses in a day, it slides into two. Multiply that by the number of client side stakeholders who are along for the ride and it all mounts up. I’ve lost count of the times we cheerfully trot into a pitch presentation at a potential client’s office only to be met by a group of weary, disheveled, hollowed-out individuals. They’ve already sat through two presentations and, honestly, they look like they’d rather commit harikari than sit through a third.

So, we see the pitch as the wrong answer to the right question – how do I pick the agency that’s right for me? They’re skin deep beauty contests that don’t serve either party well. I mean, how can you even begin to address some of the deep, seemingly intractable brand challenges a complex organisation faces with a two-page brief and 10 working days to solve it? You can’t. It takes longer. It takes effort and rigour and candour on both sides which builds over time to a solid relationship rooted in trust, professionalism and mutual respect. Yes, I might sound a touch idealistic and I realise not every agency appointment requires such a noble approach, but I believe it’s worth trying to do things the right way, regardless of the size of the task or budget.

So, how would we do it?

  1. Well. First things first. Keep it simple and logical.
  2. Frame what you think your problem is, but be prepared to be challenged. How does it ladder up to a wider business challenge? It’ll never just sit in isolation. Is it a brand challenge, or is it just design execution? Do you need a campaign or a brand evolved or even a new one created?
  3. Create a small lead team who have the power to say ‘yes’ as well as ‘no’. This is crucial. They must be the ones who make the final decision about who to appoint.
  4. Look around and ask for recommendations from your network. Go to an agency body (e.g. The DBA) and research the agency capabilities. You need to be quite disciplined and discerning here so some measure of experience is important. If you’ve never purchased creative services before, how do you know what you’re looking for and how can you tell one agency’s core skill set versus another? Beware the Jack of all Trades! You need to be clear on the difference between generalists and specialists.
  5. Work on a shortlist. Three is enough. Send them the brief. (Include expected budget and timings). Be clear about what it is you want to see from them.
  6. Ask to go and visit them. Don’t let them come to you. You can learn loads about a firm, its people and its philosophy by visiting their premises. Remember you’re trying to find the best fit for you and your own organisation. Meet the people. Ask them about their experience. Get a feeling for their capability for the task. Don’t devolve it to a tick list or a junior. This is the most important bit: The Chemistry. Ask to talk to their clients. Hear what they have to say.
  7. Pick the one that’s best suited to you. Set out a straightforward engagement with them. Most agencies don’t mind backing themselves when it’s a 1:1 scenario and they’re not being played off against one and other. You’ve met. You’re comfortable there’s a fit and this is the first step in the relationship. At this stage it’s a big blank page and the possibilities are endless! Remember to reserve the right to change your mind early in the process. But trust the process, your gut and them!
  8. Enjoy it. This should be fun too.

You will be thanked by the agency – who should be smart enough to realise they’re working with someone who knows what they’re doing – and you’ll get the best work out of them. They’re hugely motivated by the fact you’ve chosen them because of their proven capability in your area of need and not through some meaningless beauty contest.

It works for both client and agency. Saves time, money and a ton of emotional turbulence.

So if you think this sounds like a sensible plan for hiring a branding consultancy, give us a ring. We can figure out if we’re right for each other over a cup of coffee and a chat.