How to hire a design agency

The less obvious questions you never thought to ask

So, you’re looking to hire a design or digital agency for a project. Maybe you’re an experienced marketing manager or maybe you’re an entrepreneur on your first venture. After considering a few options, you’ve found a service provider with a great portfolio, a solid proposal, and good people at the company. What could go wrong?

🔎 What exactly am I getting?

This sounds like a no-brainer, but too often I’ve seen issues arise from uncommunicated assumptions made by either party involved in a project. This happens when something is so obvious to one party that they don’t even consciously think about it. Incidentally, it’s also something so obscure to the other party that they never thought to ask. As these two parties work together, they may run into a snag.

🤔 Who owns the work?

When you hire a creative person, whether it be a designer, photographer or tech company, it doesn’t mean that you automatically own the work or have exclusive, unlimited rights to it.

📷 Where do you get your images and fonts from?

Image and font copyright infringement are some of the most common issues I’ve seen in the industry. That’s why it’s important to know where your service provider gets its resources from. More specifically, you want to know whether:

✏️ Will a copywriter be involved in the project?

I have never seen a corner cut more often than here. Sometimes it’s a procedural oversight, while other times there’s literally no one on staff to handle the copy. You wouldn’t hire an amateur to design your communication materials, so why would you have an amateur write your communication materials? Because that’s what you’re getting if you don’t hire a copywriter! I’ve seen misspelled “sign up” buttons on live websites that read “sing up.” I’ve seen company names misspelled on their own printed materials.

🙋‍♀️ Who, specifically, is going to work on the project?

When you’re interviewing a design or digital agency, you’re probably meeting with its most senior staff, but they’re not necessarily the ones who will work on your project. In fact, they rarely are. Would you still hire the agency if you knew they had their least experienced staff or interns working on your project? They may do a fantastic job, but wouldn’t you like to know? Ask how many people will be working on your project and who they are. Are they in-house staff or will the work be outsourced? Does the team really seem interested in your business and industry? Ask what the agency is currently working on and how many projects they take on at a time. Try to get a sense of how much of a priority your project will be. You don’t want to work with an agency that takes on too much work and spreads itself thin. Remember, it’s better to have one or two people focused on your project, than five or six people who won’t (or can’t) give it the attention it deserves. This leads me to my next point, which is really just a bit of advice.

⚖️ Weigh out your options

This is more of a question you should ask yourself — Have I considered all of my options? Many people believe that just because they work at a large company, their design agency should be a large company as well. Sometimes it works out perfectly — you get the most senior staff collaborating on your project and all the account support the agency has to offer. If you’re in this situation, that’s awesome! Other times, despite having this big team, the results aren’t so great. Why is that?

At the end of the day, what matters is who’s doing the work, how much they currently have on their plate, and most importantly, how much they care.

💔 What happens if I need to cancel the project?

Ideally, you would have met with the design or digital agency and learned about their approach and process to see if they would be a good fit for your business. However, despite your due diligence, sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Maybe your business needs change, and a project you’ve started working on becomes obsolete. At other times, you may want to cancel because the level of service or quality is not what you had expected or there are incompatible personalities in the mix.

💆‍♀️Keep your emotions in check

It’s easy to get emotionally invested in a project, especially if you’re an entrepreneur and this is your first venture. And you should! Your brand is the face of your company. It can be an important factor in determining the success of your business — your livelihood. Similarly, if you’re a marketing or product manager trying to make your mark in the company, whom you hire can make an impact. Throw in pressing deadlines, important decisions, and emotions could run high when you’re in the thick of things. This could lead to communication breakdowns and an unhappy work environment for everyone involved. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, stop and take a breath. Before you send an angry email, take a step back and think about what you’re really trying to achieve. Communication can be time-consuming, so take the time to do it well. If you’re still not getting what you’ve asked for, try being more direct and clarify what you want, perhaps in person or over the phone. On the flip side, don’t hold back or be afraid to hurt somebody’s feelings. You hired them to do a job, and they probably want to succeed just as much as you do.

🔗 Have a review process and stick to it

Even the best agency with the best intentions can still make mistakes. Make sure you review the work thoroughly before using, even if a small change was made at the last minute. I know it’s tempting to just approve and launch, but that’s how mistakes slip through. It’s not just spelling mistakes — I’ve seen printing issues because no one reviewed a sample, and poorly executed ideas that compromise a brand’s image. I’ve won the business of clients who’ve parted ways with agencies for mistakes like these. Ultimately, this work represents your company, and you have to answer for it. So make sure you implement your own internal review and approval process each time.

🚀 Parting words

You have a lot on the line, and that’s why it’s important to do your due diligence in hiring. Be thorough. Remember, there are no stupid questions. If someone makes you feel like you’re asking a stupid question or is short with you, perhaps it’s not the right fit. Don’t work with someone you don’t feel comfortable with, even if their portfolio is amazing. I’ve had to learn this lesson with people I’ve hired over the years as well. But also keep in mind that just as you are selective with whom you hire, great designers are also selective with the clients or projects they take on. I believe in long-term client relationships, and the key is in collaboration and partnership. Working together is a journey and it should be enjoyable, even in the most demanding of circumstances. If you work together as partners, the outcome will be even more successful for having been influenced by what the designer and client have each brought to the table.

Principal & Creative Director @breakenterto

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