APPOINTING & WORKING
WITH A DESIGN AGENCY
18 February, 2016
You have your product. You know, in the main, what you need to have on the packaging. Now, how do you choose and work with a design agency?
This chapter will help you to choose the best design agency for your needs. I’ll give you practical tips on what to look for and how to make sure you choose the right agency to trust with your ‘baby’. After that I’ll tell you how to brief the agency so that you save time and money and then I’ll give some tips on how to motivate them to give you their best possible work.
Choosing the ‘right’ agency is an important decision for your project. Too many people do it on price, and ignore some quite fundamental factors in the long term success of your product. The price you pay up front is a minor part of the overall profits across the lifespan of your product. Getting the design wrong can lead to frustration, a longer lead time, and a sense that all is not quite what it could have been or should be. And who knows how much profit has slipped away because of a less-than-ideal design. Your decision needs to be based on many different factors. Price is important but it’s just one of a myriad of things to consider when meeting and selecting agencies.
Expertise means fewer mistakes and faster turnaround
We live in a world of specialists. Everyone has their niche these days and it’s a good thing because it means you get someone who has ‘been there and done that’, knows the rules and has learnt from their mistakes (on someone else’s dollar!). There’s really no need to work with an agency that isn’t an absolute specialist in what they do.
Think of it in terms of your own medical needs where you go to an obstetrician to have a baby, a chiropractor to fix the trapped nerve in your neck or a dermatologist to discuss that niggling skin condition. The world of marketing has developed in a similar way, with agencies understanding that there’s little demand for generalists in this world anymore.
My strongest advice is to find a design agency that specialises in packaging. Not advertising, brochures or web sites. Just packaging. You’ll have seen, by reading this book, that there are hundreds of things to consider in the packaging process and the designer who did your business cards and letterhead is highly unlikely to understand all of these things. Just because they are a designer, does not mean they know everything about the strategy or practicalities involved in packaging design. Working with a non-specialist will make your journey difficult and ultimately more expensive in terms of redoing packaging and lost sales.
Every Australian capital city has a few packaging design agencies, and with Skype and other meeting technologies, it’s very easy to work with agencies in other cities. It’s far more important that you work with an expert in their field rather than someone down the road or the people who did your business cards.
Desk Research – spend time now, save loads of time later
Start by doing a bit of research into the packaging design agencies that are geographically close to you, then expand your search to agencies further afield.
Have a look at their websites. Put some time aside to trawl through five or six different agency websites. Have a really good look at each one, browsing their work, their ‘about us’ page and getting a general feel for the agency and the people who run it. Do you intrinsically like what they do, do you respond well to their look and the words they use?
Do these companies claim packaging as an area of expertise?
People will happily tell you about their extensive packaging portfolio on the phone, but do they have good examples and a significant number of them on their website? Is packaging a primary focus of their website? If they appear to be generalists, it’s unlikely that they are going to do the best job in any one of their fields.
Do they have good examples of packaging projects on their site?
Have they got a wealth of experience in different sorts of packaging tasks? Have they done work for a range of companies that you may have heard of?
Do they work for other entrepreneurs or exclusively big businesses?
Do they understand the difference between working for a big company and an entrepreneur? The re-assurance of having worked for big household names is good, but they need to understand the difference between an entrepreneur’s mindset (and budget) and that of a large company. A big company focus could well see you out your depth and spending money very quickly. Also, if an agency is dealing with a lot of big, demanding clients, will your work get pushed to the back of the queue?
Are you impressed by the work they’ve done?
Do you think the brands and packaging that they have created stand out amongst similar products? Does their work demonstrate a range of different styles to suit different needs, or do they have a ‘house style’ that they rollout for lots of different brands? You need to make sure they are starting with a blank piece of paper for every brief they get.
You have some power!
Note that your project could be very attractive to the right agency. Entrepreneurs tend to give a longer creative leash to their agencies and agencies love work they are proud to showcase and enter into competitions. There are also nice projects that designers enjoy working on because they inspire and motivate them amongst the drier projects they may be working on for bigger brands. Your projects also tend to go through studios far faster than bigger branded projects as there aren’t so many layers of people to get sign-off within your organisation.
Make a shortlist of three agencies that really stand out to you and give them all a call. Give them a rough outline of what you are trying to do and ask if it’s the sort of project they take on. How did that initial phone call go? Did the person in charge appear competent and knowledgeable? If you have any reservations, go back to the drawing board and re-select. Make sure you aren’t wasting your (or their) precious time by meeting agencies that aren’t suitable from the start.
If budget is a big concern to you, feel free to ask the agencies on the phone if they have a minimum level of engagement. This is the lowest price that they will charge for projects. They may be happy to disclose this amount to you, although they won’t be able to quote you properly without knowing more about your project. If their minimum level of engagement is $20,000 and you think you can only gather together $5,000 or $10,000 for the project, then walk away. Pursuing it and either beating them down or trying to raise more money than you’re comfortable with won’t work in the long run. If there’s any chance that you might get the $20,000 together for the right agency, then go and see them – they might just impress the socks off you.
Preparing to meet so you have the same meeting with everyone
Once you’ve made a shortlist of agencies you are going to meet, either in person or on Skype, you should prepare yourself for your meeting. Present the same material and thoughts to all three agencies so that you can compare apples with apples when making your final decision.
Here’s a list of things you should bring along:
- Your product – or a prototype of your product.
- Any packaging you already have – if you are looking for new graphics for an existing pack format, make sure you have a sample of the existing pack with you.
- Any work you have done on your brand. If you’ve created your own brand pyramid and/or moodboard, bring those along. It’s likely your agency will have their own stab at these, or their own version of something similar, but the work you have done will help them cut to the chase and understand your vision faster.
- Competitor research – from both home and overseas.
- A shelf shot of where your product will be merchandised, a list of stores and/or websites that you will be targeting to sell your product.
- A USB with any images or logos they might need.
- A non-disclosure agreement. You’ve spent a lot of time and effort on your product already and need to start protecting your ideas. No design agency worth its salt will blink an eyelid over signing one of these.
The Meeting – one that draws out information
Create a template that you can use to assess each agency’s suitability and select the one that’s right for you. Having a consistent template helps assess everyone on the same criteria. Don’t sit down and fill it in during meetings, but do look at it before you go in as a reminder to ask all the right questions during the meeting. You could have it with your notes and occasionally glance at it to make sure you’re on track. Once the meeting is finished tick off items and make sure you note any relevant answers while it’s all fresh.
Put whatever is most important to you on that template, here are some ideas:
- Project Management
- Other Capabilities
- Price and Payment Terms
Do you like the people that you meet? Do they seem enthused and interested in your project? Do they ask a lot of questions and seem to understand what you’re trying to do? Do they throw jargon at you? If there are communication problems at this stage, they will grow further down the line. Which staff members will actually work with you on your project and have you been allowed to meet them at this initial meeting? If you haven’t, you should ask to. You don’t need to meet all the designers, but you do need to meet the person who will be your main point of contact throughout the project. You need to know that, although you don’t have a Coca-Cola budget, your project will be treated with respect. If you get the feeling that you’re small potatoes, and that perhaps your project will be low on the totem pole, respectfully disengage from the meeting and search for a new agency.
Project Management – assess their capabilities
This part of the project is as important as the design. Ask if they have rough timelines for similar projects. Do they have a work process that caters to entrepreneurs that they can describe easily for you? (This will show you whether they’re used to working with entrepreneurs or not.) A good agency will have a standard process that is tried and tested and that they go through on every project they do. Ideally, this can be scaled up or down to suit different sized projects. Make sure any process they outline starts with research and strategic work before progressing to design concepts. It’s important that the people working on your design are thoroughly immersed in the project and have seen it from every angle before the design clock starts to tick.
Also ask them how they will be communicating with you, how many meetings will be required? Will you get progress updates and when? How long do they think this project will take to complete?
How do they think this project will end? Will they help you to appoint a packaging manufacturer? Will it end with them giving you the designs and telling you to go source the manufacturer yourself? Or will they offer production management all the way through the process? For you, the production process may be quite daunting so you may need their expertise to guide you through a quite technical process with a huge amount of jargon. If they can’t or won’t offer this, be wary.
Do they offer any ancillary products, for example posters, wobblers and leaflets to go with your packaging? It might be easier and more cost effective to ask them to quote these items along with the packaging. Most packaging agencies offer these services to their clients and will have a good understanding of the roles these pieces need to play.
They probably won’t give you a price during the meeting, but afterwards, when they send you their quote or estimate, here are the things to consider:
How many concepts will they present you with?
You ideally want three different concepts at the first stage. You need to have some choice and be part of the creative process. It’s also a good discipline for the agency to have to look at the challenge in a few different ways. It makes them explore your brand to a much deeper level and can help create those ‘aha’ moments.
Does the quote factor in a round or two of amends?
How extensive can these amends be? You need to make sure that you are able to have an opinion and make some small tweaks within the budget they are giving you. Amends and refinements happen on every job so not quoting them is a warning sign that they may addend them to your final invoice – which may push it beyond your budget.
What is/isn’t included in the quote?
Have a good look at their terms and conditions. Are there lots of things that you’ve learned from this book that will be required in your project but aren’t included in their quote? Feel free to phone them for clarification. Photography is usually not included in the quote, so ask for an indication of what this might cost. They can’t give a hard and fast cost, but they can provide a ball-park figure for you to factor in to your overall budget. Feel free to ask the agency what other costs are likely to occur that aren’t included within this quote.
Proofs, illustration, print-outs, expenses like taxi rides for their staff. Are these things included or are they going to get added to your bill?
What are their payment terms?
How and when do they want to be paid and does this work with your cashflow/budget? Most agencies will want a percentage of the payment up-front and the final instalment as they are sending out artwork. If they want the whole payment before the project starts, warning bells should sound.
Feel free to call the agency and ask them some questions about the quote, to make sure you fully understand what’s in and what’s out and what you might be up for in total.
Some likely costs on your project:
- Design concepts x 3
- Design time
- Meeting and travel time
- Print-out proofs
- Print management
- Production management
Overall you have a budget and the project must fit in with it, but you will need to be realistic. Avoid haggling just to get the price down for the sake of negotiation tactics. If they are a good agency they will have senior designers who aren’t cheap and they won’t have a lot of fat in the quote. There’s no harm in asking what you can do to help bring the cost down. However, they will probably have already costed the job differently to one for a big company and won’t have a lot of margin in there. They already know how much more time consuming large companies are and will have taken a large degree of that out of your price. You need to make sure that the deal is as attractive to them as it is to you if you want them to be motivated to do their best work for you. If you can’t afford their price, ask once if they can reduce it but don’t keep haggling away with them. If they’re in need of work, they may take the lower price, but the residual resentment may result in lower quality work and bad feeling all round. The difference that great packaging design vs so-so design will make to your ultimate end sales will far outweigh any dollars and cents spent now. Show them that you value their input and respect what they do and you will motivate them to provide their very best creative work.
Awarding the work
Once you have had your three meetings and received and digested your quotes, look for the clear leader who blew your socks off. Which team would you love to work with? Or do you need to do some real thinking about who you want to work on your project? Or, are you unhappy with all the agencies? You may need to go back to the drawing board and expand your search to include agencies further afield. Don’t feel that you have to pick one of these three agencies. If none of them stand out then maybe you haven’t met the right people for your project yet.
When you finally do make a decision, give them a call and tell them you are placing the work with them. Be honest and tell them that you saw two or three other agencies but you felt they were the right people for the job. Tell them what stood out for you. However big or small your job is, an agency is always happy and motivated by hearing good things said about them and this will in turn make them keener to excel for you. This conversation will set the tone for the enthusiasm the team has so it’s important to get it right.
During that conversation, ask them what they now need from you to get the ball rolling.
By Gwen Blake