Does Your Creative Agency Care Enough About You?

by Charlie Van Vechten

What do you really want from a creative agency?
The truthful answer to that question has a lot to do with the future effectiveness of your marketing materials.

Let me explain. It has been my experience over the past 20 years, that when many clients first engage with us, they are focused primarily on getting a single job done: be it a website, brochure, or other brand awareness project. Often an external deadline is fast approaching (in the form of a trade show, a product launch, or a new corporate initiative), and there are certain marketing elements that need to be created, updated, or revised.

Clients have a timeline to meet, and while they certainly say they want the best, the emphasis is on meeting the deadline and sticking to some existing idea about how it should look or feel, not on taking full advantage of all the design firm has to offer. They miss tapping into the insight and expertise that is available – which might have taken the project, and their brand, to a different level – and instead end up with a result that simply meets their initial objectives: to be delivered on time with the original concept intact. There are no game-changing points of view, no earth-shaking concepts, not even a jump-off-the-page layout… just clean, conventional design, delivered in a flash. In general, there is nothing wrong with that, but as professional designers, we know that truly effective design requires much more effort.

So, how do you, the client, go from getting only what you asked for to getting what you truly deserve? A good first step is to bring the designer to the table much earlier in the process. Oftentimes, clients come to us when many strategic and creative decisions have already been determined. I challenge clients to bring us into the mix much earlier – preferably as soon as an idea has been sparked. That way, we can use our training in strategy and analysis to better craft your goals and supply plans to best meet your objectives.

Bringing on the designer late in the process means that important decisions have already happened. The client feels ownership and may push back when the designer questions those ideas – and then the most common reaction is to acquiesce to the client in order to not ruffle any feathers. Too many creative companies are afraid to tell you what they really think. Instead, they are content to listen to your comments and give you exactly what you are asking for, rather than what you actually need.

Why? Because caring isn’t always easy. If you aren’t willing to see things in the same light as your client – or at least go along for the ride – there’s a good chance you’ll watch that account walk out the door. Caring about a client’s success sometimes means being brave enough to tell them what they need, and not just giving them what they want. Eventually this honesty leads to trust, and ultimately… Results.

Caring can also be an expensive habit. It is also much easier and profitable to just give clients what they are asking for. Most creative firms are paid by the project, with a certain number of edits and revisions included in the bid. Removing the research or discovery process from the equation greatly cuts the amount of creative time a firm needs to spend on a project. But really, that goes against everything a professional designer and brand strategist stands for. It is our duty as designers to question everything in order to bring about the most successful solutions – and often that means helping our clients to see something in a different way.

Does that mean there isn’t any way to get great work quickly?

There is, of course, but it means choosing the right partner. As an owner and creative director, I consider speaking my mind to be part of the job description. Going along with anything and everything to collect a fee is easy; the tougher road is to have long, frank discussions about what you are trying to accomplish in the real world and the best way to meet those goals.

In my agency, this means following a strict creative process that guides us through research, analysis, data, and then, and only then, leads to concepts and executions. It is the responsibility of a creative team to fully understand our clients and their clients. Rather than cashing your check and just agreeing with whatever you put forward, having the strength and conviction to point out weaknesses and new possibilities often leads to the best solutions.

Why bring any of this up? Because the marketplace is flooded with badly-conceived designs and marketing agendas. At a time when so many businesses are struggling, there’s no more room for creative partners who work like “yes men” (and women) with Photoshop skills. Clients need to start expecting results – and expecting their design teams to stand up for their own experience and be willing to give honest input.

Marketing, in all its forms, is too important to be rushed through. As much as it might hurt to ask a client to stop in order to go back to the drawing board, it’s something a design company absolutely should do if they care about your profitability, not to mention the future of the relationship.

If you really want your marketing materials to sing – if you’re looking for the kind of creative team that moves people and sales figures – then find a creative partner who’s willing to see beyond your initial deadline and creative ideas. It’s never easy to have your ideas challenged, but it is a whole lot more profitable.