Choosing The Right Creative Agency For You

5 lessons learned from Expand’s team of former in-house creatives.

With decades of in-house experience prior to founding Expand, we know what it’s like to need outside assistance at times. Maybe your internal resources are already at capacity, or your team doesn’t have the specialized experience for a particular project. Before an agency can close the gap for you, there’s another challenge to overcome: how to choose the right creative agency for you in the first place. Here are five tips for picking a creative agency, based on what we’ve learned firsthand while working client side in the past.

1. Align internally first

“We’ll know it when we see it,” said an in-house exec, about the right direction for a rebrand project years ago. He wanted to leave it all up to the recently hired agency. 

Unfortunately, as Expand Co-Founder Nelson Holland experienced on this project during her in-house days, passing the buck to the agency sets no one up for success. In fact, it’s common for projects like this to eventually come back in house for fixing, sometimes far downstream and at great additional expense to the client. 

No amount of external expertise can completely replace internal alignment on your team’s priorities. As Nelson puts it, “How can outside help get things just right, when the client’s stakeholders aren’t on the same page about what ‘right’ is?” The more uncertain you are about what the right direction is when starting a project, the more important it is to choose an agency partner that can help you land on the right target. 

“Internal alignment is critical, but it’s understandable when clients aren’t sure early on what they need exactly,” says Nelson. “At Expand, we ask key questions during discovery to identify what a client’s current situation is and where they want to wind up. These quick workshops speed things up by minimizing assumptions and miscommunications that lead to extra work.” Plus, this internal alignment leads to more focused and inspired work from the agency. It’s all about better input leading to better output, which is better for everyone.

2. Decide what services you need

Once you’re internally aligned, you can turn those clear expectations and use them to inform your RFP. That request for proposal is, in essence, a checklist of what you need from a potential partner. Rushing through identifying what exact services you need can only make things harder and costlier down the line. After all, when deciding how to choose your creative agency, your goals and priorities help determine the services you need.

Keep in mind that bigger size doesn’t always mean expertise. An agency can be large and yet mainly supported by masses of generalists. One of the perks of knowing upfront what services you need is being able to consider shops with the specialization required, even if they don’t have a giant office.

3. Pick an agency that works your way

Awards are nice, but complimentary hardware doesn’t beat complementary approaches and workflows. When evaluating a potential agency partner, ask yourself if their philosophy matches yours. Will they seamlessly plug into your existing workflow, or will you have to bend to theirs? Another thing to consider is how collaborative an agency is. If they tend to be rigid when receiving direction or unreceptive to feedback, that likely signals trouble down the line.

One of Expand’s copywriters, Keith Leong, previously worked on a project for an agency that lost an RFP but eventually won over the client by being hyper responsive even after not landing the account. “It was amazing to see how available and knowledgeable the team was,” says Keith. “They had so much expertise with tricky compliance stuff the client needed to navigate, and the agency’s approach of being doggedly helpful was what eventually won back the account.” 

If your project has a lot of moving parts or involves stakeholders who tend to be…dynamic…in their direction and feedback, a smaller, more nimble shop might be better. Larger agencies, like any big organization, can be slower due to more levels of process, hierarchy, and red tape.

4. Define your budget 

Pricing for a project can vary wildly based on size of the agency and project, services required, level of specialization required, and a host of other factors. For instance, with Expand you get top work and a direct line to the creatives involved, because we skip account managers. In addition to more hands-on service, our clients also save on budget because there’s less overhead.

When evaluating proposals, look to see how transparent an agency’s pricing is. No client wants hidden fees or unpleasant surprises halfway through the project. Some advice from Tracy Shaw, one of Expand’s Co-Founders: “All costs should be defined upfront, with clear details for what happens when certain situations come up, such as needing to pause the project.” Life happens and while we can’t plan for everything, you want an agency that has experience navigating change. If a potential partner is experienced and pragmatic enough to have common scenarios and contingencies listed out, that’s a good sign in our book. 

5. Evaluate their work 

Start by looking for comparable work in their portfolio. Consider what Tracy, one of Expand’s Creative Directors, recommends asking yourself: “Does the agency have direct experience with clients similar to you in terms of industry, size, challenges to solve, things like that?” The more complex or specialized your needs, the more important this aspect becomes. Tracy continues, “For instance, if you’re in a healthcare vertical, your needs might be more particular. With our projects for Fenway Health, Expand actively factors in things like compliance right from the concepting phase.” 

Another helpful thing to do is meet the potential team. Even if it’s over a video call, this gives you a good opportunity to hear directly from the people who might work on the project. Ask questions about their work, their creative process, and their direct experience with similar projects. Don’t be bashful, this is all part of how to choose the creative agency that best suits your goals.

So what’s next for how to choose a creative agency?

It’s time to start searching for the best agency for you. The tips above will help with determining what you need and picking a creative shop that is well-suited for delivering it. We’re rooting for you! You got this. In case you’d like to consider Expand as part of your process, take a look at our portfolio or reach out if you have questions.

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