How to choose, interview, and hire a branding agency for your business: part 1

How to assess an agency's portfolio and decide who you should interview

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When it’s time to give your brand a refresh, many businesses choose to bring in an outside branding agency to help bring design experience and knowledge to the process. Of course, you want that agency to be a perfect fit for bringing your brand to life, so the selection process is an important step to do correctly.

Before you sign up with just any old agency down the street, there’s a lot you can do to make sure you make a good choice.

In Part 1 of this short series on how to choose and hire the right branding agency for you, we’re going to start by laying out the four biggest things you need to consider before you ever pick up the phone and talk to someone at an agency.

In Part 2, we lay out exactly how to interview an agency to find out if they are a perfect fit for you. But for now, we’re talking about all the homework you can do to make sure you set up all the agencies for interviews.
 

First step: how to narrow the wide field of options

Unless you already have an agency who knows your brand and whose work you love, you’re going to want to interview at least 3 different agencies before you pick one. Different agencies offer different services, artistic styles, and levels of quality, so you want to make sure you’re making an informed decision before you sign up with one for the long haul.

To help narrow your search, start by asking for references from friends. Do your colleagues know an agency they’ve worked with and loved? Do any of your peers work with an agency they’d recommend?

Once you have a couple names, check out their portfolios.

I know, I know: you’re not a designer and you don’t think you know how to critique or understand complicated design techniques. But listen, you don’t need to!

When you’re looking at an agency’s portfolio and website, there are four key areas that you need to consider, and you already have all the knowledge and skills you need to be able to make smart decisions in each of those categories.
 

The 4 most important criteria to consider when reviewing agencies

There are four criteria that really matter for choosing a design and branding agency that will work for you. To make sure you make a good choice in which agencies you choose to interview and ultimately hire, we’ve outlined some of the most useful questions you should ask during your review process of portfolios and websites of agencies in the running for your business.
 

1. Quality of the work

Your company’s brand is its soul. The designs, copy, and visuals you choose to represent your company — that you’re hiring this agency to produce for you — are going to influence the way every single person who interacts with your brand thinks about it.

So it matters that it’s good.

High quality work can seem hard to assess, especially if you’re not a designer yourself. However, it’s actually simple — and not being a designer works in your favor for assessing the quality of a firm’s portfolio. That’s because you can look at the client websites that they’ve built, and judge for yourself whether or not they are clear and functional for you as a new visitor to the site – which is just what you would want your new website to be.

Check out the agency’s portfolio, and then go visit a few of those sites that they’ve built yourself. Are they buggy? Is the design intuitive? Do you like it? How, overall, does the site function?

You can also check out how they write about their work in their portfolio, or on their blog. Do they have a style guide? Do they use industry best practices? If so, which ones?

Judging quality in creative work isn’t as challenging as it might sound at first. Look at real world examples, investigate them yourself, see if you like how they work, and then use your common sense to inform your decision. A website that flows well to you as an outside user means that it is a functional, high quality design. A team that can build that for someone else can likely build it for you.

2. Cost of the work

You want the size of your budget to match the size of the agency you hire.

If you have a small budget, don’t go with a big agency. A $20,000 budget can get you a lot of work from a smaller (say, a 10-20 person) agency, but at a bigger firm that’s used to $1,000,000+ budgets from major corporations, all your little $20,000 will get you is an intern and a few hours of their time.

It’s critical to be honest and realistic about your budget when considering agencies. You don’t want to be too optimistic about how much you can afford and then end up with a sub-par or incomplete project because you couldn’t actually afford the scope of work that you told the agency you wanted. Not only might you be risking the quality of the work in that scenario, but if you have to make lots of last minute changes to scale down the project, you’ll also waste time.

Don’t forget: time is money. Better to make hard decisions and rule out options now than to be halfway down the road on a project you can’t afford or with a firm so big that you can’t get anyone’s attention to help you when you really need it.

3. Style of the work

You want a timeless brand that speaks for itself, and that will be iconic for years. At the same time, though, you want to make sure your brand is innovative and covers the touchpoints that matter today and tomorrow. A great brand on a website that won’t load on mobile…well, isn’t that great a brand.

Great branding work straddles the practical and the aesthetic. Here are some ways that you can assess for yourself whether an agency has the chops to find that balance for you.

First, as you browse agency websites and portfolios, check to see if they’ve won any awards. That shows that their design work is respected by people who really know their stuff.

For example, we recently won an award (yay!) for our work on Admissionado, a company that helps aspiring students craft amazing college and MBA applications. They needed to express that they are the gold standard in their industry, without being stuffy and old and relying on old “academic” design cliches. Our design helped them inspire trust, confidence, and of course, education for their users — in a way that also expressed what an innovative, exciting company they are.

The branding firm you hire should have plenty of similar examples and clear explanations of work they have in their portfolio that shows off their chops.

You can check out their social media and blog to see what they’re writing about. Are they staying up on trends? Are they sharing work they admire? Do you like the work that they like?

This is another place where looking at some of their work for other clients can help you.

– How cutting edge are the websites they’ve created recently?
– Are they mobile-responsive?
– Are they intuitive to use? Do YOU, as a new user, understand how to navigate the site?
– Do you quickly understand what every page on the website is about?
– Do you understand the logo? Do you like it?
– Does the copy and writing on the site match the design?

You can also assess some of this by looking at the firm’s own website.

Their website should be a representation of their style at its core; after all, it’s how they represent their own brand, and so it can give you a lot of information about what they think is really important for a great website and company brand.

Look at elements of the site. Think about what feelings it evokes in you. Then, read the website copy. Do the feelings that the site’s design evokes match the words they are saying about themselves and their products? There should be natural, complete understanding between the words and the design.

4. Customization of the work

You want to hire an agency that really understands YOU. A high quality agency will be able to translate your message and your goals into a beautiful design that appeals to you and most importantly, your customers.

When you’re scanning their portfolio, does all of their work have a similar style? Or are they diverse and wide-ranging in their styles?

If they have multiple styles of design and a wide range of customers, it shows that their team is highly skilled and customizes the design to the client — rather than trying to make the client fit into the standard box that they create for everyone. You want someone who will customize the work to fit you.

You can also look to see if they’ve done any work for a business like yours before, and assess how well you feel they handled that. Do you like what they did? Would you ask for something totally different?

It’s great if an agency has worked with clients similar to you before, but it’s not required. If the agency has a history of creating amazing work for a wide variety of clients, odds are they will be able to do the same for you, even if they haven’t done something similar. Plus, it never hurts to get a fresh set of eyes from someone who isn’t bogged down by the normal expectations of your industry.

However, an agency that has worked extensively in your field will have lots of build-in institutional knowledge and comfort with your business, which is a good thing too. It all depends on how much you like what they’ve done for similar companies to yours, and how wide-ranging their design styles can be.
 

Once you’ve prepped, it’s on to the interview!

You want to feel smart and sure when you choose a design agency. Being prepared and being thorough in your review process is the best way to make sure you feel confident that the interviews you set up with your top 3-5 agencies will be a good use of your time and help you get in line with your perfect agency.

In our next post, we’ll talk about how to ace your branding agency interview process, so that you can ask all the right questions and make sure you make a final decision that will be a great success for you and your business.

Got questions in the meantime? Tweet at us and start the conversation!

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