The Right Firm for the Job

Around the time of the election it wasn’t uncommon to hear people saying things like “What we need is a President who’s ready to lead from Day One—we just can’t afford one that requires on-the-job-training!” Of course we need someone who has the capacity to lead from the first moment to the last. But nobody has the job experience of a president the first time they’re elected, and every president is trained on the job. The hope is that the candidate’s unique blend of experience, talent, and skill—their complete package—can affect the change where others couldn’t.

As the owner of a small design business, I meet a lot of people who are in a similar situation as those described above. They need to hire a creative agency for an important project and they want it to be really good. They want a capable partner to come in and hit the ground running—from Day One. However, many fall into the trap of thinking they need to find someone with exactly the experience that they estimate their project will require. And rather than evaluate competing teams for their unique strengths, strategic thinking and creative ability—the complete package—they obsess over finding a firm that has done an array of very similar projects, oftentimes for other players in the same field.

At best, the result of such decision-making is a mediocre creative product that looks and works a lot like the competition’s. And instead of gaining a measurable creative edge within their industry, they settle for the safety blanket of knowing that if Firm X was good enough to design their competitors website, identity, what have you, then they’re “good enough for us.”

By contrast, in my career, the most creative, successful and satisfying projects I’ve been involved with have been in industries that were new to my team at the time—a professional football team, a global airline, a motorcycle company. On those projects, our clients were able to see beyond the cookie-cutter options in front of them, and chose to build a team that would not only meet project objectives, but do so in a new and compelling way. They welcomed the fresh perspective that we could offer and recognized the value it brought with it.

Maintaining perspective is key to choosing the right design firm. Add to it a bit of common sense and you’ll be on your way to creating something really good:

Beware of “specialists”
Specializing in one thing or another comes at a cost. The time a firm spends focusing on a single sector, prevents it from experiencing the trends, innovations, and best practices being developed in other industries. Firms that work with a variety of clients will be more likely to offer flexible, collaborative ways of approaching a problem—and can apply learning from a wealth of sources.

Bigger means bigger, better means better
Big firms have a lot of things, but they don’t necessarily have more talent than the smaller guys. Their resources help make their work easier and more convenient, but not better. Your creative team needs to have the capacity to handle a job, but more times than not, the project team assigned by a small firm is usually the same size—and will have comparable experience—as the one a large firm would offer up. Evaluate them evenly and fairly and choose the firm that measures up best, regardless of their size.

See beyond the literal
Make sure you don’t get so focused on the minutiae of your project, that you miss the bigger picture. If you’re looking to rebrand and repackage a line of pet foods, for example, it really isn’t critical that a designer have had the experience of packaging pet foods before. What is important is that they prove their understanding of packaging techniques, exhibit spatial awareness, and can demonstrate their thinking through three-dimensional form. You can easily bring the designer up to speed on the latest developments in the world of pet food, which bar codes to include, and how many ounces of kibble you’re looking to hawk.

Go with your gut
Sometimes, it can take a bit of courage to choose a firm that doesn’t fit your, your boss’s or the board’s preconception of what that firm should be like. The candidate’s experience might be markedly different than the RFP specifies, or the partners’ appearance, gender, or age aren’t what you would have guessed it should be. There could also be political forces at work that would pressure you to lean away from a certain firm even though you feel they are the best choice. I’ve had clients tell me, off the record, that while they really wanted to work with me, I didn’t look old enough, was too old, or even “too good” for a certain project—whatever that means. This kind of confession, of course, is frustrating to a designer competing for a job, but it’s also unfair to the project itself.

Pull the trigger and don’t look back
Once you’ve made your decision and the team is in place, resist the urge to second-guess every recommendation. Participate in the creative process and give constructive feedback, but remember to listen to the creative professionals. If you hired well, it’ll turn out better than you even imagined.


Link 17 May 2009 10:45 am

Deborah says:

So true, and yet, not likely to change in the near future. It’s the rare client that can see past their own fears–most often, the fear of losing their job, not to mention fear of the unknown, in this case, innovative design. It’s very much like the early PC days when “nobody got fired for buying IBM.” So, you just have to cherish those valiant risk-taking clients when you can find them, and try baby-step education with the rest.

Link 18 May 2009 11:09 am

Len Herstein says:

Great post! I completely agree that it is most important to find the right people – the one’s that have the right mix of smarts and creativity, and, most importantly, have the personality and culture that will allow them to work with you seamlessly.

That being said, I do think that for many folks there is a need for some familiarity with the industry/category/products/services. Sometimes it is a firm understanding of the nuances that provide the greatest platform for strategic creativity. Not that smart folks can’t get up the learning curve quickly – but the time and resources required to get there in certain complex industries are not always luxuries that are available…

Link 18 May 2009 11:33 am

Christa Bianchi says:

Super post. I would add that clients looking for instant out-of-the-box solutions should beware the severe and frustrating limitations of the quick alleged fix. The firm not promising you a thorough discovery and strategy phase is just looking to squeeze you into a one-size-fits-all solution to cut their production costs.

I would also add that great clients are made and not born. An intelligent firm listens well and educates the client as to the best process and best solutions for them. A great firm has the courage to then bring that client along for the ride.

Link 18 May 2009 1:21 pm

Matt Millard says:

I agree with much of what you say, but as the owner of a small design agency myself, I would strongly disagree that packaging design is about the bar codes or the number of fl. oz.

Packaging design for consumer goods is about consumer insight, first and foremost. Unless you understand the psyche of the customer and translate that into a compelling proposition on the pack, the bar code won’t be needed because nobody will buy the product.

More than anyone, small designers need to think like (and indeed out-think) the big guys. We can be agile, edgy, take risks and adopt strong positioning in our ideas whereas the multinationals must usually be safe.

Having said that, they know what they are doing, and if you want to win the work you’ll have to understand the business issues, be able to gather and analyze the available consumer information, find a meaningful and actionable insight and ultimately convert that into fantastic design. Then you can stick on the barcode.

Packaging design is the most challenging and intricate discipline in our business. Because you design the pack first you have to do everyone else’s thinking for them. The TVC will be based on your idea. The billboard will leverage your cleverness. The POSM will reflect the value of your solution. You’d better be good!

Link 18 May 2009 1:40 pm

Brett Traylor says:

Thanks for taking the time to chime in, everyone.

Len, I agree that there are certain industries/projects where even talent and creativity aren’t immediate substitutes for experience. However, this piece was written from the standpoint of identifying the most “qualified” candidate. I think a lot of the time that includes the concrete experience you speak of.

Matt, thanks for helping to clarify this for us. My intention wasn’t to reduce packaging design to bar codes and nutrition facts—just the opposite actually. My point was that if you hire a talented, QUALIFIED, packaging designer it matters little if that person has the specific experience in, as the example goes, packaging pet food. As I’m sure you’d agree, a great packaging designer—for all the reasons you cite—can design great packaging for anything a client comes up with.

Link 18 May 2009 6:58 pm

Steve McKee says:

Here’s my take on the topic, from I hope it adds to the conversation.


Link 19 May 2009 1:38 pm

Brett Traylor says:

Steve, thanks for the link to your article. I think it helps add dimension to this discussion. However, there are a lot of differences, I’d say, between the Advertising and Design industries when it comes to clients, who they tend to be, and how we work with them. A worthy upcoming blog post to be sure!

Also, from the AIGA LinkedIn message board, an interesting comment, and my response.

Link 20 May 2009 2:04 pm

Letha Russell says:

This article would be good for and other websites that are geared toward company purchasers.

Link 20 May 2009 3:35 pm

Jill Tanenbaum says:

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