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.