Choosing the right agency is critical to not just ensuring a good working experience, but whether or not you actually end up with a strong brand that works for you and your goals. The hard truth is: it can be difficult to find a branding agency – there are seemingly millions of them, each with their own point of view, specialization, and quippy tagline. It’s a lot. Here, we’ll help break it down into the key points of what to look for to help quell the Agency Anxiety and help you find the firm that is a great fit for you and your brand’s goals.
Okay, so you need a brand strategy, STAT, and an agency to help. What should you even be looking for? Let’s get into it.
#1: Before getting into selection criteria, let’s start with you.
Before you begin the agency search process, it is helpful to look inward first and gain clarity on a few important questions.
Understanding WHY you want to do a Brand Strategy project is important so you have both an anchor and a North Star to follow.
- What is your desired outcome at the end of the engagement?
- What do you need this brand strategy to achieve or do for you?
- How will upleveling your brand help you level up as an organization?
- How will you measure the success of your brand moving forward?
Sometimes a brand strategy project can be an evolution or a refresh to an existing brand. Or it can be a complete overhaul and revolution. Maybe it needs to hit on very specific KPIs and business objectives set by leadership. Or it can be to secure your next round of funding.
Thinking about the function of the brand strategy project, from left- to right-brained objectives, can not only help you begin to know what to look for in a partner, but also the sorts of activities needed to achieve your desired outcomes.
Quick tip: The right partner will ask you the above questions early on in the process. Your goals, challenges and desired outcomes should be front and center in the conversation.
#2: Does the brand strategy agency do what you actually need them to do?
First off, do they even do brand strategy? Marketing is one of those fantastic beasts where there are so many different facets of it, and there are great agencies that focus on each of those facets.
But marketing and brand strategy are not the same thing. Brand strategy focuses on the core purpose of your business, the way you express why you do what you do across different audiences and channels, and how it impacts every area of your business (including marketing). If you want a brand strategy, you’ll want to look for words and service offerings like:
- Brand Strategy
- Messaging Strategy
- Brand Architecture
- Customer Research
- Targeting and Target Personas
That is your first hint that you are in the right arena.
Second, do they work on brands like yours?
Not only is vertical important here, but there are many other dimensions to think about. Have they worked on brands in your space? What about stage of business that you are in… if you are a startup, have they worked with other startups? Have they helped other clients navigate similar challenges that you are faced with?
A referral is awesome in order to narrow the overwhelming list of agencies out there, but if it’s not quite aligned with your needs, then it may not be a great fit – one agency might be great for one project but not necessarily for another.
Quick tip: Marketing agencies and brand strategy agencies are not one and the same. If your challenges and goals go deeper than just campaign-level, you’ll want to make sure the agencies you consider focus on brand.
#3: Ahhh, everyone’s favorite B word… no, not that one… Budget.
No one likes to start here… but it could save you some headaches later on.
Having an understanding of what an agency charges up front will help identify if they are a good fit for you. You don’t want to break the bank and there are many agencies that offer amazing services that are very reasonable. In some instances you get what you pay for, but it is worth aligning on budgetary expectations as soon as possible to avoid later heartbreak (and breaking the bank).
Quick tip: If you like an agency, but their prices don’t align with your budget, ask for a referral. This is a great way to find a reputable partner, and most agencies have a network of people they trust to do great work.
#4: Are they genuinely curious about you and your brand?
This is a huge one. Good agencies talk a lot. Great agencies listen at least as much as they talk. You want to feel heard.
Do they ask a lot of (good) questions about you, your brand, and the challenges your brand is facing? A good agency partner asks a lot of questions, and a lot of the right questions. They care about your business and want it to succeed as much as you do.
They not only can articulate the problems that need to be addressed, but can repeat back to you with added value, framing, and insight, not just parroting what you said.
Quick tip: If a brand strategy agency is the right partner for you, you should end each conversation with them feeling a greater sense of clarity around your challenges and potential solutions to them. If you’re ending conversations feeling more confused than before, keep looking.
#5: They aren’t afraid to push back. (Respectfully.)
Opinions are like bellybuttons (the PG version of this analogy) — everyone has one.
You are partnering with an agency for their expertise and to fill strategic knowledge gaps, so you want a team that can (respectfully, of course) push back and disagree with you when lending their point of view.
They aren’t here to kiss up and do everything you say; they are here to solve the challenges you have brought forth and that can sometimes lead to healthy conflict and discussion that illuminates new, innovative solutions.
Playing it safe never solved anything, especially not when you are investing heavily to have them in the room.
Quick tip: The right partner will challenge you to think in new ways. You are looking for new perspectives, and a feeling of excitement about what is possible. It sounds counterintuitive, but f a potential partner agrees with everything you say, they’re likely not a strong enough partner.
#6: They see the whole picture, not just the task at hand.
There are many agencies that kick ass at what they do — developing beautiful logos and websites, crafting killer copy and social media posts. We love to see it. We really do.
But if it is brand strategy you need, as it is the bedrock of everything you do, a partner should be astutely aware of the broader context: how each brand element and system works together, the business context and the broader cultural and macroeconomic environments – to competitively insulate, carve out white space, and ensure a differentiated, relevant brand that can thrive outside of PowerPoint and PDF files.
Quick tip: Push for someone who sees the broader context and brings you back to the big picture. Keeping the big picture in mind is what determines whether your brand strategy is actionable in the real world, or ends up gathering dust (see next tip!).
#7: The agency’s work is actionable and out in the world.
Some of the best work, if left on the shelf in a PDF file, is honestly useless. Which is a big bummer for everyone involved.
Implementation and actionability means:
- The agency not only cares about getting the work done, but also how it is implemented, and took the time to help with that process, and
- They produced GOOD work that actually WORKS out in the world and does what it was intended to do.
How do you determine this? Take a peek at past clients/case studies — most agencies should have them on their site or available by request. The real test? Look at the brand’s site. Is the work living and visible on the brand’s website? Their packaging? Their social media presence? Or is it just living in Mockup Purgatory?
Quick tip: What’s even more important than an agency’s website and materials? The website and materials of their CLIENTS.
#8: Peep trusted resources like Clutch and The Manifest.
Having a hard time finding agencies in your area — whether geographically or in your company’s focus area? Clutch is a great resource for finding agencies based on customizable searches. The feedback provided on the agencies is handled through Clutch, who calls past clients after the conclusion of a project, to collect the feedback as an objective third party.
Quick tip: Always look for third-party and social credentials. An agency can say literally anything about themselves, but it’s what their clients say that will give you the best idea of their work quality and what it’s like to work with them.
#9: Of course, it’s all about the vibes.
Brands are precious things – whether new to the world or revamping an existing brand in need of some TLC, so you want to trust the people you hire and partner with it.
One of the most important parts of choosing an agency is the vibe check. Before you sign the paperwork, make sure you spend time with them, ideally in person.
- Are these pleasant people to be around?
- Are they professional?
- Do they follow up? Consistently?
- Do you feel included in the conversation?
- Do you end the conversation inspired, clearer on the challenge at hand, and with new possibilities in mind?
- The agency becomes an extended member of your team for a time, so would you hire this person to be one of your full-time hires?
- Do they help you navigate through the ups and downs of these big decisions and leave you feeling more confident with each interaction?
Quick tip: Look at it this way - can you picture sitting at a client dinner for 3+ hours with these people? Meeting every week for a status call? The answer should be "yes."
We at Spectacle are excited to partner with high growth, purpose led brands who are interested in changing the game, and we like to think our clients enjoy the process as much as we do.
While we’d like to be a good fit for all, we know we are not and that is a beautiful thing! We’d love to hear from you if you are looking for a dedicated partner on your next brand project.
We’d also love to hear from you on this topic — what is the one thing that is most important to you in selecting an agency partner? Have any amazing agency partnership success stories (or horror stories)?
Drop us a line here if you’d like to share or hear more about what makes partnering with Spectacle a good fit for your brand and team.