Working with a creative agency can be a fun and rewarding experience, but it’s important to understand what you’re getting into before engaging an agency. We’ve been working with retail partners for nearly 20 years and we’ve learnt a few things in that time about what works and what doesn’t. Working with a creative agency can be tough for those who are unfamiliar with the creative process. However, there are some best practices that can help make the experience more enjoyable for everyone involved.
What is a Creative Agency?
First, it’s important to know what a creative agency actually is and what they do. Many creative agencies specialise in specific services or industries; these can range from design studios, to full marketing agencies, through to PR and communications.
IPOS is a creative agency that specialises in brand strategy and execution. We tell compelling brand stories to reach, excite and influence consumers. Creative agencies will usually define their own purpose and so this will help you to identify if they can help you with your brand’s objectives. A creative agency’s purpose is different to their services. For instance, our services include creative campaigns, creating brand strategies, design and visualisation, photography, and more – but these are the tools we use to tell the stories that we know will achieve a brand’s objective with their audience. When thinking about working with a creative agency, understand their purpose. You don’t need to decide which services you’re looking for, as a creative agency will be able to identify which ones best meet your needs.
Communication is Essential
Working with a creative agency works best when it’s approached as a partnership. IPOS doesn’t have clients, only partners. It’s not just a slogan, it’s a driving principle that influences every interaction we have. A creative partnership is a collaborative endeavour and needs open communication to thrive.
If you’re thinking about working with a creative agency, be prepared to have open and honest communication. In our experience this process is easier if there is some structure to it; agree with your agency at the start how you will communicate and how often. Sticking to this agreement is a key factor for the future success of your relationship.
Honest communication also means being prepared to have difficult conversations if necessary. We don’t shy away from difficult conversations at IPOS. As good as we are, sometimes it’s not possible to achieve something with the current timescales and budget, and it’s our responsibility to identify this and offer alternative solutions.
Part of communicating openly and honestly with your agency is also being able to talk about the relationship itself; while it’s normal to focus on the current project, it’s important not to lose sight of the longer term relationship you’ll have with your agency. The best long term relationships allow each party to discuss how they feel about the relationship, through appraisal and discussion, and make changes if needed. If you give space to this aspect of communication with your agency, you’ll begin a fruitful relationship that can go beyond your current project.
Trust doesn’t just happen, it must be nurtured in the right environment. Brands operate in a commercially sensitive environment, and a specialised creative agency will almost certainly have some exposure or direct experience with your competitors.
IPOS always establishes new relationships with a mutual NDA. This process is an essential first step to allow us to openly talk about your brand and your business, while also offering our experience and ideas. The mutual NDA protects both parties and fosters an environment where we can openly communicate. It’s important to note that at this stage there is no commercial relationship and signing an NDA is not a commitment to work together.
Understanding An Agency’s Structure
Every creative agency operates slightly differently. You may have worked with creative agencies before and expect to be able to work in the same way with your new agency, but assuming this will be the case can lead to early friction in the relationship.
Communicate your expectations of how you’ll work together and understand how the agency operates in return. If you don’t feel this is compatible with your expectations, you can either negotiate a compromise or walk away from the relationship.
Having that understanding and agreement is therefore crucial before signing a contract. If you have negotiated specific exceptions or alterations to an agency’s standard operations, this can form part of your contract.
What Does Success Look Like?
A creative agency will want to know what success looks like to you. Whenever IPOS begins exploring a new partnership with a brand, we really want to understand what the brand wants to achieve. If a creative agency understands your goal, it can begin to conceptualise the best way to achieve it. Having an understanding of what it is you’re looking for is important – although a creative agency will be able to help you develop this based on their experience, and it’s normal for this to evolve throughout the creative process.
How will you measure and report on the success of your campaign? This is a really important consideration as it allows you to demonstrate the return on your investment in the campaign.
If you aren’t sure how to measure success, ask your creative agency for suggestions.
It is important to be able to measure the success of the campaign and report on it if you plan to do more than one campaign. This data will be used to refine future campaigns and provide even more impact with your audience.
As a consumer-forward creative agency, we always look at campaigns through the lens of what we want and expect the consumer to do in response. This is the foundation of our campaigns, and so having an understanding of your audience is crucial. We don’t need brands to come to us with data and insights, although it’s always nice when that happens, but knowing who your primary audience is will ensure that the eventual creative campaign is relevant to them.
Our campaigns are always driven by this understanding of audiences, and we dedicate a significant amount of time to understanding the key motivations and triggers for specific audiences.
Budgets are often the most misunderstood part of working with a creative agency, and there is reticence to talk about them up front. Creative agencies can work with different scales of budgets, and when a brand offers a range they’ll receive a proposal within that range. If you offered a smaller range you would receive proposals in that range. This doesn’t mean you are being charged more for the same campaign, as the campaign scales up or down according to your budget.
Most agencies operate on fixed cost models, so increasing your project budget doesn’t automatically mean more money for the agency, as the majority of your budget is allocated to external suppliers, cost of materials, etc. Understanding this should give you the confidence to talk openly about your budget expectations.
Creative agencies are used to being asked to find savings, and will usually have several alternatives to scale a campaign. If you are sticking to the principle of open and honest communication, these conversations will be a smooth experience.
If you don’t know what your end budget is going to be, it’s useful to look at your past campaigns and their budgets, and try to offer an estimate. With no budget to work from, creative agencies cannot tailor proposed campaigns accordingly, so you are likely to receive broader proposals. If you are exploring options, communicate this to your agency, as they will likely have a different process for scoping and estimating. It’s unlikely you’ll receive a fully fleshed out campaign proposal, but you will have enough information to be able to scope your budget.
Everyone’s first campaign with a creative agency starts far closer to the deadline than it should. It’s okay to not know how long the process of campaign ideation and delivery takes – every agency will be slightly different.
Ask your creative agency what their lead times are. Be aware that this will scale with your campaign, so the bigger your expectations, the longer an agency will need to achieve them.
Every agency has experience delivering campaigns on tight deadlines with little to no notice, especially on first projects with brands. It’s important not to set yourself an expectation that this is normal and repeat it for your second campaign. This can cause friction with an agency if they are frequently shifting into overtime and calling in favours.
You’ll likely have a deadline for when you want your campaign delivered – this is crucial information to be shared as early as possible with your creative agency. It’s important that you and your creative agency discuss the deadline and any other milestone dates you have so that there is mutual understanding and agreement.
In the spirit of open communication, it’s important to tell your agency when a deadline is ideal vs. essential, moreso if the lead time is short. Little lead time combined with a tight deadline reduces available options for campaign delivery across the entire process which will almost certainly increase costs. If there is flexibility in the timelines, that cost could be avoided.
Creative agencies thrive on feedback. It’s a key ingredient at every step of the campaign and should be underpinned by the principle of open and honest communication.
It’s unusual for a creative proposal to hit all the right notes on the first pass. This is where it’s important to remember you are engaging your creative agency as a collaborative creative partner.
Effective feedback is concise, specific and actionable.
It’s perfectly normal (and part of the service) for there to be multiple rounds of feedback as the creative proposal evolves. This is the fun part, so savour it.
Fast. Cheap. Good. You can only ever have two so pick wisely.
- Understand the purpose of the creative agency you’re considering.
- Be prepared to have open and honest communication.
- Establish how often and in what form your communication will take place – and stick to it. Make sure your agency does too.
- Make sure there’s a mutual NDA between you and any agency you’re talking to.
- Communicate your expectations of working practices and understand the agency’s operating practices. Mutually agree and include it in your contract.
- Have an idea of what success looks like for you.
- Plan for how you will measure and report on that success.
- Know what audience you want to reach.
- Communicate your budget expectations.
- Ask your agency what their lead times are.
- Be honest about your deadlines.
- Provide feedback that is concise, specific and actionable.
- Remember the Holy Trinity
Working with a creative agency is a fulfilling and exciting endeavour so remember to enjoy the process along the way. If you follow our advice, you’ll have as good an experience as our brand partners have with us. You might want to see some of the campaigns we’ve collaborated on – we’re proud to show them off.