Hiring a big name design agency is one of the perks of running a VC-funded startup. It’s like a makeover montage from a romantic comedy — all the beauty inside your ugly duckling startup is finally revealed! But it’s also a risky investment.
If someone on the founding team has a strong aesthetic sense and a good ear for brand voice, agencies are like steroids — an undisputed performance enhancer. However, it’s easy for more analytical teams to be bewitched by the honeyed words of account execs.
One thing many founders fail to appreciate is that the best agencies are highly selective of their clients. The firm’s most famous work is often for flush with cash corporations that have a mature marketing infrastructure to actually build the brand.
The equally beautiful work done for the well-funded, but ultimately unsuccessful startups are quietly expunged from the agency’s website. Still, the agency touts the strength of their tried and true “process” to the next unsuspecting startup.
Uninitiated founders can get caught up in the fun of designing unboxing experiences, they start to fixate on “brand moments,” and imbue tagline with quasi-religious importance. That’s fine if you’ve got a teams of marketing analysts and a nine-figure budget to buy media.
Most startups do not have this luxury. Agencies are selling Maseratis when the day-to-day work for most startups calls for a used F-150. It’s fun geeking out about the ontological significance of your outer shipper packaging, but it’s not usually the best use of time.
Agencies aren’t bad, their work is usually the most interesting in the industry. But it’s important to remember their incentives aren’t always aligned with the startup’s goals. The work that wins a Cannes Lion isn’t necessarily what earns a 10X return.
Good brand work is necessary, but not sufficient. Here are a few tips on working with creative agencies:
Even if you don’t consider yourself “creative,” bring strong perspectives about acquisition channels, customer profiles, etc. to meetings. You may not be conversant in brand jargon, but no one has a better view of the business than you.
Challenge the agency to create work that fits in your ongoing operational budget, not P&G’s.
Go to a LulaRoe or Scentsy party to see how marketing/sales interact. Photoshop your product on the relevant shelf at Target to get a sense of the category’s gestalt. Basically, don’t over-index on the Park Slope approach to brand-building.
Once the style guide is delivered, who is going to make the ongoing design and taste-based decisions going forward? Best to have that person hired before starting a branding process so they feel invested in the direction.
The narratives that win design awards don’t always move the needle commercially. It’s helpful to have a thought partner to help sanity check the work of the firm and to help identify self-important pitfalls in their proposals.
Whoever is actually interacting with the customer should be involved in the process. Branders fall in love with the idea of customers — Make sure someone can provide a real-time reality check as to what they’re really like.
Spending $500K on a brand refresh can be one of the smartest decisions a startup makes. However, the chances of success improve dramatically when the founders have a clear idea of how that investment will guide the next $1M in CAC.
By Joseph Flaherty, Director of Content & Community
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