Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Don't Walk; Run.

August 21, 2007

I typically craft my articles to speak directly to designers, aspiring designers, or sometimes simply to the broad spectrum of design industry wonks. With this article I’m instead speaking to business owners and marketing managers who are planning to enlist the services of creative agencies for company projects. Many of you are being duped and defrauded, or are about to be, costing you time and money.

As a member of the design profession, I get insights into a wide range of agency and individuals’ practices and I’m often appalled at what I learn from this experience. I’m continually surprised to see that there are plenty of individuals and, mostly, agencies that have abominably unethical and irresponsible practices habitually exercised as core features of their work. As a result, their clients are ill–served. Sometimes criminally so.

Surely, any single example I’ll cite here might not be enough for a valid indictment against a creative consultancy, but I suggest that any combination of these behaviors is cause for concern.

You should be angry. You should be incensed in the face of the treatment many of you are receiving from your agencies. In some severe cases, you should respond with every legal, professional, and otherwise punitive action you can muster in order to help put a stop to the irresponsible treatment that you, your brand, and your business are receiving from clueless and unscrupulous agencies.

So are you being treated this way? Are you wasting your money and time? There are some conspicuous behaviors exhibited by bad agencies and I want to share with you a few telltale signs that you’re dealing with one of them. Surely, any single example I’ll cite here might not be enough for a valid indictment against a creative consultancy, but I suggest that any combination of these behaviors is cause for concern.

Courtship

Your first hints that you’re dealing with a clueless or unscrupulous agency become evident before you even begin a project with them. Here are a few warning signs:

If the agency has any clue at all, your company will basically have to “interview for the job” in order to be accepted as a client. Agencies that know what they’re doing work hard to take on only those projects and those clients that are a good fit for their skill set, even their personality. They’ll want to get to know you a bit and they’ll want to learn much about your project, its scope, and your specific expectations before they agree to work with you. If you find that they immediately suggest you work with them and start talking about sending you a contract, you’re probably talking to the wrong agency. Hang up the phone.

If he asks mostly (or all) design–related questions, it’s because he has no clue how to make this vital conversion for you. You’re at the wrong agency.

As for spec work, any company or individual who agrees to do any tangible work on the project without first obtaining a signed contract AND then conducting an exhaustive discovery process is a hack agency. They simply don’t know and will not be able to deliver what you need. Hang up the phone. Yes, even if it is you asking for spec work (shame on you). Hang up the phone.

If you begin to get into the project and the immediate milestones don’t seem to include a discovery meeting or a detailed discovery process with you and the designer/design team, it’s bad. This is a clear sign that you’re dealing with a clueless agency. It should be patently obvious; if the agency is not concerned about learning everything they can about your company, your specific business objectives, your desires, your target audience, your past, immediate, and ongoing marketing strategy, and everything else relevant to your business, they’re not capable of producing effective media for you. Leave them and find a competent agency.

Project Management and Design

Once you get into the project with your agency, there are some specific behaviors that offer clear signs that you may be dealing with a clueless, unhealthy, or unethical agency. Here are a few of them:

If you find that during the initial discovery meeting or during the ongoing discovery process the designer asks mostly design–related questions, you may be fairly certain that he has little idea what he’s doing. The designer is not there to ask you design questions; you are not a designer. He’s there to learn about your business and your immediate and ongoing business needs and challenges. It’s his job to convert that understanding into the right design to serve your needs. If he asks mostly (or all) design–related questions, it’s because he has no clue how to make this vital conversion for you. You’re at the wrong agency.

If during the discovery meeting(s) or ongoing discovery process you find that it is someone other than your designer (or design team) conducting this vital process, you’re probably at the wrong agency. Only the designer knows what it is she needs to know in order to do a credible job for you. No one else does. Those agencies where some project manager or someone else conducts the discovery and allows that they’ll pass on this vital information to a designer is treating you casually and, perhaps, irresponsibly. This behavior is a feature in agencies where they’re more concerned with producing subjective, creative work than with producing effective results. Be wary.

It is an unfortunate habit among some agencies to ever get between the client and the designer. This is a terrible mistake and a clear sign that the agency, large or small, is not well run.

If you are told that the agency will present 4 or 6 or even 8 design comps to you, you should politely decline their services and leave for another agency. This desire to take a scattershot approach to your project means that they have no idea how to responsibly address your business challenges. So instead they bewilder you with a host of visually distracting choices to lull you into a sense of being taken care of responsibly. It’s a ruse. Your design agency should have the skill to hit upon just the right solution with one formidable example and should, at most, present one other option that is suitably effective. Behind the scenes they will have produced a host of trials in their effort to hone the concept and the execution, but if there is more than 2 options presented to you, you should be highly suspicious of their abilities, their motivations, and their ethics.

If your Web design comps are presented to you only on paper, even if mounted beautifully on boards, you’re dealing with a clueless agency. The Web demands a contextual treatment, so how a website occupies the screen’s real estate is important to you and your agency for understanding how a Web design satisfies certain requirements. True, the design comp will likely be a flat image on the screen, but it should be presented so as to be displayed accurately in a Web/screen environment. Else someone, perhaps everyone, fails to get an accurate picture of things.

If anyone other than the designer who did the work presents the designs to you, something’s amiss and there is likely more yet to go astray. It is an unfortunate habit among some agencies to ever get between the client and the designer. This is a terrible mistake and a clear sign that the agency, large or small, is not well run. As a result, the work produced by the agency is likely to be flawed for the voids in understanding and effectiveness that result. In short, if your project’s design phase does not begin and end with direct contact between yourself and the designer, you’re getting short shrift. Find another agency.

During the design presentation, if the examination and discussion is concerned mostly with how cool looking or aesthetically pleasing the designs are, you’re likely dealing with a clueless and/or unethical agency. Aesthetics are often important and they’re often helpful in achieving specific aims. But if your agency is not determined to describe how their design work will compel specific behaviors of your website visitors, how the information architecture addresses specific needs and effects, how the layout suggests a specific order of content consumption… or any one of a number of other relevant and important business and user objectives, they likely have no clue how to address any of those concerns. Don’t walk; run away.

So now you’ve got problems. True, by this time you’ve likely invested copious time and at least half of the project costs, but it may be worth your leaving to find a competent agency to redo your project. Any agency that is not clearly concerned with your financial and market share objectives, and does not describe how their work addresses those objectives, is a hack agency. Find another before you pour more fruitless money and time down the drain.

Just Stop It

I regularly hear about these and other problematic behaviors from friends, colleagues, and even from clients when they discuss past projects. It is frustrating to hear about these things and know just how poorly some clients are being served. It’s equally maddening to know that because of these common behaviors my profession is diminished and potential clients have learned to distrust and even despise designers and creative agencies. It should not be so.

As I said earlier, observing one of these behaviors might mean a clear sign of possible trouble. More than two of these behaviors means that it’s more than likely you’re working with the wrong agency. I suggest that you stop putting up with such shoddy service and respond appropriately against bad agencies. You will, of course, need to make your own assessments within some relevant context, but you need to know what to look for when deciding if you’re being scammed, for truly; many of you are.

There are lots of terrific designers and agencies out there that can do good work for you and who can handle your brand responsibly. I link to many of them regularly here on this site (in the Gossip section on the main page). Consider one of them when it’s time for your next Web project. See if you notice a distinct and tangible difference when working with them over your current agency. You may deserve better than you’re getting. And if you do notice too many of these telltale signs of incompetence in your current agency — don’t walk; run.

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