There’s plenty written about how to write a brief or questions to ask a design agency, but how do you choose agencies to contact in the first place?
There are over 4000 design agencies in the UK and around 65,000 freelance designers, so choosing a designer to work on your project can be a bit of a challenge.
With such a range of choices, there are a lot of things that you should factor into your decision.
In this article, we look at the things you should check about potential branding design agencies before contacting them.
Something to point out here is that if you ask a design agency for a proposal for a logo design or branding project is that they are going to assume you contacted them for a reason:
- You Googled ‘branding agencies’ and clicked through to the top results
- Someone recommended them to you
- You found them via a referral site like Clutch
- They specialise in your niche
- You’ve worked with them before
If you are looking for a decorator to paint your house, it’s unlikely you’ll just go with the first one in the search results (although you may well consider them). So there are other things you can find on the agency’s website to influence your shortlist. Decisions can be made on a mixture of:
- How the agencies website looks
- What they have to say
- Their portfolio of work
- The types of clients they work with
- Their culture
- Their point of difference
- Google and other reviews
However, there is also a range of other things that you can check before you contact or shortlist agencies to work on your branding project. These should include things like:
- Researching the agencies finances
- Looking into how long they have been around
- Checking out their staff
- Checking accreditations or industry memberships
- Looking at their social media accounts
- Their premises
- Whether they do everything in-house or outsource it
- Potential chemistry
We’ll cover each of these in the article and point you to the right places to check out the information.
Most people feel they have found the right agency for them rather than being sold to, and most design agencies rely on search results, word of mouth and referrals. Still, all of the above elements will help to give you a broad overview of potential creative branding agencies before you pick up the phone.
Where to start with shortlisting the right branding agency for your project.
A Google search will show you the branding companies that have invested in getting their agencies to the top of the organic search results.
Ignore the Google Ads – these are design companies that simply spend £1000s on ads as they don’t have the content on their websites to rank organically.
A simple Google search will show you local agencies to where you are and agencies that are investing money in promoting themselves.
Why are organic results better than paid adverts?
When Google (et al.) positions a website in the top 10, they do so because that agency’s website engages with visitors and is something that people want to find: that could be you.
Paid adverts simply come down to how much companies are willing to spend on getting there – there is a distinct difference – organic results are earned, and paid results are purchased.
Depending on the size of your company, you might be able to ask around your co-workers.
You may find that someone is already working with an excellent and value-for-money branding agency delivering great work.
Here at Toast, we get a lot of recommendations, and they are a great way to find an agency to work with that has already demonstrated great work.
There are loads of ‘best branding agencies’ directories – these can be an excellent way to find a company for designing your logo and branding, but as per paid advertising, it’s often the companies that spend the most money that gets listed highest.
Another thing to consider here is that just because a branding agency spends a lot on adverts, it doesn’t naturally follow that that is a good agency: someone may just be throwing money about to see what sticks.
For example, If you are a legal firm, it can make sense to search for experts in branding legal firms.
This type of search should surface companies that specialise in branding companies in your niche, but this can also lead to a ‘me-too’ approach to the project; you can end up with a similar logo to another company as the agency does the same work over and over.
The bottom line is that if you want something similar, go for a niche agency. Try something different if you want something that pushes beyond the noise in your niche.
Sounds obvious, but it is something that is often overlooked. Most marketing experts have had good relationships with designers over the years, so where are they now, who do they work for and are they worth a re-connect?
Designers rarely forget good clients, so even if it was years ago, it might be worth reaching out to some older contacts on LinkedIn, for example.
How to benchmark branding agencies for your shortlist.
Sounds obvious, but an agency’s website is its shop window, so if it doesn’t look great, there’s a reason.
Check out the projects on the site – are they recent?
Is the website content updated regularly, and do they have a blog where they share their branding experience and expertise?
Admittedly, some agencies do have very simple websites, but you should be able to get a feel for the branding company and the size and shape of projects they work on.
Also, do your due diligence here; it’s not unknown for more unscrupulous agencies to add logos of large clients. If you see an array of big names, find out precisely what the agency did for the client, don’t just take it at face value.
Read the agency blog, and check through case studies and portfolio items. Rather than just looking, reading can give you more insight into how the agency ticks and the people working there.
Also, consider the tone of voice the agency uses in its copy. Are they overly corporate and stuff or relaxed and conversational – you’ll get a good impression about what they are like from what they say and how they say it.
It goes without saying, but check out the branding and logo work – do they work with clients similar in size to your business?
Is there a good range or work, or does it all look too similar?
Don’t just look for evidence that they’ve worked in your sector; it’s not always the best thing as you might just get something similar to other clients if you work with them.
The portfolio is often the make-or-break influencer when shortlisting branding agencies to shortlist, but you should check the work over and above face value.
Don’t assume entirely that the work on the site is their work – it sounds very unlikely, but there are agencies out there that simply put whatever they fancy on their website to attract new clients.
The agency and client should be a good fit for each other. A smaller project for a larger agency may not get the attention it deserves, and a large project for a micro-agency might also cause problems with experience and delivery.
Most agencies don’t say no to the prospect of a new client, even if the job is too large for them to deliver effectively, so check they have a range of work and can deliver comfortably within your budget.
Creative agencies, just like all other businesses, are commercial and exist to make money. However, how they make their money can be very different.
Do they have a younger staff team working late every evening to maximise the agency profit?
Are there reviews of the agency on sites like Glassdoor where you can find out what employees think?
Do they have a creative studio with a pool table that’s only for show and no one ever plays upon?
Agency culture is now more important for clients – working with a company that looks after its staff, pays them well and shares the rewards means that you’ll work with a team of happy creatives.
This can be a difficult one for creative agencies to demonstrate, as we all do pretty much the same thing to one end or another.
An agency may specialise in your sector (but that has pros and cons), or they might offset their carbon footprint or be working towards B Corporation status.
Aligning with an agency that shares similar ideas and ethics to your business is an excellent place to start when shortlisting branding agencies to work with.
Reviews are great, but they can also be something to watch out for.
Most review sites will accept an unsolicited review with no proof or justification.
We’ve experienced this directly, receiving a one-star review from someone because we declined to provide a proposal for him (his service did not sit well with our ethics).
The flip side is that companies can easily create reviews themselves; the process is a little flawed.
The best way to cut through the noise with reviews is to ask your shortlisted agencies if they can provide details of real people that can provide a testimonial directly. A good agency will have a list of past or current clients happily responding to an email with an up-to-date reference.
Additional ways to research prospective branding agencies.
This is a really good (and free) way to check out a branding agency if they are a limited company in the UK.
Companies House has details about the Directors and the companies accounts – this data is correct and trustworthy.
You can search via the design agency name or the company number. Note that it’s a legal requirement for any limited company to display this information on their website, so if it’s not there, that’s a red flag for starters.
Check out the agency turnover, number of staff, assets and a range of other information about the company you are considering.
This search can give you plenty of information about the facts.
We recently researched a range of companies that claimed to have 100s of clients and 20+ staff, only to find out they turned over less than £30,000 per year and were one-man-bands.
The Companies House data above will also inform you when the company was incorporated and how long they have been trading. Generally, the longer the business has been around, the more successful they are and the happier clients they have.
You can also pair this with looking at Companies House and looking for year-on-year growth via the companies accounts – this will also give you insight into how stable the agency is.
You’ve probably already done this if you’ve recruited people.
Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can give you a wealth of information about the people at the agency that you will be working with.
It’s not spying by any means; it’s simply looking at publicly accessible information to build a profile of your preferred agencies.
A good example is when you want to commission an agency to work on project X, but the agency doesn’t seem to have any work in the portfolio in the niche. Then you discover on Linkedin that the creative director is a perfect fit for project X as they have personal experience in the niche and are passionate about it.
Any agency is more than just a brand; creative studios have many personalities that expand beyond the agency itself, so this type of thing is worth checking out.
Also, check out the team’s qualifications – do they have BA Hons degrees in design, or are they self-proclaimed designers?
We are not talking about awards the agency has paid to win here.
Design is very much an unregulated industry: anyone can call themselves a designer or a design agency.
Toast are members of the Design Business Association, which works hard to improve the industry and how we deliver for clients – this costs money. Still, we invest in it to demonstrate our commitment to our industry and professionalism.
Often, the lack of investment by an agency in tools, accreditations and industry bodies can suggest they may not be entirely as trustworthy as their website suggests.
This can be tricky as busy agencies can often neglect social media as they don’t have time, but it’s still worth checking out.
A branding agency’s social media account can give you additional insight into their culture, staff and clients, but it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker, just another part of your research.
This has changed a lot post-pandemic, but if the agency you are looking at works out of a back-bedroom somewhere, do they simply not have the funds to invest in premises for staff?
If your shortlisted branding agencies would rather you don’t visit them, ask why not.
This isn’t to say that great design can’t be created on a beach with wifi, but bigger and more established agencies invest in a studio and everything that goes into that, from IT infrastructure to staff well-being.
This is also more important to consider than ever.
At Toast, all our staff are on the payroll; we outsource nothing.
Watch out for design farmers that masquerade as an agency but outsource all the work to Ffiver or similar.
On a top level, this is entirely unethical, and on the project management and communication level, it can become a nightmare.
You must meet and get to know the team via a face-to-face meeting, Zoom call or phone.
Email works once you have done this – the last thing you want is a random designer emailing you each time you place a piece of work – it just leads to frustration, missed deadlines and extra costs.
You run your business; you have your ideas, your positioning and your market.
You need a creative branding agency that understands that and gets on board.
Working with a team that you can work with productively is crucial, so if you don’t feel the fit is there, don’t do it.
There’s an important point to add here, and that is who you speak to:
- Do you prefer speaking to a salesperson who manages projects but does not do them?
- Would you rather deal directly with the person working on your project?
- Do you want an account manager?
These choices have will have a direct effect on charges, so you need to decide what will work best for you.
When you send out the initial email or call the agency, make sure you ask questions and firm up any details about the design company you are unsure about.
There are things that a good design agency should be able to answer off the bat without having to come back to you later.
These include things like:
- How long have you been in business?
- Do you do all your work in-house?
- What was your turnover last year?
- How many people do you have on the payroll?
- Do you have a GDPR policy?
- Can you send me your non-disclosure agreement?
- Will you (the person I am talking to) be involved in the project?
- Do you have a remote or in-house team?
- How do you manage projects?
- Who will be my main point of contact for the project?
- Do you have Account managers?
- Where will the files I send you be stored, and is this secure?
- How do you deal with a situation where what you produce is not well received?
These may seem obvious, but if the branding agency representative you are talking to can’t answer simple commercial questions, then it can be a cause for concern.
Mitigating risk when working with a branding agency.
If you are charged with finding a new branding agency for your company, this comes with a certain degree of responsibility.
Your business is going to invest money in working with the agency, so you need to choose the right agency for your business: if they get it wrong, it can be on your head.
Big brands often work with larger agencies for lots of reasons:
- They have a huge budget, so they want to spend it with an expensive agency
- It mitigates risk on the part of the person commissioning the project
- The agency has done work for large competitors, so commissioning them means you get that experience for your brand
The truth is that most agencies, large or small, will all follow a similar process when working on a branding project.
The only difference can be whether this costs you £25,000 or £2,500.
Famously expensive redesigns include the BBC logo redesign, which came in at $1,800,000. The much-maligned London 2012 logo at $625,000, and even the City of Belfast logo, which was comparatively cheap at $280,000.
On the flip-side of this, you can crowdsource your logo design project and get a bunch of designers worldwide to design it for free – you then pick the one you like the best and pay for it.
So given the seemingly vast differences in the cost of a Branding project, how do you choose?
Once you’ve done all your due diligence, what your branding project will cost comes down simply to one thing.
How much do you want to pay for it?
If you’ve got one million quid to invest in this, then it’s a large London-based branding agency. If you’ve got £100, go to one of the online freelancer sites.
Even if you’ve not got a penny, you can get one designed online via AI for pretty much nothing.
Consider the importance of your project, balance this with the budget you have to invest and approach agencies that look like they work with that sort of profile.
A good branding agency should talk to you about the commercial aspects of your business or at least do their own due diligence.
- What is your turnover?
- What is your provide?
- What is the value of what you sell?
- What is a new customer worth to you?
- What is their lifetime value?
- Who are your customers?
- Where do you find them?
- Do you offer something significant or different, or are you a me-too product (think Coke and Pepsi)
- Where is your business going, and where has it been?
- Are you local, regional, national or international?
- Do you have funding?
- Are you spending your own money on this?
- What is your position within the company (are you the owner, a director or an employee?)
- How many other agencies are you talking to?
- And so on…
When you are talking to a branding agency about a project, you should expect to be asked these sorts of questions before they get anywhere near sending you a proposal.
This is the agency working out if you are a good fit for them; they are making sure they can work with you and deliver.
If you don’t get asked these questions, the agency may simply research the answers themselves behind the scenes.
Putting together a full proposal for a logo and branding project takes time and costs money.
Agencies do not want to invest time and effort into creating details proposals for branding projects if there is zero chance of the project going ahead.
Most mid- to large branding agencies were once freelancers or start-ups, so the senior team will have had a lot of experience in clients asking them to work on the wrong size project.
When we look into a potential logo or branding project, it takes at least a half day to get a proper proposal together. There’s often an additional couple of hours in pre-proposal meetings as well, so by the time the proposal is on your desk, it’s taken the best part of a day to put together (at the very least).
To this end, agencies can sometimes seem a little overprotective about providing a proposal or attending an initial meeting – it costs them money to do so, so they need to know there is a good chance of seeing a return on this investment; it’s basic business sense.
The best way to find the right agency for your project is to be upfront about your budget.
This is 100% the best thing to do, but it’s done less than 10% of the time.
Some things have fixed and public costs.
- Before you buy a cheeseburger, you know how much it costs and what you are getting. If you’ve had one before, you also know what it will taste like. No surprises.
- When you take your car into the garage as there’s a knocking sound coming from the engine, you probably have no idea what the problem is, what caused it, how long and how much it will be to fix.
You can’t buy design like you buy a cheeseburger.
However, you can buy a cheeseburger for £1, or you can buy one for £15: you pays your money you takes your choice.
And even in the world of the simple cheeseburger, the difference between the two is about 1400%, that’s the same as a branding project being quoted by one agency at £2,500 and another at £35,000.
One of the issues with providing a budget is that clients often think that if they tell an agency they have £5,000, then the project will cost £5,000.
Whilst this is usually true when it comes to smaller budgets, a good agency will:
- Listen to what you want to achieve.
- Tell you what can realistically be achieved within the amount of money you want to spend.
If you want to be the next big thing and make millions, the investment in your branding should mirror that. If you are a small charity just starting out, your budget will mirror that (unless you have funding for the project).
Many brand design agencies will also factor into the equation what the project is worth.
This simply means that if the brand or logo you are asking them to create is going to be used globally, will generate huge amounts of revenue and will be very public, the value of the project is worth more than the sum of the hours put in to deliver it.
Two well know opposites to this are the Nike and Twitter logos. The former was designed by an intern, and the latter was a £10 stock illustration. These, however, are very much the exception and not the rule.
So given all the above, how do you commission a design agency for your branding project?
Do your research; you will save your own time (and the agency’s time) in doing so.
- Get recommendations from other people.
- Google, Google and Google further, try making your search terms more niche to find experts.
- Shortlist no more than five agencies to speak to.
- Let agencies know your budget in the initial contact email or call.
- Have a clear idea of what you want to achieve (not what you want it to look like).
- Do your due diligence as above, and make sure the agency does theirs.
- Don’t just focus on price – value is what you are looking for.
With so many agencies and freelancers, it can be impossible to know where to start. Still, if you go through the process outlined here, you will find that commissioning a branding agency for your project stops being guesswork and becomes a process.