Regret is a Horrible Thing…
There’s nothing worse than getting to the end of a project and feeling utterly consumed with regret and disappointment because you didn’t end up with what you wanted. In the world of agencies there are huge differences in the way they structure their business and carry out the services they provide. It’s this which determines how well they’re able to deliver a project, and how happy you are when everything is finished.
What I want to achieve in this post is to help you understand how a branding agency is run, so you can make sure you’re never burned by an unreliable branding agency that cares more about their bottom line than the success of your project and/or your business. In this post I will give you insights into how agencies plan for and react to situations typical of branding projects and this will help you become informed and able to make the best decision in your next choice of branding agency partner.
You may have been burned in the past by an agency that left your project in tatters, and now you want to make sure that never happens again. Or, you might just be carrying out valuable due diligence and trying to educate yourself to avoid hiring a dud agency in the first place. Either way, this post is going to help you.
Where Can Things Go Wrong With a Branding Project?
It’s easy, especially from the outside, to think all branding projects are the same. In reality there are many, many variables to consider that result in every project having its own unique path towards achieving the end goal of “100% client satisfaction” that every professional agency strives for. Each of these variables present different challenges and hurdles which determines whether you, the client, ends up with a smile or a frown on your face when the project finishes – that is, of course, if you manage to get that far, before wanting to murder every last one of those… those…! People!
Let’s take a brief look at some of the main factors which can make a branding project both unique and challenging:
Personalities & Attitudes
This is a big one. No matter how good a branding agency is, if you don’t get on with them, one of two things are likely to happen. You’ll hate working with each other and/or they won’t be able to stay motivated and do a good job. Equally, if you’re a difficult, uncompromising kind of person, they will regret taking on your project and it’ll show in their work. There isn’t an agency in existence that can successfully work with every personality out there, but the better ones know how to deal with a wider range of personality types and situations that lead from them.
A reliable branding agency understands the importance of building a solid relationship. Their actions, and what they talk about, will show a willingness to build an ongoing partnership with you – rather than expecting a one off project they can just walk away from if (when?) things go wrong. The people, or project managers, assigned to your project will have been matched with your personality type and they will be easy-going people that value trust, commitment and professionalism.
Doing What’s Best for the Brand
Something that doesn’t go unnoticed, from the branding agency’s side, is that many clients don’t really get what branding is. When this is the case, it can lead to the client adopting a “what do I want” mindset which often fails to take into account what’s best for the people you’re trying to sell to. Choosing brand colours, or a style of design, are prime examples, where research, logic and purpose often lose out in favour of the owner’s personal taste. This leads to a situation where you and the agency are likely to have different views on the same subject. A less experienced agency can often struggle to deal with this challenge, creating a negative experience from it.
When you’re working with a decent branding agency, they will use this as an opportunity to help you move forward in the right direction by maintaining their composure and presenting their views to you in a way that informs you, rather than belittling you. Whether you choose to accept their view or not, is up to you. Just bear in mind that no agency likes to be dictated to in their areas of expertise, especially if they believe it’s not right for the brand they’re helping to create.
Making the Right Decisions
I want to start off by saying I believe it’s a much harder task to create a strong brand without a lot of good input from your client, but, just like myself, and everyone else on the planet, as a client you’re going to “get it wrong” sometimes. When an agency detects that you’re moving in the wrong direction for your brand, one of two things can happen. The worst outcome is that absolutely nothing will happen, and you’ll experience the wine waiter response every, single, time. “Oh, good choice sir!”. The best outcome is that you’re challenged and together you choose the better option, but this situation needs to be handled in the right way or it can lead to a breakdown in your relationship and the project.
A responsible branding agency is keen to help you become more informed. They are always on the lookout for opportunities to help you increase your knowledge and decision-making abilities. They treat these situations, which they can see coming long before they happen, with tact and professionalism. And, if worst comes to worst, they can accept that ultimately, you should have the final say.
Trusting in Expertise
One of the biggest killers of branding projects is a lack of trust. It is incredibly hard to trust a new agency partner with your brand, if were burned in the past, you’re a naturally untrusting person or you know you cheaped out on your agency and doubt their abilities! Creating a brand is a truly personal thing for many people, the phrase “it’s my baby” is often thrown around but, just like a smothering parent, you can‘t (and shouldn’t) force your involvement in every aspect of its development. Trust in your agency and your decision to work with them.
A good branding agency will make this easy for you by addressing all of your concerns early on, making you aware of issues before they happen. If, no matter what, you can’t trust your agency partner, I suggest you spend time learning about the branding process and how agencies work before committing to a new project, so you have confidence in your own ability to pick a great branding agency partner and keep your branding project on course.
The Overall Experience as A Branding Agency Client
Reliable branging agencies love building out full brands, but they thrive on developing lasting client partnerships that revolve around the best practice of continuously optimising the brand to get better results in marketing. The opposite to this, is a short sighted approach that focuses on the quick deliver of “things that looks pretty”. This tends to involve a lot of talk about brands and branding, but what they really mean is a “nice looking logo” without any substance behind it.
The problem in working with a short term focused “branding” agency is they have no investment in your long term success. They are planning to move on from you as soon as your project with them is complete. And so, whether your business does well or not is of little concern to them. I likely don‘t have to explain that growing agencies would rather work with successful companies that leverage branding properly, and can give their agency partner bigger, better projects all within the comfort of an existing partnership built on trust and results.
Because of this, you’re going to experience the following:
- Genuine care when handling anything relating to you or your project(s)
- Engaged professionals with greater levels of passion for what they do
- Fewer overall problems
- Strong communication abilities
- Higher quality and consistency of work
- Benefitting from their business experience, contacts and referred opportunities
- A large commitment to helping their clients (take this blog post, for example)
As the owner of a growing company, you also need a reliable branding agency partner. Without one, you’re either winging it or walking into a nightmare scenario with a team you can’t trust. going into the world of business with one arm tied behind your back.
Missing Important Deadlines
The success of a branding project often revolves around whether you get what you need in time for events or business milestones. Effective project planning should include a discussion on deadlines on what both sides need to do, and by when, to make sure that your deliverables are completed on time. Sometimes things happen, you may need to change priorities or your agency may have a busy week, but knowing your deadline requirements, in advance, means that everyone has more clarity on when it is or isn’t acceptable to miss a deadline.
For example, your company may be attending a huge trade event, and need marketing materials, banners, stands etc. It’s no good if it all turns up the day after the event. But, if a deadline is put in place, just because that was an amount of time everyone thought, or agreed, was acceptable, it’s not the end of the world if the agency has to delay things by a couple of days because something urgent came up on their end.
An unreliable branding agency, especially if they are short-term thinkers who don’t expect to work with you again, won’t always see the need to plan and schedule the workload properly. No team will hit every deadline, for every client, every time. Understanding what drives any discussed deadlines and helping realise what needs to happen to make things go smoothly is how a reliable agency adds value to your branding project.
A Reliable Branding Agency Knows Their Limits
Knowing your limits, or your strengths and weaknesses, is vital when you’re trying to be successful. When you run a business, two primary factors that occupy a lot of your head space are money in and money out. Struggling branding agencies often take on more than they can realistically handle in an effort to balance the books and keep growing. So, they:
- Will take on branding projects that require specialist skills they don’t possess
- Will neglect taking time out to develop and improve their services
- Won’t fully consider whether they can complete the project in a reasonable timeframe
- Are likely to favour impersonal communication (email) and struggle to communicate regularly
They hope that everything will work out for the best because they’ve put themselves in a position where the only choice they have is picking which of their clients to let down. Their focus is on keeping clients happy enough that they don’t leave. Some will choose to priorities what they consider to be their best clients, but you can’t rely on them putting you in that list with any certainty.
A reliable branding agency gets themselves into a good place in the world of business. They have plenty of projects coming in because they do great work and don’t let clients down. They don’t need to take on every project that comes their way, giving them more time to focus on your project. Instead of aiming to keep you happy enough that you don’t leave, their focus is to make sure only good things spring to mind when you think about your branding agency partner and your next call with them.
Giving You Bad or Just Plain Wrong Advice
When a branding agency is really just a glorified design agency, they lack the understanding of how to construct and grow a real brand. Just like in a game of football, you can’t see the strategy. You don’t know what’s going through each players minds, or, how they will collectively react to a situation. All you get to see are the end results. The set plays, the formations and which team won or lost.
A branding project is no different. A logo is a logo. You can be dress it up as a brand, but without research, knowledge, insights, purpose and reason, all you’ll end up with is a brand you think looks nice. Unless you are your businesses only customer/client, it is to some extent, irrelevant whether you personally like the brand that has been created.
Branding is about what works for the right people. The “right people” should be defined and understood because they are the ones pumping money into your business – without which, you don’t have a business! All branding decisions need to circle back round to the question of “What would be best for our audience?”. It’s about strategy and understanding. Inexperienced and unreliable branding agencies don’t get this. They make things look pretty, and if you, as the client, also don’t know any better, it’s a recipe for disaster.
An agency in that position will either not give you any advice, or what they tell you, is highly likely to be wrong! Always make sure you get multiple expert opinions on the direction you should take if it’s your first time creating a new brand.
Poor Design Quality
Bad design is different to the wrong design. Something can look great, be visually appealing, but completely alienate the people you’re trying to sell to. Bad design is just bad design. Unfortunately, some people can’t tell the difference between good and bad design. Something you genuinely believes looks good, might look horrible to someone else.
But, there’s no excuse for producing low quality design work. So, what leads to bad work? The designer isn’t great. But why might you end up with a bad designer?
- You cheaped out and prioritised cost when choosing your “branding partner” or logo designer.
- You were tricked into thinking you were hiring someone, or a team, who knew what they were doing
- Someone, at some point, stopped caring – it could be you, it could be the designer/branding agency team
Reliable branding agencies don’t work with companies looking to get their new brand done as quickly and cheaply as possible. They know a proper brand has value and can deliver real results to growing companies. I, and other leaders in the branding space, would always do our best to help a client understand that branding isn’t a cost, it’s an investment they should expect a return on – but there is often little point in trying.
To make sure the quality of design remains consistently high, reliable agencies get themselves into the position of being able to recruit and keep skilled designers and branding experts. They also ensure a high level of motivation is maintained throughout the project, on both sides, so that everyone keeps caring about the work being done.
Not Helping Clients Understand the Branding Process
With knowledge comes power, and great results with branding projects. There’s a lot to take in with branding, so the more you know about it all, the more successful your brand will be. Reliable branding agencies help you in this process by sharing their expertise and knowledge in an easily digestible way. They don’t bombard you with jargon and make lots of assumptions about what you do or don’t know.
To some extent, they can act as mentors, working closely with you you to guide you through each stage of your branding project. Here’s a list of the more important areas of knowledge an agency partner can help you with:
- Having a true understanding of how branding differs from logo and stationery design
- Learning to think about and define your audience in a meaningful way
- Apply branding insights and knowledge to business decision making processes in the right way
- Understanding the value of branding and what it can and can’t do for your business
- Learning how to get the most out of digital and branding agencies
If an agency isn’t reliable, they are unlikely to have knowledge in these areas, and so, be unable to help you either develop on a personal level, or make sure the project delivers actual results. They won’t be able to make potentially complex and boring conversations fun, or even understandable, and they’re going to struggle to add any value to your branding project beyond simply knowing (hopefully..!!) how to use professional design tools.
Creating a Brand That Alienates Your Audience
Branding is about developing a conscious understanding of how to engage with all the different types of people you want to attract to your business. Get it right and you’re going to have an easy ride. People will approach your business being almost ready to buy. Rather than having to answer a million questions, and reassure them on several fronts (beceause your brand didn’t deliver a good first impression) you’ll enjoy shorter, more positive calls and ultimately a much healthier bank balance.
Branding projects are strategic, and they can become complicated very quickly. No matter what you do as a business, if you define your brand around assumptions, educated guesses and little else, you’re going to end up with problems because you’re going to do things your audience/customers don’t want you to do.
What’s worse, is that you won’t know you got it wrong until it’s too late to do anything about it. You can think your brand is fantastic, but if after a year, your sales dropped faster than Donald Trump’s trousers on an alcohol fuelled night out with his female “friends”, well, it’s going to become very obvious that mistakes were made long, long ago.
Here’s a wonderful example of branding gone wrong. You may remember this cringingly bad video campaign by the government, attempting to appeal to younger audiences. Unfortuantely all they managed to achieve was validation of claims the government are incompetent and out touch with the real world.
Don’t sabotage your business/brand/organisation like the government do, by misunderstanding your audience, what they love and what they hate.
An Agency Lacking in Development and Marketing Expertise
When you work with a branding agency to build a new brand, it can often be tempting to work with them in other areas, even if they have little to no understanding or experience in that field – which can be difficult to ascertain if you also don’t have the relevant knowledge to judge them with.
With a trusted branding agency that doesn’t know much about where and/or how their branding is going to be used, the lines can become blurred in terms of what you rely on them for. The danger is that you end up taking them at their word and they fail to deliver.
Let’s look at an example…
This is the main navigation of a reputable branding agency in Worthing that also builds websites. This navigation is present after you scroll down from the top of the page. It behaves in a similar way to ours but, let’s see if you can spot the problem…!
Or perhaps you can’t see anything at all? For those who can’t, the logo (which I have blurred out – I’m not trying to be a complete dick!) on the left hand side, and the mobile menu (which for some reason they chose to put on a desktop website, making it more difficult for users to find what they want), are virtually indistinguishable from the background they are placed on. How is anyone supposed to navigate the site??
This is a questionable web design decision to say the least. It may be a minor point to make but it’s clear there is a lack of understanding in what constitutes good web design here, and that will undoubtedly follow through into other “web design” decisions they make.
Unrealistic expectations can kill a branding project before it even starts. A long, long time ago, I had an enquiry regarding teh creation of creating a new logo for them (not even a brand!) and it became obvious very early on that no matter who they worked with; they would not be happy.
Why? Because they had wildly unrealistic expectations about what could be achieved with their budget. They didn’t understand the amount of work that goes into projects like these and they weren’t prepared to learn why. I turned the client away after a conversation that started by my asking of the question “What do you want your new logo to achieve?” and they responded with “We want to get a new logo so that our products can start selling again”.
I dug deeper only to find out that they had an online store and their sales had been dropping year on year. Some how, they had come to the conclusion that the only problem they had was their logo – which wasn’t even that bad. It was clear that they had several other problems that needed addressing, but they weren’t prepared to even talk about it.
A reliable branding agency will sit down with you very early on to discuss what you want to achieve and how best to do that. When they sense unrealistic expectations, they will gently inform you of their concerns and how it may not lead to the results you want. This is also where it can pay off to work with an agency that doesn’t just specialise in one area because they can see issues and solutions that single focus agencies can’t.
This can be a difficult conversation to have, especially if you’re new to business and worried about getting ripped off. The truth of the matter is that if you engage with shady agencies and you tell them what your budget is, they probably will rip you off – but that’s going to happen anyway, no matter how much you spend. The most common mistake to make is not talking about budgets at all and saying things like “I’m hoping you can tell me how much it’s going to cost”. This just leads to agencies sending you quotes that are wildly above or below what you were expecting to pay – and of course, you are likely to instantly dismiss them as a potential branding partner.
It’s like saying, “I want a meal. How much is that going to cost?”. Well, that depends on a great many things!
A reliable agency is going to make you feel at ease when discussing this. They’ll explain that you don’t need to give an exact amount, they just need to know roughly what you’ve got to work with (a range e.g. £5,000 – £8,000) so they can put together some options for you. It all forms part of expectation management, which we discussed in the previous point.
If you’re expecting 20 rounds of completely unique brand concepts and variations, but you’re only willing to pay £500 – you’re going to end up with a shit designer who delivers crap work. Reliable agencies are great at helping you find better and more cost effective solutions. Having these conversations will also help to uncover incorrect assumptions that are likely to sabotage your project.
If you’re looking to start up a new business, or you want to take your existing one to the next level – make sure you get a good, reliable branding agency. Depending on the kind of company you choose to work with, they can end up being your best friend or worst nightmare and it will have an impact on your business so choose wisely!
I hope this post has helped you to understand some finer points relating to branding projects, why some agencies do what they do, how to avoid shoddy agencies and what to expect from the decent ones.
If you have any branding or agency related questions, please feel free to post them in the comments below and I’ll be sure to reply personally! Alternatively, feel free to get in touch!