There are tons of "5 Best Reasons…" blogposts about what to look for when hiring an agency, so I'm going to try not to do the done thing. When I think about what makes a firm worthy, I think the issue of characteris often sublimated in favor of what an agency does, what name brand clients they have, how slick their portfolio looks or maybe how embedded they are in social media. The characteristics that lead to great work and strong relationships are, in no particular order, awareness, curiosity, empathy, humor and objectivity.
Awareness: I had the good fortune to attend a fantastic art college called Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena, CA. It was in some ways like a Boot Camp for artists. We had a class called "Head Drawing," in which we spent we spent six hours every Tuesday sitting on butt-numbing stools and sketching the heads of live models, or manikins displaying bones and muscles. My classmates were some of the best young artists in the country and while their talent seemed to grow, I became increasingly despondent about my own work, which wasn't getting better fast enough. My instructor told me bluntly that I was lacking awareness; I wasn't "seeing" what was in front of me. This went on for months. One day, I noticed something I'd never seen before, that the model's eyelid was casting a shadow over her eye, so I drew it. And with that seemingly tiny revelation, my drawing came alive. I felt my heart start to race — I could see!
It takes an open and active mind with the ability to see the big picture yet focus on details and filter out noise, to maintain a keen awareness of the world that can be tapped at any time for creative ideas and strategic insight.
Curiosity: I think that in most cases it's not critical for an agency to have deep experience in their client's field. Sure, it's more comfortable and appears safer to choose the firm that's done umpteen versions of what you will hire them to do, but that doesn't always translate into the most inspired result. Assuming the agency demonstrates intelligence, interest and motivation, the possibilities for excellence often open up when taking the less predictable path.
Most, or at least many agencies are made up of individuals who chose the agency path because the challenge and satisfaction in working with clients in a variety of industries is the opportunity to learn about interesting worlds vastly different or occasionally similar to our own. The challenge of mastering something new and bringing it to life is what keeps creative people fresh, and it starts with being genuinely curious about the world.
Empathy: Chemistry is often cited as a key reason a client chooses one agency over another. "We just clicked," you might have heard someone say, or "I just feel they 'got it.'" There are many possible reasons for that click; maybe relevant past experience, a positive recommendation from a trusted source, a shared sense of humor or great quality work. Underlying it all, you'll often find empathy, that feeling that an agency actually cares about your business, and maybe identifies from personal experience the hoops you have to jump through to do your job, and generally makes you feel like they're a trusted partner.
Humor: Humor and I have traveled an interesting path together. Growing up in a house with a father who had a rapier wit kept me on my toes if for nothing else than to avoid becoming the foil for his sometimes cutting edge. While my sense of humor grew from a defensive posture, it has over time grown into my greatest ally and usually leads me along the path toward not taking situations or myself too seriously.
As the owner of an agency, I find that having a sense of humor always puts clients at ease and brings a human dimension and calm that often diffuses the pressure we're all under. We've had quite a few clients tell us that our projects together are the fun part of their job. That's how it should be when you're collaborating to create something new. Look for the agency that will not only do the best work but will make the process enjoyable.
Objectivity: The most challenging and sometimes frustrating projects are often the ones you do for yourself. The most painful creative assignment I ever had was designing the RainCastle logo. While it looks simple, the amount of crap I generated before I saw the image in a dream — no kidding — almost cured me of my love of design. Creating our own website has also been at times contentious. Even though we're a firm that client's seek for our objectivity, we'll consult an educated outsider to validate or challenge our assumptions on tone and content.
Similarly, when choosing an agency, you need to feel certain that you can trust their objectivity and intelligence, that they can see the forest through the trees, and bring insight that will cut through the clutter that happens when you are to close to something. That kind of objectivity can be found in an agency that is grounded in business and strategy as well as creative and technology.
As I write this, I realize that there are a number of other important characteristics. Lest this become a novel, I'll save them for another post. I'd love to hear what characteristics you believe are key and/or anecdotes about your own experiences in choosing an agency partner.