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Who you gonna call?

The great American graphic designer Saul Bass, known for his work on film titles and some iconic US brand development during the 1960s, was once asked, “What comes first – the images, or the words?’ His reply, ‘The phone call!’ The decision with whom to work is crucial to a successful project – whether they are internal to your business, external, known to you or new. In my experience, the client initiates the project and the agency responds, in +90% of cases. 

As a client, you can’t see every agency but equally can you just stay with the one(s) you already know? 

The make-up of the project team should be approached with great care and tuned specifically to the exact requirements of the project. The initial phone call is the catalyst for the assembling of the collaborators and the transfer of information and experience. 

How do you identify the correct skills, experience or activities you require as a client? How do you decide who to call?


We will take potentially award winning creative as a given deliverable from the design agency but as a client, how are we going to judge what an appropriate collaborator should be doing to deliver commercial success? Where should we start? Is it enough for the client to say – ‘we haven’t refreshed our website/brand/product for the past 3 or 4 years, so let’s find a web/brand or product agency?’ Perhaps there is an incumbent agency with current experience of working with the client ‘They could do what we need – they’ll be keen to do what we ask.’ Personally, I don’t believe that is the right place to start. 

Firstly, an independent senior individual needs to assume overall responsibility for the project. They might be an employee, or they might be an external consultant reporting directly to the board. This person needs to have a broad range of skills and experience from both the commercial and the creative worlds and should be well versed in the realistic business expectations from identified deliverables. 

This senior person – the design manager – is best placed to use their experience to lead a team to interrogate the business requirements starting from a strategic standpoint and ascertain and identify the required business benefits we are looking to achieve from the project. This gives us the starting point to not just form the project brief but to benchmark the ‘before’ status in order to allow us to measure the effectiveness of the project once it has been completed and implemented. 

Such things as sales volumes, margins achieved etc are obvious to include here but other, softer things like awareness in the sector, required customer response and retention, competitor reaction and activity can all be helpful too. Design can deliver transformational results in business, but we should still always ask whether, in this particular scenario, design activity – from thinking to implementation in any form – is realistically going to solve, or make a significant contribution to solving, the identified problems and delivering our business requirements. We do not want to be spending significant budget with only superficial results. This will distract from the real issues. As a minimum, this will be money and reputation wasted and undermine internal confidence, which in turn could reduce opportunities to effectively leverage design in the appropriate context in the future. 

The project brief should include how the design effectiveness and ROI is to be measured. This allows us to justify the budget. But we need to not just produce memorable work but work that can be shown to improve the brand and reputation in the market, sales, new market opportunities etc and eventually drive business growth.

Once the project brief is agreed then it is the design manager’s task to create a longlist of potential and suitable design deliverers. This should be based on the identified skills and specialisms required – and budget available – but also demonstrated experience, approach and personalities. The design manager by definition should have a wide knowledge of the design provider landscape and the strata of price vs delivery and be able to draw upon that experience to create this long list.

Equally, they should be willing to put in some legwork to meet newer, or currently ‘new to me,’ agencies in order to judge their suitability for the work, (the DBA Directory is a helpful place to start). Criteria to inform this process might include quality of creative, problem solving skills, deep understanding of the problem, an evidenced track record of delivering accurately upon their initial proposals, or of having influenced appropriate changes and delivered them to the benefit of the project and the business.


Look at their work – do you like it? Speak to them – how do they talk about it? Is it all about the creative and the ideas? Or is it more about, ‘this is the problem we identified as a team/the client told us about, and we verified it and this is how we went about solving it – with these results’.

The project brief can be used during the interview and procurement process for the agency to respond to. The first step of working with the appointed agency will be to collaborate on the exact creative brief required, complete with identified priorities. Sometimes this is a useful thing to do during the interview/decision process – pay each shortlisted agency an agreed fee to come in and work (individually) with the team for a day to collaborate on the creative brief, shape the project, identify some of the barriers, unknowns etc that will need to be solved during the project delivery. This helps establish a personal relationship between the potential team members and begins to define a way of working. It might highlight potential tensions due to personalities, project expectations etc that can then be addressed appropriately prior to the final appointment.

What does the design agency get from this procedure – other than seemingly a lot more work to win the business than usual? Well, they get a project ready client, with realistic requirements for their business and outcomes for their budget and an appreciation of how much of their own effort and time will be required to deliver the project. The agency, being appointed on the back of a rigorous interview and appointment process, know they can cover the range of potential deliverables and capabilities. They can also get independent feedback from the design manager about their interview, credentials and proposal process – whether they win or lose the project. What do we really look/sound like – for instance, are we using language that the client understands?

What can the design manager bring to the party? From my experience, they bring some skills that might be available from other business functions blended with unique skills from their design background. With a broad range of experience in managing and delivering design implementation and a strong strategic perspective, they should provide a two-way translation from design to business – in terms of language, culture and approach. Their creativity in thinking and actions will facilitate conversations and suggestions, as well as free any blockages, which they can mediate, if required, with the best interests of the project outcome in mind. 

Crucially, an experienced design manager – whether employee or external consultant, is someone who understands the subtleties of an agency approach, the exact nature of the design experience described and the likelihood of success for a particular procedure or approach. They will also be motivated by contributing to the partnership of a successful creative and business outcome. As part of their professional engagement, they also transfer learnings and leave a legacy within the business of the power of design, how to procure, brief and manage it. 

It’s never been easier to make a phone call. However, it is more and more difficult to properly communicate and cut through all the everyday noise. That first phone call acts as a starting gun for a project and is already influencing the project’s outcomes, so don’t take it lightly – it could become one of the defining actions of the project. Just as in films, the project title, the awareness of an exact starting point (the establishing shot) and the intended direction must inform and focus initial communications. These should outline the facts, set the context and frame the expectations and standards for the project. Let creativity fuel the process, the problem solving and the deliverables but never forget it is only well managed creativity that will deliver a successful and potentially transformational outcome.

About: Andy Cripps

Andy uses design-based approaches to grow businesses of all types. He does this by better connecting them to existing, lapsed or potential customers through strategic direction and management of creativity, creative activities, processes and people.

Andy is a strategist, specialist in Design Management and an accredited member of the DBA Experts Register.

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Image credits:

Oliur | Unsplash

Cupcake Media | Unsplash

Rawpixel | Unsplash



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