The Right Way to Hire a Design Studio: Review the Relationship

by Dirk Knemeyer

This is the last in our series of four articles intended to help clients forge more successful and mutually beneficial relationships with outside design agencies. Read Skip the RFP, Start With a Test Project, or Culture is Key.

Mindfulness is the secret to good relationships: entering into them for the right reasons and, perhaps even more importantly, reviewing them over time. It can be easy to slide into a relationship that is not necessarily a good one and then just continue forward with it through simple inertia. Specific to the agency relationship, here are some important aspects that are worthy of frequent review:

  • Composition of the service team. Some agencies, especially larger agencies, move personnel on and off projects with some regularity. Are the people assigned to you now of the caliber you expected to be paying for?
  • Motivation of the service team. Relationships have peaks and valleys. Creatives, in particular, are vulnerable to these undulations over the course of a long client relationship. Even the agency itself, as they pursue or take on new projects, may lose focus on your work, perhaps in ways you aren’t even able to recognize. This can impact the quality or velocity of the work being done. Keeping your agency motivated and focused is an important aspect of maintaining an effective working relationship.
  • Progress of the work. This is easy to lose sight of from the trenches. It is possible for projects to go far off the initially planned schedule or scope. Sometimes this is done intentionally for sound strategic reasons. Other times it is a creeping slippage that—whether the fault of the agency, your team, or a little bit of both—results in lost time and money. Checking in on the work, not just in the moment but as it relates back to the plans and agreements you have together, can help make the most of the relationship.
  • Evolution of capabilities. Technology is changing. So is your market. It is important for your design agency to be improving and evolving as well. Make sure your partner continues to match or exceed your needs for innovation, creativity, and ability to produce.
  • How else can the agency help? It is common for the “do-ers” working with you to be so focused on the work they are doing that they miss obvious opportunities where the capabilities of the agency could help in other ways. And, while you might expect an account manager on the agency side to be on top of these things, most agencies are owned and run by creative people who are often more interested in the problem-solving itself than looking for ways to expand their business with the client. Since you are working with the agency for their expertise in the first place, be proactive about identifying additional ways it might be brought to bear.

Now, while having an annual review to consider these things is a sensible tactic, here are some more “asymmetrical” approaches that can give a more regular pulse on your agency partner and their impact:

  1. Ask their staff to come in and give periodic “tech talks” to your team. This is valuable in so many ways: it brings new smarts and thinking to your people while showing them you are invested in their success by providing a tech talk. The content and quality of the talk itself can tell you a lot about where the agency is on the technology spectrum. If they are wowing you it is a good sign, whereas more mundane content might be a red flag. Then too, how the agency responds to the request for tech talks will tell you a lot about how invested they are in you. If they are enthusiastic and accommodating, that is a good sign the agency relationship is in a strong place. If they are more reticent, that is a sign that you should look more deeply into other aspects of the relationship. Requesting a quarterly tech talk is perfectly reasonable and should be embraced by the agency as an opportunity to develop their staff while adding value for you.
  2. Monthly management check-in. Each month a business leader from your team and an account manager or business leader from the agency team should have a face-to-face, in-depth meeting about the state of the work and the relationship. While the content of the meeting is surely important, just setting, prioritizing, and keeping this level of accountability lets the agency know you care and are paying attention to what is happening, and that you are an active partner in helping to shepherd a successful outcome for everyone involved.
  3. Monthly internal check-in. The most reliable source of information about the performance of the agency is likely your front-line team members who are the day-to-day direct contacts with the agency team. If things are going badly, they might go out of their way to tell you, while if things are just “OK” that might get lost in the shuffle of everyone doing their jobs. Agency relationships should not be just “OK.” Agencies are being paid premium rates for premium services. You want things to be good, at least, with great being the ideal. If things are bad, mediocre, or just “OK” you want to be on top of that. The purpose of working with a great agency is to benefit in transformative ways. Schedule meetings with your internal team to focus on the performance of and relationship with the agency team.

Strong relationships require nurturing, and progress reviews are an important part of managing a strong agency relationship. This requires not just reviews with the agency, but reviews with your team about the agency. We are also strong advocates for the quarterly tech talk: there is no better way to test the agency’s methods and thinking than invite them to give you a presentation doing just that. It adds value for your team while, in a friendly way, challenging the agency to “show you the goods” and demonstrate their thinking and effectiveness.


Topics: Business of Design