The Right Way to Hire a Digital Studio: Culture is Key

by Dirk Knemeyer

This is the third in a series of four articles intended to help clients forge more successful and mutually beneficial relationships with outside design agencies. Read Part 1, Skip the RFP and Part 2, Start With a Test Project.

What impact do you want a design-agency partner to have on your organization? The first answer to this question typically has to do with the “stuff”—the creative or technical wizardry you hope their efforts will produce. There are other reasons to hire an agency, though. In my experience, while the stuff was getting made clients have also asked me to help transition a waterfall organization to agile methodologies (way back in 2005!), to serve as the management consultant to their executive team (as a shepherd for the massive organizational change that would accompany the stuff), and to help transform a rag-tag team of three junior user experience people into a 20-person, best-practice team. In addition, since we integrate and co-create with our clients instead of throwing the stuff over the wall, our magic-makers can spend quite a bit of time working directly with the client-side team. The work is integrative and immersive. More than making stuff, it can transform the organization. That transformation is all about culture.

Ah, culture. That little seven-letter word that seems so benign, yet lurks just under the surface, ready to sprout into something unhealthy. Although it is usually pretty easy to tell if there is a "good" culture or not, understanding why in some real way is difficult. So many things go into culture, and the lynch pin to a healthy culture in Company A may be irrelevant in Company B, whereas something that has no impact in Company A may be crippling to the culture in Company B. It is complexity and subjectivity at their very worst.

Given all of this, if taming culture for yourselves is daunting, what about evaluating the cultural fit between an agency partner and your team? Here are some key indicators that I have found universally important in working with more than 200 clients:

Personalities. This is the simplest of them all, and is often dismissed as a minor consideration whereas it is actually material. You want a relationship of mutual respect between your internal team and the agency team. People who, while they are not there to be friends, are the types of people you could see as friends. Working with and for people with whom you are comfortable influences mood, productivity, and commitment to the work. So if the key members of the agency team make you uncomfortable, don’t just passively accept that. Pause and consider that as a real and important factor in deciding whether to pick them or not. Are these people you want in the trenches with you when the bullets start flying? Culture starts with people.

Philosophy. At Involution Studios, we bring a counter-cultural perspective to our work. We’ve long been critical of popular dogma in user experience, and we have unwavering faith in our methods. For example, the best-practice agency approach to research is to have it done by a “researcher,” that is, someone who considers themselves a researcher by vocation, likely has advanced degrees relevant to research, and spends most of their professional lives researching. We believe in immersive research, where the creators themselves are principally involved in the research being done. Yes, we may augment the team with an expert to provide some high-level leadership. But the primary person in the process is the same designer or engineer who is leading the creative project. For a client with a more orthodox view of design research, this approach might feel uncomfortable. Given that we are unwilling to eschew an approach that has repeatedly worked well for us for the conventional methods, we are not going to be a good cultural fit for a client who finds that unacceptable (or who is forced to tolerate it because their superiors said they must). You should work with an agency with whom you share a similar philosophy or, if you don’t, view the philosophical differences as opportunities for growth and learning, embracing them as part of the process.

Work style. At Involution we have some unique ways of doing business. For example, we all wear slippers around the studio. (Some of the more free-spirited members of the team even go barefooted.) On Friday afternoons one member of the team takes a couple of hours to cook one of their favourite dishes and we all sit together, family style, enjoying it. It is a “work hard, but do it your way, and enjoy the people here” approach to a professional life. There are people out there who would roll their eyes at the slippers, be horrified by the bare feet, and be very concerned to make sure they were not getting billed while their designer was making lunch for the studio. For those people, we are a terrible cultural fit. Yes, we go into the client’s workplace with the proper degree of respect and decorum when the moment calls for it. But our ethos is a particular brand of passion for the work and respect for the individual. Doing work for a client who does not respect that ethos diminishes us in their eyes simply for being the people that we are. That is not a good situation for anyone. Now, we have had clients who brought us in precisely for the differences between our culture and theirs; they aspire to aspects of our culture in their own organization. In such cases the differences in work style are not a problem, they are the point. The important thing is being mindful of how your work styles relate and choosing an agency partner that reflects what it is you want.

Work process. While your agency will almost certainly adapt to however you want to work, if doing so clashes with their process it can put stress on the relationship. It may even make them less tolerant or flexible in material ways during the “heat of battle,” when they are trying to create something great. If you work with a lot of process and rigour—think Gantt charts—ideally your agency will, too. Or, if you work with a more emergent and loose process, you will likely work best with an agency that shares this fluidity. This is doubly important if the agency is trying to get you to work within their processes instead of conforming to yours. Now, the exception to this point is if you are hiring the agency to, in part, help evolve your organization into a different way of working. In that case, you’ve chosen them for that contrast, and full speed ahead. But if process is something that should be notable only for the fact that it runs smoothly and discretely, then working with an agency with a markedly different process philosophy will result in a cultural clash.

The micro-culture that you and your agency partner form together is an unpredictable thing that incorporates too many factors to accurately predict ahead of time. However, a relationship that features agency-client compatibility, along with a healthy shared culture where the two intersect, is an important vector in choosing an agency partner. Just because it is less quantitative and more difficult to compare in an apples-to-apples way when considering multiple agencies, do not make the mistake of ignoring or under-emphasizing it as a consideration. While the “stuff” might be the reason you are hiring an agency, the biggest impact on whether people perform to their level of ability ultimately comes down to cultural issues. By fostering a relationship that seems destined to blossom into a happy and healthy culture, you dramatically increase the odds of a successful engagement.

Invo meal

Topics: Business of Design