The Right Way to Hire a Digital Studio: Start With a Test Project

by Dirk Knemeyer

This is the second 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.

I’ve been doing agency work for more than 15 years. One dynamic that I’ve seen in every agency I’ve worked in is what I call “hurry up and wait.” A new client calls and says, “This is SO important to us! We need to start in three weeks! We’re going to pick an agency by the end of next week!” Four months later, after all the approvals have come in, the contracts from their legal department are negotiated, and the PO is issued, NOW the project actually begins. The urgency that fueled the need to retain our services was tempered by the demands of the real world. And, that world did not end because of the wait.

Hey, I’m not criticizing. I’ve been guilty of the same thing when hiring outside partners. The business importance is white hot, you are very focused and will move heaven and Earth to get things started, and you’ll will it to happen if necessary. But then reality sets in and your three-week ideal turns into four months, to the chagrin of all involved. I’m bringing this up not to talk about how hard this “hurry up and wait” dynamic can be for the agency (“hard as a diamond” might be a good way to characterize it!) but to remind you as a client that, ultimately, you have more time than your instincts tell you that you do. If jumping in with both feet can be delayed for Legal, or for the CFO to get around to signing the contract, or for Tom to return from his leave, you can surely take a timely but systematic approach to ensure your big bet is on the right partner.

Start the agency relationship with a small “test” project

So, what does an agency “test drive” look like? There are a few ways to structure it, depending on your situation:

  • Scope the work as a paid project. Clients are sometimes reticent to do this since the scoping/sales is seen as an investment the agency should be making in the client, not the other way around. Here’s the problem: to test the agency, you don’t want to put their sales people through their paces, you want to evaluate the key staff who will be working with you. You want to work with the designers, artists, and engineers to see how they think; how they are to work with; and how they interpret your industry, company, and specific situation. Don’t think of it as paying for scoping, think of it as an insurance policy that will almost certainly add value to your strategic perspective on the situation at the same time. Relative to the total project budget the investment will be a modest one. In and of itself, if the partner is a strong one, it will be more than worth the investment you make. And if the partner is not good, well, thank your lucky stars you only paid them for doing the scoping!
  • Carve off a “first phase” of the entire scope as a stand-alone test project. This is the most common and seemingly efficient way to test the agency relationship. It flows directly into the tangible end goal, the project itself. However, the risk of this approach is it may only give you visibility into a small subsection of the project team. Many agencies (but not Involution Studios) use the “assembly line model” where one “specialist” does their part, then hands off to another “specialist” who does their part, then hands off to another “specialist” who...well, you get the idea. In that model, testing via a first phase is dangerous because you could make an ill-informed decision based on the strengths or weaknesses of that subset of the team. This is a risk even for teams that do not have an assembly line mentality. Here at Involution Studios, we assign at least one full-time creative to your project from start-to-finish. So this approach is great for testing that core person. But the engineer may not be involved in the first phase. Or, we might have an illustrator planned for later in the project who won’t participate, either. So you need to go in with your eyes open as to which parts or proportions of the agency team are being tested in this first phase approach.
  • Create a small lust-to-dust project that involves all or most of the digital studio team. By “lust-to-dust” we mean from the idea up until the completion. In this case that means making something from start-to-finish. This could be some small thing that is related to your current/old product stack. It could be something more strategic in which you see value. Or it could be something that is expected to be throw-away. The goal is to see as much of the agency team perform together and with your team to understand how they will work, what the interactions with you will look like, and how the work itself all comes together at the end. This is often the most expensive and least practical way to proceed unless you have a specific set of deliverables that you can carve off, assign to the agency team, and get value from the work. However, it is also the most thorough and relevant way to test your agency partner.

In our experience, the biggest obstacle to the “test drive” approach is not so much the money as it is the time. But, I assure you, you have the time to get it right. A wise carpenter once said “measure twice, cut once,” an adage that is wholly appropriate here. If that old cliché is not enough to convince you, then remember “hurry up and wait.” The work you will be doing with the digital studio will be delayed in multiple, unexpected ways from when you first contact them to when the project actually commences. None of those delays, absolutely none of them, is more important than making sure you’ve chosen the right partner. The most immersive and effective way to do that is start with a small project together. Your vision for the wonderful things you will create together is surely worth that modest investment.


Topics: Business of Design