Who to trust with your brand: an agency of record or a creative partner? Building an engaging brand experience is sometimes a Herculean task, one that takes months, even years, to complete. Even after a brand has been established, it must continually evolve to stay relevant with its target audience. Therefore, it is vital that a company selects and works with a creative organization that truly understands (or desires to understand) their product or service, and that will provide continuity in terms of overall quality and level of service. Graphic designers, marketing and public relations firms, and advertising agencies all claim to be experts in “branding.” While true that these different types of creative organizations are capable of handling a brand project, what clients really need is a creative partner.
The word “agency,” often used to describe some advertising or PR firms, brings to mind comparisons with law firms or accountants—not only are these service providers treated like commodities, they are notorious for fee-based work in which the primary motivation is that “time is money.” They charge for every minute they speak to or perform work on behalf of a client; call an attorney to ask a simple question, get a bill for fifteen minutes of their time. Some advertising agencies, those with large overhead and payroll liabilities, find themselves operating this way out of necessity.
Creative firms should focus on building relationships, not billable time.
There is a difference between creative companies that bill hourly and those that bill per project. In fee-based agencies, where becoming the “Agency of Record” for a client is the ultimate goal, the primary focus is on winning new business, getting a signed contract over a specific amount of time (a “retainer agreement”), and then moving on to the next prospect. The client commits to paying an up-front fee for a certain number of hours per month (regardless of whether or not all hours are expended); projects are assigned to junior staff members (senior staff is focused on acquiring new clients); and projects tend to progress more slowly (since there are only a certain number of billable hours available each month). Ultimately, this can be a one-way relationship in which the client is left under-served and unsatisfied.
Firms that focus on becoming a “Creative Partner,” however, are not out for short-term gain, but rather to develop a long-term relationship with the client. Branding is a process that takes time to implement, and it is important to have a consistent team—by collaborating with a company’s sales or marketing team, the creative partner begins to understand their needs, target markets, and ensures that a creative strategy is built around the client’s business goals or marketing strategy. Any billable time is built into a project rate that is agreed to up front, and adhered to. In lieu of a monthly retainer (that might become open-ended), the Creative Partner will propose a clearly defined, phased approach to the branding problem, establishing a schedule of projects to be billed as they are completed. If and when a dispute between the partners arises, they work to resolve it quickly and fairly, and use that knowledge to further the relationship. In this manner, a mutually beneficial relationship is established.
Whatever type of project the client needs, a creative firm should not have a mentality revolving around the billable hour, which in effect nickel-and-dimes the client. True creative partners must be willing to do whatever it takes (within reason, of course) to make sure that the client is taken care of and satisfied with the quality of service and work that they receive. Now that’s a good brand experience.
—Ryan Hembree, principal/brand strategy