Every day, grabbing your customer’s attention is a little harder. Standing out and being remembered takes consistent effort paired with unique and innovative thinking. For many organizations, the winning formula includes collaborating with a creative agency.
What is a creative agency?
Successful agency relationships are a partnership. Businesses hire creative agencies to help their marketing and advertising activities cut through the noise bombarding potential customers. Managing this relationship will require time from you and your staff, commitment to see projects through, and a reasonable budget. But the end results may delight you—and, most importantly, your customers.
What does a creative agency do for its clients?
Creative agencies blend strategy with imagination and expertise to help their clients succeed, whether the organization wants to build brand awareness, increase sales, learn about their customers, or launch something entirely new.
What types of services do creative agencies offer?
An agency offers a wide range of strategy, design, and activation services to help a business promote itself. These might include:
- Brand strategy and design
- Content writing
- Digital events and experiences
- Illustration and animation
- Podcast and audio production
- Product design
- Public relations
- Research and consumer insights
- User experience (UX) and user interface (UI) design
- Video and motion production
Many agencies also focus on a particular type of marketing, such as social media campaigns, or specialize in a specific industry or niche.
When is it time to hire an agency?
Working with a creative agency isn’t an either/or situation between outside help and an internal team. It’s about leveraging the best talent available. For example, Upwork’s rebrand was powered by six agencies, 144 full-time employees, and 66 independent professionals.
“This is the strongest team our marketing team has ever built,” said Lisa Edwards, Director of Brand Marketing at Upwork. “[Everyone involved is] an expert in their field. A hybrid team like this gives us deep expertise that we may not be able to afford otherwise, helps us to move faster, and elevates our work.”
Parker Channon, CMO of advertising agency Duncan Channon, observed that organizations typically turn to a creative agency to support:
- Scale. To tackle larger and more complex projects or to expand on existing efforts.
- Expansion. To assist with growth into new markets or to reach new audience groups.
- Perspective. To provide feedback or a fresh take on ongoing challenges.
- Expertise. To contribute knowledge and experience that isn’t available in-house.
- Clarity: To gather information for making better-informed decisions and telling the organization’s story in a more compelling way.
How to hire a creative agency: step by step
An agency’s strategic counsel, creative direction, and ability to produce at scale may be just the spark your next campaign needs. But how can you find a great agency partner? Here’s a nine-step process to consider so you can get your search moving forward.
1. Understand your business and brand goals
What do you expect marketing and advertising can do for your organization? Impactful campaigns don’t exist in isolation—they should move your business forward in a meaningful way. To do that successfully, it’s important to have a clear vision of where the business is going.
Business goals are the tangible short- and long-term targets driving the entire organization forward. These goals may touch on more than one aspect of the business and are typically related to finances, growth, talent success, process management, or social impact.
For example, business goals could aim to:
- Increase revenue by 20% over the next year through targeted marketing and sales efforts.
- Improve talent retention rates by 10% by expanding access to training and development programs as well as promoting career advancement.
- Reduce project delivery times by 15% by streamlining project management processes.
- Reduce the company's carbon footprint by 25% over the next three years through sustainable operations and supply chain management.
A company’s strategic branding is how it wants to be perceived in the marketplace. This may include visual components, like the look and feel of its logo, color palette, and website. But it can also encompass the many different ways a company connects with its customers to build a positive, trusted, and memorable reputation.
Brand goals set a high-level direction for your marketing and advertising efforts. The scope of these efforts can be wide-ranging and focus on anything from customer loyalty and new customer acquisition to awareness, reputation building, or launching in a new market.
For example, brand goals may include:
- Increase unaided brand awareness by 30% over the next year in digital channels.
- Acquire 10,000 new customers through influencer partnerships in the next six months.
- Increase Net Promoter Score (NPS) by decreasing detractors by 10%.
- Develop a new visual identity that differentiates the brand from competitors.
- Increase customer engagement by launching a new content marketing strategy that incorporates audio and video.
2. Research reputable agencies to create a list of potential partners
Market research company IBISWorld reported that there are more than 88,000 advertising agencies in the U.S. alone. With so many options, how can you identify a trustworthy agency that will be a good fit for your needs?
Using industry recognition, such as awards or media coverage, to start a list of potential contacts can give you an effective start, but there are other ways to find a partner agency. Here are a few ideas.
Turn to your network of friends, colleagues, and peers to ask for their personal recommendations. To get the most useful referrals, consider including the following information in your request:
- Be clear about the type of services you’re looking for, such as specific skills and expertise, industry experience, or regional insights.
- Highlight constraints, like an immediate start date or tight timeline, that might be relevant
- Ask for contact information or a direct introduction, which can help establish a connection more easily.
LinkedIn offers two ways to broaden your agency search. You can:
- Go beyond your direct network by sharing a post that explains what you’re looking for and asks for referrals. In addition to referrals, this may generate direct inquiries from agencies active on the platform.
- Search LinkedIn company profiles for “creative agency” or other terms connected with your project. You can filter results by location, industry, or size. While some companies’ pages simply direct you to their main website, others offer a quick introduction through posts about their work or thought leadership.
In-person and digital conferences offer a variety of ways to generate a list of potential creative agencies. Not only do conferences help expand your network, they can also be a low-risk opportunity to connect with agency representatives. For example:
- Discover agencies by browsing the trade show booths or by attending networking events.
- Participate in networking events, where you may meet agency representatives and learn about their work firsthand.
- Attend presentations, workshops, and panels about emerging trends and ideas. These events often include agency representatives as speakers.
Look for case studies from industry publications to identify agencies that already have some perspective on your marketplace or view case studies from agencies to see who your competitors work with—and get a glimpse behind the scenes.
You can also explore case studies on other sites, such as Upwork’s Success Stories, to get ideas and inspiration from other organizations. For example:
3. Create a detailed RFP
As you put together a list of agencies you may want to work with, create a detailed request for proposals (RFP) that can be shared when you reach out.
Agencies want to do work that resonates, to launch projects that look great and have an impact. The more detail you can provide about your organization and the scope of work in an RFP, to showcase the problem you want them to solve, the better quality of responses you’ll receive.
For example, don’t say: “I need to run an acquisition campaign and my budget is unlimited.”
Be specific: “I need to increase sales revenue by 10% this quarter through a targeted acquisition campaign with a budget of $50,000. I want you to run paid social and paid search, but I’m going to do display in-house. I have these creative assets already, but I need you to make one video.”
If you don’t feel you have enough information to put together a solid RFP, consulting with a skilled independent professional on Upwork may help you fill in the blanks.
For example, a social media strategist can explain how to plan, build, and launch an influencer marketing campaign, then compile and organize your RFP.
Agencies expect to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), so don’t hesitate to ask. Then tell them what you need—your timelines, your budget, and any other context you can provide.
4. Establish a budget
From inflation to budget restraints, there’s a lot to be cautious about when it comes to marketing spend. However, even with a solid scope of work, confirming a budget at this early stage can be difficult. With some research and consideration, you can likely estimate a reasonable budget range.
Consider some of the things that may influence costs:
- The scope of work as well as its complexity and timeline
- The experience and expertise needed in an agency
- Your target audience and the cost to reach them
- Additional research that may be needed to run an effective campaign
What information can you find about industry benchmarks and similar campaigns? Is pricing information available?
Once you have a general idea of a campaign budget, you can make adjustments to account for existing resources and other factors that are unique to your situation.
5. Check out the agency’s team—and don’t be surprised if some of them are freelance
Nearly every agency, regardless of size, has a go-to bench of independent talent they rely on to scale their own teams and provide specialized expertise when it’s needed.
Like businesses in every industry, creative agencies see the benefits of working with independent professionals and they’re leveraging that talent to their advantage. Those reasons include:
- Access to specialized talent with the most in-demand skills
- The ability to deliver great work quickly and accurately
- A large global pool of talent to draw from
When it’s time to get to work, these blended teams will be just as dedicated as you are to producing high-quality work that performs well.
6. Gather all the correct stakeholders for the pitches
To review proposals and interview the shortlist of agencies, ask a cross-section of stakeholders to form a selection team. Aim for a group of five to seven people who can work together to make a better informed and more objective choice.
Team members may include:
- Someone from the leadership team, who can bring executive support to the table and ensure the initial concept aligns with overall business goals and objectives
- Project representatives, likely from the marketing or creative teams, who understand the project intent and vision
- Internal partners who may be impacted, such as someone from the IT or legal department
- External customer representatives, often from sales or public relations, who have a deep understanding of the audience the campaign will target
A diverse hiring team will help you get unique views of the different agencies, identify and mitigate potential challenges, and encourage buy-in a
7. Look for fit and good communication
Before sending an RFP, consider prequalifying agencies by talking to each one over the phone. But during the RFP process, ask to meet the team who you’ll work with day to day. An agency may not be able to introduce you to the full team, but they should be able to present one or two people—ideally the leads. If you’re interviewing a remote agency, plan to meet via video instead of phone.
During your interactions, consider the following questions:
- How effectively does the agency communicate, both in person and in written correspondence?
- How do their values align with those of your organization?
- Are their ideas fresh and innovative?
- Are they excited to do the work—and are you enthusiastic about partnering with them?
The fit of a potential agency partner is as important as effective communication. You’ll need both in order for your project to succeed. If an agency’s work is too bold or too bland for you, move on. If their proposal doesn’t clearly pitch their concept, don’t assume it will get better.
For many first-time clients, working with an agency team can feel intimidating. Don’t be shy about establishing 30-, 60-, and 90-day benchmarks and a schedule for deliverables to show it’ll be a fruitful relationship.
Following these steps can help you select the agency partner you and your team will be most comfortable collaborating with. And comfort and mutual respect matter, so you know that you can have tough conversations alongside the celebrations as you hit those goals together.
Ready to start the search for your next creative agency partner? Explore agencies on Upwork.
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