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Being an Agency of One

Whatever your structure you need to position yourself as what you are and play on your strengths.


Last Thursday I attended a presentation at SCAD’s Entrepreneurial Forum by David Sherwin, a Senior Interaction Designer at frog design.

I didn’t really know what to expect since I was mostly drawn in by the title “Being an Agency of One”, but I found myself connecting with a lot of the experiences he shared during his presentation.

It was a mixture of experiences and advice that he came up with along with team of professionals in the design and marketing industry. It also had a strong focus on project management and profitability.

David offered in his lecture a lot of information that one would be able to obtain only after having coffee or a few beers with the owners of an agency or creative studio.

At the beginning of the lecture, he explained how agencies make money.

Well… by creating cool stuff, one may think. But in reality, lots of companies make their money from a variety of sources such as re-selling services (media buying, hosting), giving away content (blogs, tutorials) or selling proprietary assets (software, processes, etc.). Depending on what areas are more profitable and also depending on the level of involvement, staff hours need to be allocated accordingly.

After each agency has the materials they use as their currency, they need to figure out how they will engage in business with others. This part involves setting the rules of engagement and having a talk with clients to let them know what they can expect from the agency and what the agency is expecting from them. It is incredibly important to have this conversation because a lot of professionals in the creative industry wrongly assume a client is a client, and when they contact the agency, the agency is obligated to bend over backwards to accommodate their needs and expectations.

David also touched on the importance of saying no, whether it’s because the client needs something outside of our field of expertise, or because they have a very limited budget that won’t allow for our best effort. This will help the client understand we are a creative partner, and not just a vendor.

The main point I walked away with was that it is very important to know that whatever your structure (large agency, medium agency, small agency or freelancer) you need to position yourself as what you are and play on your strengths.

Each structure is specifically designed for different types of clients.

Large agencies usually are best for large companies, because sometimes the volume of their needs is only manageable by a really large team with very specific functions within the organization.

If you are a freelancer or a small agency, your full attention will be focused on the projects at hand, and the client will get personalized interactions every step of the way. There are varying levels of quality at this “size”, but generally if you find a good freelancer or small agency (i.e. Paragon) you’ve hit the jackpot.

Here’s why: generally with large agencies, you will get the best and most seasoned creatives at some point in the process, but the bulk of the work will be done by young and sometimes inexperienced employees, and there will be a huge cost associated with the agency’s service, not only because of their reputation, but also to cover their humongous overhead. With small agencies, you get all hands on deck, all levels of experience collaborating, because usually each person has a specific strength and for most projects, a variety of strengths will be needed.

I think I’ve covered only 20% of what his presentation contained, and maybe 0.02% of his extensive online materials, so if you want to know more, and get it straight from the source, I highly recommend following him on Twitter @changeorder and visiting his website.

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