Seven things every startup should demand from its branding agency

By Camillia BenBassat

Camillia BenBassat, Founder and Creative Director at Avec, highlights seven things startups should demand from branding agencies.

In today’s competitive startup space brand can make the difference between success and failure. If you can craft a brand experience that engages with consumers and communicates your values successfully across all key touchpoints, you are far more likely to stand out from rivals and build market share.

Kate Shillo Beardsley, Managing Director at Upslope Ventures, specializes in advising fast-growth firms. She says: It doesn’t matter whether your audience is consumers or businesses, you need to think of design as an essential part of your scaffolding. We as humans respond to well-designed products. We’ve been trained by Apple, Google, Mailchimp, Slack and Instagram, and expectations are high for new products. Founders that understand and value the importance of design in terms of visuals and functionality are ahead of the game.”

Once you’ve made the all-important decision to invest in design, you have two more decisions to make: who to help design that brand and how to manage the relationship? There’s no end of advice out there on how to choose the right design partner, so in short: find one that understands your audience, you get what you pay for and, most importantly, be certain you’ll enjoy working with them! 

At the same time, there are plenty of people lining up to tell you how to behave towards your agency: trust their expertise, treat them as a strategic partner (not a production supplier), communicate any concerns, respect their time. It’s all good advice. But what about what you should expect from them? Here are seven things that we believe every buyer of design services should expect from their agency partner.

1.The ability to say no 

At a fundamental level, we believe that every company can benefit from a well-designed brand, but, for startups, timing matters. Make sure your agency partner isn’t so eager to win the work that they’re advising you to invest your time and resources in the wrong place. For example, when a tech company approached us to help develop the brand for an app they were building for real estate agents, it was way too early in the product lifecycle. We advised them to focus their energies on the product first and foremost—it doesn’t matter how beautiful it is if it doesn’t work. On the flip side, when a client came to us with a new DTC skincare line, we knew if they weren’t noticed, they’d fail, so investing in their brand and packaging was crucial to stand out in a crowded field.

2. Not just a logo

“In my experience, founders of startups or small companies tend to equate branding with creating a logo,” says Shillo Beardsley. “In fact, this is just the tip of the iceberg and they should expect far more.” Your brand is the external representation of your company’s mission and values, and as it’s the overall narrative for every aspect of the customer experience (including the messaging, packaging, website and social) that visual story must be considered and consistent across each touchpoint.

3. The A-team

If on day one of the project kickoff you meet a completely different team than the people you bought the service from, it should ring alarm bells. Make sure you have the agency’s best people working on your account, and that they stay part of the process throughout the duration.

4. Communication that’s frequent, proactive and honest

It shouldn’t be you chasing for updates. Your agency partner should be keeping you up to speed with everything that’s happening. If something isn’t happening the way you expected they should make sure you know about it and explain their plan for getting things back on track. Simultaneously, be sure to keep your agency in the loop as your product evolves through the course of the engagement in order to ensure that the brand development is responding to any future or changing needs of the business.

5. Great expectations

You should be under no illusions about what you can expect for your budget. One of the important early tasks for an agency is to set realistic expectations about what’s possible with the available budget as well as to understand what may come up down the line and how to plan for them. Daphne Hoppenot of The Vendry says: “I would make sure that the agency seems aligned with your business objectives rather than trying to push you in the direction of the type of work that they want to do. Secondly, I'd be prepared to spend more with the agency than the initial scope of work you commit to. If you like them, you will likely value their ongoing input and involvement as your product evolves so even if you move to an hourly retainer, I would be prepared to think about the overall relationship as extending beyond the first phase.”

6. Transparency

This might be your first experience with branding or digital design. Don’t be intimidated by impenetrable language, technical terms, and complex processes. Be sure to ask questions at every stage in order to understand exactly what is happening and why it is being done that way.

7. Future-proofing

Consider whether you want your agency to build in a future dependency to its solution. If they’re designing your website, make sure you talk through what happens post launch or ongoing maintenance. You should expect easy access to all code and artwork files too.

Pick the right partner, work with them in the right way, and expect them to give you all seven of those points in return and your design project will almost certainly deliver what you need. What’s more, it will be the foundation of your brand and business’ long term success.


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