If you’re a medium or large sized business facing a branding challenge, you really don’t need to hire a big name or large agency for branding, identity, advertising, digital, marketing services, research or design. Here’s why.
The definition of ‘making a living’ in branding and design is rapidly and increasingly heading toward a large gig economy where people want to work for themselves and spend time on projects of their choosing. As an employee of a large agency, individual preference or project choice is not a given, it’s a luxury. Many talented brand strategy types (including designers, copywriters, content producers, and yes, strategists) opt to go the independent route. These are smart, ambitious people who want to focus on their preferred projects, rather than the jostling and maneuvering required to move up the agency ladder toward a raise or promotion. Going ‘gig’ relieves this pressure, and also offers independence, freedom and life balance. Insiders know agencies are notorious for long hours, sometimes caused by internal management requiring multiple layers of reviews and revisions because, well, management has to manage.
This is excellent news for companies who need help from the outside on any initiative that is branding, marketing or design related.
If you hire a firm that’s part of a bigger conglomerate (like the 'Big Four’: WPP, Omnicom, Publicis or IPG), more than say five to ten people, you’re paying extra for commercial real estate and needless overhead. The Big Four squeeze the smaller companies for margins, and in one case forced one of their own smaller businesses to pony up $11 million of their annual revenues out of $32M total. Imagine what that does to the staff and leadership. The brilliant people who did all the work did not receive the reward they deserved - and the leadership (and presumably the best talent) left, because, ‘fool me once’.
Because of this dynamic, it is almost a certainty to achieve strong output from independent creatives or collectives of small virtual teams.
Working at multiple branding agencies and from talking with friends who have served at many of the top firms, I can assure you that there is no ‘proprietary process’. People are the proprietary asset. Everyone has the same three phases, essentially some form of open, explore and close; open - where you define the problem, ‘explore' - where you analyze what’s going on through desk and primary research, and ‘close’ where you get to the recommendation.
What makes one outcome better than another is really dependent on the client. Success depends on the ability to gather the right inputs, distill what’s important, and landing on choices the client moves forward with. Clients sometimes don’t know what they want, can’t get consensus and do things that end up making the creative bad…like when everyone gives contradictory feedback and the team has to start over, etc.
Branding work requires experience (my time reviewing branding efforts by whip smart NYU MBAs has proven this), but you don’t need a huge consulting firm or branding agency. You just need one person (or more) who is smart, reliable and likable who has a background in branding proven through a portfolio. You can determine much of this in your first in person conversation, which is required of any firm you would hire.
One way to find resources is to go on LinkedIn, search for people with the title ‘brand strategist,’ ‘brand consultant’ or ‘strategy director’ and look at where they worked, went to school and how they present themselves. Look for ones with big city credentials (NYC, SF or London). You’ll be able to get 100% of what you need to decide if it’s worth that first call. Ultimately, you’ll save your company tens of thousands of dollars and weeks worth of time by going with the nimble, most qualified option.
Sandra Creamer has spent her career focused on business transformation. She's worked at Fortune 100 technology companies, a top CPG company, and several NYC based consulting firms, doing branding, marketing and innovation for many recognizable brands. In her spare time, Sandra teaches at Columbia University in the MS Program for Applied Analytics.