Industry Info

Debate & Discuss: Design Agency Selection and Compensation

Posted: June 6, 2015 by
Linda Casey

In the May 2015 issue, Package Design explores different methods for evaluating design firms and compensating them for their work, from pay for performance to the controversial subject of spec work.


The Expert: Amy Brusselback

Former design director at Procter & Gamble, and current principal of Design B&B


How do you evaluate an agency’s competence?

So much about brilliant design has to do with having a brilliant relationship with your creative partners. So, chemistry is one of my biggest needs and concerns.

I want my agency to be a design partner that is willing to bat around ideas and even sketch with me.

Often, agencies act as a black box. That doesn’t work for me. I want my team to be a part of the agency process. We are better together in a truly co-creative-and-building mode.

Like all companies, design agencies have strong cultures. I’m looking for an authentic, say-what-you-mean, open and collaborative culture in the agencies I hire. If it can be constructive and even fun when you’re in complete disagreement, then the work product is always better.

Beyond the working style and openness of the agency, I do care about past work. If an agency has a portfolio of work that makes me jealous, I want to work with that firm! Then it’s my job to become the best possible client to get greatness out of our work together. The agency is clearly capable, so now I need to create the conditions for its team to deliver its best.


Have you always used this method?

No. I used to be much more fact-based. For whatever reason, “chemistry” didn’t feel like a fair evaluation criteria. What I realize now is agencies don’t want to struggle through relationships any more than clients do.

The best reward for an agency is for the work to be stellar. As clients, we sometimes think that all they care about is getting paid, which is so far from true. Now I’m much more honest about the need to gel—so that team members can trust, take risks, fail and solve wicked problems together.

Don’t get me wrong; “harmony” is not the recipe for great creative either. As a matter of fact, the pursuit of harmony above all else will get in the way of great work—you’ll end up settling on what everyone can agree on, which inevitably will be too complicated or completely forgettable, and won’t win in the marketplace.


Have you ever started a project by asking designers to do work on spec?

In the strictest sense, I have not. It is P&G’s policy that our agencies don’t do free spec work, with which I agree.

However, I often use multiple agencies on the same work. At times, this means one of the agency’s work does not make it to market at all. Often, it means that one agency needs to adopt a portion of another agency’s idea or execution.

Obviously, this can be tricky and even emotional. Before I start work with multiple agencies, they know, and they know why. I’m also very open with my “improv” philosophy, so while they may not like it, there aren’t any surprises.

I view the creative process as an improv act; no one actor can run or own the show. The success of an improv show requires a belief that all of the actors are brilliant. Each player’s job is to take what is given, build on it and make it even better. As creatives, we often want to be the star, but you learn quickly that designers who are open to builds and invite multiple points of view end up with better products for their brands.


Can a brand use spec work without abusing the test project as a way to get free design work?

I’m a fan of providing a stipend for any test work. If an agency chooses to blow past those funds with the goal of winning the business or longer-term gains, then it’s their choice.

As an industry, designers should not be in the habit of giving away the goods. Not only does it undercut our designer peers, which is bad business, it devalues the creative process, as well as our experience and education as design masters.

Having said that, spec work is a common practice. Brands need to pay attention to the bigger picture to ensure they are rewarding their agencies appropriately over the longer-term. So, if a spec effort lands in a faster solution, the agency should indeed get more work in the future with typical budgets.

I used to look at my workload for a year and my budget and do a gut check on whether it felt fair for all involved. Agencies need to hold their clients to this standard and vice-versa when budgets have blown up with limited results.


Have you ever had to drop an agency for a reason other than its design work?

Many times, I’ve had great work for multiple agencies on the same project and needed to drop one before the work was completed. It’s a very difficult conversation, involving tears at times, but I try to be as honest with what will happen with the project going forward and why those decisions were made. I’m openly thankful for what the agency’s work informed in the project.

In the best cases, there is something else going on with my brands where the agency is a better fit, but that’s rare and I never hint at future work when the chance is slim. In the worst cases, my boss will get a call from the agency head not happy with my decision. My goal is to ensure I’m being fair and transparent, and that my boss has been aligned ahead of time and has my back.


How did you handle the situation, especially how the agency’s work is used after it leaves the project?

I believe strongly that the work and work product of design agencies is owned by the client, not the agency. Our contracts are written that way as well. So, I’m not fussed with shared creative product.

There is no brand that is in the market using only one creative source these days—spec work or not, agencies need to share credit and share creative freely or we’re underserving the brands.

This is also why brands need to pay for all work, even if it was done as a test or on spec. If the brand did not pay, it is simply unethical to use it in any way if you drop the agency from the project.

So, assuming you have paid for the work and you’re now asking an agency to transition it to another agency, it’s critical to be effusive and public with credit and praise. Letting an agency’s principal know how collaborative and strong its team was on an effort, even if they didn’t win the business, makes a world of difference.

Or, when you award another project, letting the agency know it’s because of how its team handled the previous effort despite having not won the project. Even sharing the final design and being specific and thankful in how the spec or test work informed it will invariably build good will.


What are the advantages and disadvantages of working with the agencies on the creative brief versus having agencies submit spec work based on an already created brief?

It’s P&G’s policy that our agencies don’t do free spec work. But it is true, a very specific brief is the typical approach to a design project in the industry as a whole.

I’m a bit more fluid and opt to meet with each of the agencies for a kickoff and loose brainstorming session, with the design brief. This tells me a lot about the working style of the agency and will play a role in how we proceed past the spec work. It’s okay if one agency gets more out of the session than another. Ultimately, we’re not in the business of even-playing fields, we’re in the business of creating amazing design solutions. So, in a way, the agency does have a chance to input into the brief although it will not change what’s written per se.


Have you ever used or recommended financial incentives for design work?

P&G has a lot of experience with incentive-based creative work as that’s the typical approach with the advertising agencies. I’m not a fan of this approach as truly holistic creative is impossible to parcel out credit.

I’ve seen great packaging bomb because of poor in-store placement. I’ve seen mediocre packaging do great because of massive display. More importantly, in these situations, often everyone feels like they got the short end.

The client feels that it’s overpaying for elements the agency didn’t control, and the agency feels the quality of its work was hurt by the brand not being a priority or what have you. Net, I’m a fan of paying fairly for deliverables and then doing everything in my power to make the process and the outcome brilliant.