Strategies & Insights

Brand Makers

Posted: September 5, 2014

 

Part two of our series on how to choose branding and design agencies and maximize those relationships. This installation spotlights insights from a vice president of marketing, art director and a director of new brands.

Barbara Roll
Vice president of marketing, cosmetic portfolio, Jafra Cosmetics International

What are the top criteria you use to select design and branding firms?

1. Previous work
2. Relevance of design to industry
3. Cost and budget
4. Attitude—especially the ability to work well, collaborate and listen well. The agency must seek to understand and needs to be willing to adjust with ease if needed. Both the result and the collaboration drive our decision to work with the agency again.

How much research happens before the first call to a new agency?

I most often rely on recommendations from former colleagues and those I know in the industry. On occasion, we’ll respond to unsolicited emails from designers asking to meet. We are always open to working with new, great designers as we have more than enough work in this area.

How do you manage all the pitches that you receive from design firms?

We manage packaging design pitches one at a time. We try to find a good partner and work with them to establish lasting relations. With more specific one-off longer term projects, such as corporate branding or strategic category design developments, we vet out three agencies before deciding.

How strongly do you weigh an agency’s client list?

It’s impressive to see companies that are larger on the client list, but we also like to see clients within our industry. It doesn’t matter that the client is a large, well-known company if it isn’t within our CPG category.

What if an agency has done great work, but it’s never worked in your CPG category?

Ideally, they have experience in our CPG industry. We look at like industries too. For example, I am currently at Jafra Cosmetics, an international beauty and cosmetic business. We would look at bottle designs for spirits or any work in graphic design that is more feminine. If there is not an overlap, it would be very hard for us to hire that company. I would recommend designers or firms wanting to enter a new CPG category mock up their work within that industry to display their skill set and an understanding of industry cues.

What are the top three characteristics of great design firms?

1. Novel disruptive design
2. Solid briefing stage collaboration
3. Develops customer understanding
These would be the characteristics of my dream agency.

How do you view the agency-brand relationship?

The agency needs to understand the client’s brand and work within the realm of that understanding. Brand is everything today, and expressing that consistency in design is more than critical. That’s why the agency-brand relationship is key to business.

What’s the worst pitch you’ve ever received from a design firm?

It was a canned pitch that seemed to be for any company and not ours particularly. They spoke with passion, but none of the elements in our brief were incorporated. It was 45 minutes of standard application—a pity for us all.

Can you describe a pet peeve when working with a design agency?

When they will not listen to the client, as they believe they understand without allowing the client to clarify needs. The relationship can be saved if a client can be reassured that the agency is moving in the correct direction if the firm communicates and realigns.

Are there any other tips that you’d like to provide?

For new agencies, find a focus and area of passion and build strength there. If you are wanting to be rounded, have the work to show as an agency, even if you are just mocking it up. Reach out to companies that you would like to work with but only once you have work that you think they would relate to and be inspired.

 

Matt Kunz
Art director, creative services department, Kohler Company

What are the top criteria you use to select design and branding firms?

1. Fit for the project. We have a large internal communications department. When we bring in outside agencies, they need to offer a specialized skill set or service we don’t have internally.
2. Process. Every project is a collaboration; doing great work with an agency partner means we need to be able to engage in their process and bring them into ours.
3. Feel. We call it the Chinese takeout test. If it’s 1 a.m. and you’re up against a deadline, can you see yourself huddled around a conference room table with these people?

How much research happens before the first call to a new agency?

A lot, but it’s not a matter of only looking for an agency when you need one. We are constantly researching, watching and following what’s happening elsewhere, who’s doing great work and who we would want to work with. The majority of our communications team members are agency ex-pats so it helps to have those career connections and the personal and professional networks to tap into. It makes finding the right partner for the project that much easier when all you need is a phone call, instead of a request for proposal.

How do you discover new agencies?

Mostly through their work. When we see great work or great campaigns, we find out who did it and put them on our radar. Great work can come from anywhere; from small agencies in the Midwest to the juggernauts of the East and West Coasts. We watch the U.S. market, but we’re a global brand, so we follow what’s happening in India, Brazil, the Middle East and Europe too. If your sole focus is on artfully selling products, agency size and borders become less relevant.

How do you manage all the pitches that you receive from design firms?

We’re pretty closed off from agencies cold calling or making pitches just to try to get in the door. Because of how we select and work with our agency partners, there really isn’t a need for a revolving door of pitchmen to keep the Rolodex full. Most of the time, we know who we want to work with and it’s more a matter of having the right project to bring them in on.

How strongly do you weigh an agency’s client list?

A great client list is a nice-to-have, but a great portfolio goes a lot further. For us, it’s about making sure the agency is a good fit for what we are looking for. So it’s much more about the team of people that we will be working with than the clients they’ve worked for in the past.

What if an agency has done great work, but it’s never worked in your CPG category?

Not having experience in categories that Kohler plays in isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Coming to the table with a blank slate can actually be more beneficial. The success or failure of a given body of work has far more to do with how we go about creating it, than whether or not an agency partner comes to the table with an understanding of the competitive landscape. Our process, internal or external, always begins with extensive research to find out who we are talking to, what matters to them, and how and what brand equities we can leverage. That’s our starting point, so whether an agency has or does not have experience in our category, it doesn’t change how we work with them.

What are the top three characteristics of great design firms?

1. Passion
2. Humility
3. Talent

Please describe your dream agency.

My dream agency would actually be several small dream agencies. Each one would specialize in new and innovative ways to connect with people or shape the consumer experience. And each one would be the very best at what they did.

They would be staffed by smart, talented people working under strong leaders who share a passion for what they do. Most of all, they would be flexible, like yoga-instructor flexible. They would bend over backwards when things get tough, breathe through the painful parts, and come out calm and relaxed with solutions and ideas that elevate the Kohler brand.

How do you view the agency-brand relationship?

Here at Kohler, it’s a true partnership. We look to agencies to help us help them help us. The process of collaborative design exploration is the foundation of our agency-brand relationship. We open up our offices to their staff and spend time at theirs. We work together and learn from each other, integrating ideas and blurring the lines between client and vendor. It’s not about ownership of work, but rather making cool stuff that connects with people in a personal way. It’s never as easy as that sounds, but when it works the end product speaks for itself. 

What’s the worst pitch you’ve ever received from a design firm?

The worst pitch, that’s actually a tough one to answer. There is no one pitch or agency I could award this answer to but rather the essence of their approach. The worst pitch, and I’ve heard it more than once, always centers around reinventing the Kohler brand to connect with ‘blank’—fill in the hot demographic of the time.

Why would we have to reinvent our brand to connect with customers? Kohler has been connecting with multi-generational customers for more than 140 years. Our ability to do that is the foundation for why this brand is so much fun to work on. Agencies that inherently understand that nugget tend to go much further than those that don’t.

Can you describe a pet peeve when working with a design agency?

It’s a tie between not listening and not thinking. When you first partner with an agency, be it project-based or something longer-term, the initial relationship is mostly intangible. It’s about learning how each other work and trying to understand all aspects of a campaign or product launch. But as time goes on and the work begins to take shape, things inevitably change. It’s at these moments that I typically see my pet peeves in agencies, not all the agencies we’ve worked with, but there’s been a few.

When you give form to an idea, you begin to make it real. And when you try to translate something from paper and a pitch to actual creative that involves nailing down the details, things don’t always go smoothly. Relationships can get stressed, people can feel like their toes are being stepped on and sometimes there is concern that the guts and essence of a great idea are being ripped apart, piece by piece. When these challenges arise, one of three things happens. The agency doesn’t listen and keeps pushing their same idea—a pet peeve. The agency abandons their approach and does whatever they’re being instructed to, regardless of how terrible it might be—another pet peeve. Or they get flexible, embrace the change, feedback or challenge and make it work to everyone’s advantage. When things get tough and they usually do, not listening and not thinking just aren’t good enough.

Are there any other tips that you’d like to provide?

Never underestimate the value of a great project management team. Ideas and creative are only as good as their execution.

 

Nell Oliver
Director of new brands at Razor USA LLC

What are the top criteria you use to select design and branding firms?

No. 1 is the agency’s experience. I want to see packaging in their portfolio that relates to our needs and demonstrates the firm’s creativity. A secondary, but very important concern is the firm’s ability to work within our budget. Third would be client references.

How much research happens before the first call to a new agency?

We ask for personal recommendations from our own network of people and research the agency using the Internet before making that first phone call. If we are launching a very big project, we might look at other resources like Package Design magazine.

How do you discover new agencies?

Most of the time, we find new agencies through personal references. Occasionally we will go to outside sources like your magazine or other reputable organizations. With those resources, we still try to back up the information through other people that we know or checking client references.

How do you manage all the pitches that you receive from design firms?

Typically, if we are not actively looking for an agency, we would file the pitch for future reference. When an appropriate project comes up, we take a look at the filed information and invite a few other people internally to review the pitch. Because there is more than one person looking at pitches, we will share this information across the company.

In general, I find that proactive pitches are fine. Sometimes certain individuals can become bothersome, but in general it’s fine when people occasionally write in and ask if they could be helpful.

Sometimes, it’s a good thing that people are persistent because eventually you find yourself in a situation, where you say, ‘Oh my gosh, I do need someone now!’ In positions like mine, we are so busy all the time that you don’t always remember to reach out to all these people. So I appreciate people who continue to follow up and make sure they are on my radar.

How strongly do you weigh an agency’s client list?

We look for an agency to have clients that are relevant to us, but we know we are in the cross between two categories—toys and sporting goods. If an agency has clients in one of these categories, that’s a plus. But it’s not the only criterion by any means. It’s one factor of many.

What if an agency has done great work, but it’s never worked in your CPG category?

Agencies need to demonstrate that they understand the category, which again is a cross between toys and sporting goods, and our needs. How they do that is a little bit up to them.

That said, we will look at companies with a very strong, creative portfolio or those that can bring something else to the table that we don’t already have because they have experience in other areas. These agencies need to be able to explain how they can add value in a different way. If someone is fantastic, we would certainly be happy to talk to them.

But, in general, we look for firms that have experience in our area and don’t consider agencies with a background that’s completely irrelevant to our business.

What are the top three characteristics of great design firms?

The No. 1 characteristic is the ability to deliver creative and innovative ideas. We already have very creative people internally, so our outside partners need to bring even more. No. 2 is that they need to be good listeners.

They need to be able to listen to us, to understand our brand, understand what we need from this particular package and be able to work collaboratively with us to deliver a fantastic package. So it has to be a joint project to work well. No. 3 is cost. If a firm is creative, has very good listeners and partners, but won’t work with us on cost, then the relationship won’t work.

Please describe your dream agency.

My dream agency would bring great ideas, ideas that we haven’t already thought of. Our internal team already comes up with a lot of great ideas, so an agency that can go beyond would be very tempting. Often, I find that an agency has creative people, but they are more focused on delivering on what you’ve told them versus coming back with fabulously innovative ideas.

This agency would also be extremely responsive via email and proactive when working to solve a problem. I know it’s a pretty simple formula, but that’s what I would want—creativity and innovation plus great customer service and problem solving.

How do you view the agency-brand relationship?

The relationship is collaborative, but it’s still a client to service-partner relationship. In the end, we hold the final decision making.

What’s the worst pitch you’ve ever received from a design firm?

It happened a couple of years ago. Some people showed up to pitch, and it was very clear that they had not researched the business at all. They knew very little about what we did! And they showed up with no PowerPoint presentation. There is no reason for people to come unprepared, when there is so much information available from the Internet.

There’s an expectation that when you come to pitch that you completely understand the client’s business and have your presentation completely tailored to what the clients need. There’s no reason for vague presentations now [in the Internet age].

This agency didn’t take the half hour to hour to understand our business. They didn’t come with a laptop to present the information to us. It’s not that hard. I thought they were creative people, but we had to drag information out of them so they definitely weren’t going to get our business.

There are some very small firms here [southern California] that aren’t so savvy at client services. Maybe, they don’t understand or haven’t worked in good client service environments before. Maybe, they aren’t used to operating with good client practices or just don’t know what they are. I hope magazine features like this help these smaller firms learn how to provide good client service.

Can you describe a pet peeve when working with a design agency?

Being uninformed at the initial pitch is definitely a pet peeve. I worked as a client service professional for many years, so I’m very sensitive to that. I believe in the concept of over-deliver. When people don’t provide that level of customer service, it bothers me because I used to work on that side.

I remember having to deliver that high level of service myself. There were so many years when over-deliver was my mantra. I was called to exceed the client’s expectations. That was pounded into my head.

Now that I’m the client, when someone is not trying to exceed my expectations, it bothers me. I want people to exceed my expectations.

Are there any other tips that you’d like to provide?

Look for opportunities for their brand. You need to match up your experience with the gaps that you see in the packaging they have on the shelves.