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: Patti Moreno

Co-founder and design lead at New England Sweetwater Farm & Distillery


How do you evaluate an agency’s competence?

I’ve always worked via recommendations when hiring a designer or agency. Then I look at the design work. I have to like it and have a sense that they will be able to deliver what I need. It is so easy to have an online portfolio; the agency should have work available to see.


Have you always used this method?

I used this method for over a decade. There are a lot of companies and talented individuals out there, but I need to have a trust factor with the designers I work with. Trust that they will follow through and deliver my project in a timely manner and on budget.

I now use various online crowd sources for my design projects. This is a true revelation in branding, and it is amazing to see the wide range of visual interpretations a brief can truly have. It allows me to get a great design and purchase multiple designs if I’m undecided. It also introduces me to new talent that can stay on and expand your branding concepts. It’s a great way to build trust with a designer and set a budget.

That said, getting individuals to work on spec is not something I like to do. The bottom line is I have value and want to get compensated for my work, and so does anyone else. When I hire someone, I want to get the best out of the person and get amazing results. When someone isn’t getting compensated, they just don’t do their best work. I rarely do work on spec. I need some sort of monetary token for my work.


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

I think that if you are using spec work to do market tests that seems reasonable. Before you decide the direction you want to go and put a lot of money behind a brand, it’s so important to test the consumer’s reaction to the design. It can have a big impact on the direction you need to go with the concept and design!


Have you ever had a design agency do amazing work for you on spec, but you didn’t want to work with the firm for other reasons, such as culture fit?

This has happened to me before. It was a budgetary thing, where the fee was more ultimately than my budget allowed.


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

If you must acquire the rights to the work, you can try to come up with a mutually agreed upon buy-out amount. Branding elements and concepts are so fluid that often times the things you think are important elements to your brand and message can change dramatically before the product is released. So spending too much on a buy-out may backfire too.

I think it’s best to go to plan B: Start all over and go a different direction.

When things like this go sour, I feel it’s bad karma on the project. This is one of the reasons why getting someone to work on spec doesn’t work.


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

A well thought out creative brief is really important. I love seeing work that is exactly in line with my vision, and then test it with potential consumers and see what they think.

It takes the ego out of it if you go with what the target consumer is connecting with. This allows me to put the right emphasis on the branding.


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

I have contemplated this option, but it’s still just getting the agency to work on spec. I don’t feel that I would be taken seriously. It’s giving the agency a lot of leverage in your branding and creative control can become an issue.