Building a brand doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of work to forge strong relationships with people—and much of that work is done through marketing. Unless you have a powerhouse internal team to help you tell your story, it’s likely you’ll need a little support in crafting and executing your marketing strategy. But searching for the right partner to help you do that can be confusing. There are all sorts of agencies out there, so how do you know whether you should hire a creative agency, a digital agency, or an ad agency?
Here, we’ll break down everything you need to know about creative agencies: what they are, why they’re different, and how to find the right one for you.
What Is a Creative Agency?
A creative agency is a term for an agency that offers a variety of services that fall under the umbrella of marketing and advertising. Basically, if you need any type of creative strategy, work, or promotion, they can help you get it done.
While some creative agencies specialize in one thing more than another, they usually provide:
- Strategy Services
- Advertising strategy
- Brand Strategy
- Content Strategy
- Marketing Strategy
- Social Media Strategy
- Measurement and Analysis
- Content Creation (AKA “Creative”)
- Annual Reports
- Case Studies
- Blogs and Articles
- Content Planning and Publishing
- Data Visualization
- Explainer Videos
- Graphic Design
- Animated Video
- Motion Graphics
- White Papers
- Motion Graphics (or Animated Video)
- Web Design and Development
- Communications Services
- Media Buys
- Paid Placement
- Sponsored Content
- Influencer Marketing
In short, a creative agency is a team of experts who can support your brand’s strategy. In general, that includes a mix of the following:
- Art Director
- Creative Director
- Brand and Content Strategists
- Account Directors/Managers
- Writers and Editors
- Web Designers and Developers
- Graphic Designers
- Content Distribution Specialists
Depending on its structure, some creative agencies also work with expert partners, such as a video production house.
What’s the Difference Between a Creative Agency and Other Agencies?
This is a common question. While some agencies may provide services that overlap with a creative agency, many agencies focus on one particular service or category.
A simple overview:
- Design agency: Offers design services for a variety of visual mediums, including print and digital.
- Digital agency: Focuses on digital marketing strategy, particularly SEO and lead generation.
- Advertising agency: Focuses specifically on advertising (digital, TV, radio, print, etc.). It may or may not provide marketing services.
- PR agency: Offers promotional and content distribution services to maximize brand awareness.
- SEO agency: Focuses on various on-site and search marketing strategies and tactics to increase traffic and lead gen.
- Social media agency: Specializes in social strategies and, oftentimes, the management of social media accounts.
A creative agency usually encompasses one or more of these services.
How Can a Creative Agency Help Your Brand?
There are many services a creative agency provides. Whether you need them to fill in the gaps in your marketing team or take the reigns entirely, your brand can benefit from a creative agency’s help in many ways.
- Fresh perspective: It’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when you’re immersed in your own brand every day, all day long. A creative agency can provide much-needed perspective to guide or improve your strategy, as well as fresh ideas to help you achieve your goals. (BTW, if you’re struggling to come up with ideas, here are 9 ideas to help you tell your brand story.)
- Expert execution: A creative agency is a team of talented specialists who can both craft and execute your marketing strategies. From developers to designers, copywriters to data visualization experts, they have the knowledge and skills to produce content. They’re also immersed in this stuff day in, day out, so they know best practices, how to improve the user’s experience, what content works best for each platform, and how to get the most mileage out of the content you’re creating. Pro tip: You always want to work with a creative agency with a proven track record. If you’re on the hunt, check out their case studies. (And if they don’t have any, run!)
- Insider knowledge: Sure, you know your brand inside and out, but how well do you know your industry? Your competitors? Trends in the marketplace? A creative agency works with a range of clients across industries. Thus, they have unique insight into what works, what doesn’t, and what surprising things can drastically improve your results. (Translation: You get to benefit from other brands’ big successes and major mistakes—without using your own brand as a guinea pig.)
- Connections and creator networks: One of the most common reasons to seek outside help is because your brand doesn’t have the knowledge, bandwidth, or resources to do the work that needs to be done. In addition to being well-rounded pros, an agency has an established network of expert creators. Whether you’re looking for a production house to film your latest video or a developer to code an interactive website, a creative agency either has the skills or the expert referral to get it done. (This is especially helpful if you’re looking for tough-to-locate specialty services.)
- Speedy production: Many brands struggle to execute their strategies because they don’t have the infrastructure in place to handle production. This is understandable, as different types of content require different knowledge and resources. (It’s especially difficult to launch a content operation if you’re totally new to content marketing.) But an agency is a sophisticated machine accustomed to producing a variety of content, quickly and efficiently. They’re also aware of the common roadblocks, mistakes, or pitfalls that can sabotage production, so they can better navigate through them.
- Quality content: Quality, consistency, and cadence are crucial to a successful content marketing operation. Many brands struggle to meet at least one of these, if not all three. Again, with expertise and a solid infrastructure, a creative agency can produce quality content at a high volume. They’re also invested in doing the best job possible because when you win, they win. Hence, they will work hard to find the best creative for your brand, even if that means disagreeing with you or fighting for an idea they really believe in. (For example, when Microsoft asked us to create an infographic to promote the relaunch of Internet Explorer, we argued for a video concept instead—45 million views later, it turned out to be a viral hit.)
Another bonus? They can also be your scapegoat. This one may sound a little harsh, but we’re well aware of the way marketing works. Nobody wants to claim failure, but if you absolutely need to, you can always outsource blame. Of course, a good agency will work to avoid failure at all costs. But if things go awry, sure, go ahead and blame your agency if it saves your job. (Just take them with you when you’re moving on to your next gig.)
Even better, you can often find full-service creative agencies that specialize in your particular industry or offering (e.g., B2B tech or entertainment). This provides even more benefits to your brand, as they have expert insight and can provide the right recommendations for your unique needs.
How Do You Know If You Need One?
Not every brand needs a creative agency, particularly if you have a solid operation or an in-house team that is capable of executing your marketing strategy. However, you might consider using a creative agency if you don’t have (or have little of) the following:
- Resources: Some brands find it difficult to execute their strategy due to limited means, accessibility, or availability. A creative agency can help support your strategy with the infrastructure you need.
- Knowledge: A creative agency is staffed by expert creators who have the skills and expertise to create all types of content—and, most importantly, adhere to best practices.
- Bandwidth: Your team may be bogged down with other projects, meaning your marketing projects are delayed or backburnered indefinitely. A creative agency can help you create consistent, quality content at scale.
- Results: If your current strategy isn’t delivering the results you want, a creative agency can advise you on how to tweak, improve, or revise your strategy.
If you’re still not sure if an agency can help you, here’s how to figure out if you need one at all, and how to decide if you should try an agency or use a freelancer.
How Do You Find a Creative Agency?
Having worked with hundreds of brands over the last decade, we know what roadblocks and hiccups can befall a brand on the hunt for a good agency. Here’s how to ensure the road to the right partner is as smooth as possible.
- Know what you’re trying to achieve. You don’t have to know exactly what creative idea you want brought to life (that’s often why you’re seeking a creative agency in the first place), but you do need to know your goals before you hire one. The clearer your objectives, the easier it will be for your agency to find the creative solution. Of course, if you’re soliciting an agency to guide your strategy because you’re not sure what to do, that’s OK. You just don’t want to approach an agency with absolutely no idea what you need.
- Look for someone in your industry. There are a lot of creative agencies out there, which is why finding one can be intimidating. Luckily, there are also agencies that specialize in particular industries, such as B2B tech. With their intimate knowledge of the landscape, they are well equipped to help you achieve your goals. If you’re not sure where to start, ask your colleagues and friends for recommendations. Otherwise, Google around. Note: While a local agency is convenient, you might find a better fit in one outside your immediate area. Thanks to the power of tech, collaboration isn’t as challenging as it once was, so don’t let that impede you.
- Look for demonstrated results. Any agency worth their salt will have a healthy portfolio of not just work but case studies that showcase their results. As you review their work (and client list), you’ll get a sense of their style, skill, and creative approach. Ideally, they’ve worked with people in your industry or executed the type of campaign you’re looking for. However, if you don’t see what you’re looking for but you do like their vibe, reach out to ask for additional examples.
- Find out if they share their expertise. A good agency is invested in elevating their industry. Thus, they should demonstrate their expertise in other ways, such as blogs, articles, books, contributorships, or features in industry publications. This willingness to share their expertise—and be an active participant in their field—is always a good indicator that they are knowledgeable and confident in their work.
- Look at their own content. Consider how they present themselves through their own content. Review their site and social presence to get a sense of their personality, who their team is, what their values are. You want to work with people you click with, naturally, but you also want to make sure you’re working with people who practice what they preach.
No matter how good someone’s work is in their portfolio, one of the biggest factors that will influence your success is how well you work together. So take the time to research and talk to potential candidates. You might be in love with one’s illustration style but not jive with their creative approach. Or you might be wowed by both their work and their values. You won’t know until you talk to them, so do your research up front.
We recommend interviewing at least 3 agencies and crafting your questions in advance. This isn’t about conducting a prim and proper interview. It can be casual and exploratory, but you want a framework to guide your conversation and help you get the info you need. A few good questions to ask:
- Do you have the bandwidth to take on my project? This is pretty much the first question to ask since everything revolves around timeline. If they do have availability, you should also ask about the projected timeline for projects similar to yours.
- How much experience do you have in my industry? Whether or not they specialize in your field, it’s good to get a sense of their knowledge base.
- Who will I be working with? There are a lot of moving parts involved in marketing—and just as many stakeholders. From strategy to content creation, you will have a lot of people doing a lot of different things. Hence, you’ll want to know who you’ll be interfacing with, how they approach their work, etc.
- What does your creative process look like? Every agency is unique, but they should all have an established process to get things done on time. (We use AgencyAgile-inspired processes.) Ask your agency to walk you through their process in detail.
- How much work is produced by your staff vs. outsourced? In the agency world, it isn’t uncommon to work with contracted creative partners, such as a video production house or composer. (Again, one of the benefits of an agency is that they have a network of reliable pros at the ready.) However, you’ll want to know who your creative team might be.
- Can you provide itemized pricing? Transparency is important here, as scope creep can be a huge problem. You want to know exactly what you’ll be paying for. If they can’t provide that, move on.
Note: Make sure they’re interviewing you too. You want to cultivate a positive relationship, so your agency should be interested, engaged, and asking you questions as well. (Agencies that care about working with partners who are the right fit will probably be a better fit.)
Throughout the process, go with your gut. You want to work with an agency that is friendly, responsive, and eager to build a long-term relationship with you. If you aren’t feeling those vibes from the jump, look for one that does make you feel that way.
What to Do Once You Find the Right Partner
A good relationship is a true partnership, which means you’re both responsible for showing up and doing your part. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to start off on the right foot:
- Decide how you’ll split the workload upfront.
- Follow these tips to build a strong relationship with your agency from the jump.
- Try these tactics to work together more effectively.