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Hiring a Creative Partner 101

You are ready to hire a creative partner–an advertising or marketing agency, branding firm or photographer. It's a significant investment and your company's reputation depends on a solid partnership.

Here are 8 tips on how to enter into an agreement with confidence, know what questions to ask and provide your creative team effective direction that will help yield the best results.

1. View and understand the portfolio. There are a few questions to ask that will help form an accurate picture of the capacity of a firm based on their portfolio.

  • Is the work done internally or by freelancers hired by the agency?

  • Are the examples from past employment–and if so, what direct role did your potential creative partner play in its execution?

  • If outsourced, will the agency’s partners be part of a transparent creative team?

2. Seek references. For a balanced view of the firm or individual’s strengths and weaknesses, seek out non-vetted reviews from past clients. The vast majority of companies deliver as promised. The few that do not can easily be weeded out of an RFP process by interviewing previous clients and reading online reviews.

3. Know your objectives and hire accordingly. Branding, marketing, advertising and PR firms have crossover services but specific strengths in their area of expertise. For example, DONE's sister company, Studio Absolute, is a branding and design firm so their strength is in telling the client’s story in a way that differentiates them from their competition. Once a strong brand identity and standards are in place, the brand is extended through web design, print, writing, photography and other marketing platforms. As a branding firm, Studio Absolute develops content strategies and creative messaging for advertising but unlike a traditional advertising agency, profits from media placement are not part of the business model. Advertising is simply another tool in the toolbox for meeting a client’s overall goals for their business.

4. Have a creative brief. A thorough creative brief helps the agency see the project through your eyes and in doing so–saves time and money by leaving less to chance. At a minimum, the brief should include an overview, objectives, target audience, expectations of deliverables and a timeline. There are plenty of great example briefs online.

kids working at an advertising agency photographed by Oregon photographer Cheryl McIntosh

On Money

Working with a creative team may be one of the most significant investments you make but also one of the most critical to your business's long term success. Below are a few tips to make the most of your investment.

1. Communicate your budget up front. Communicating your objectives and budget at the proposal stage saves time in negotiations and puts the emphasis on how the creative team can best serve your needs. Any reputable company is going to provide the most value they can for the dollar amount you propose.

2. You get what you pay for. Here is where I would advise you to avoid using your brother in law who's really creative to design your logo or website–unless of course he works for Wieden & Kennedy. I wish I could tell you how often we have seen clients come into our studio near tears because they wasted thousands of dollars with a creative partner who was either a family friend or just the least expensive option. Performing your due diligence and then choosing a partner that happens to be the least expensive is a win. Choosing a partner based on price first is rarely the best decision for your business.

3. Everything in writing. The chemistry is there, the ideas are flowing and you’re excited to get started. Before you sign that first check, make sure the project objectives are outlined in a detailed proposal from your creative partner. The proposal should include a list of specific deliverables, a timeline (if that is important), billing policies and terms. Many agencies will require half of the total budget up front and then half upon completion (or some variation of that). It will also explain how kill fees work should you need to exit the agreement. The well-written proposal serves as a guide and protection for both parties. If the proposal is simply a one paragraph email with a cost estimate–it's probably a good indicator of how seriously they take your project and the attention to detail you can expect from the work.

3. Understand the deliverables. The initial discovery phase of a project may include a series of meetings and brainstorming sessions. That is an intangible deliverable but the resulting report is tangible. Both have value but it is worth being clear up front about what the project fee includes.

In conclusion, investing in the due diligence process can save you thousands of dollars and bring you closer to your objectives–faster. I like to believe that the majority of firms out there have their clients' best interest at heart. If issues arise, it can usually be traced back to lack of communication on one or both sides of the partnership. It can be hard to find the balance between effective communication and micromanaging a creative–but that's a post in itself!

Cheryl McIntosh’s photography portfolio can be found at and the branding firm, Studio Absolute is at She’s also on Instagram as and @cherylmcintoshphotography. Contact for pricing and availability.


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