How to buy design for your business to get maximum ROI

Design / 01.03.18
Mark Vaesen

We know that investing in design is a good thing.

Research has shown that for every £1 invested in design, businesses can expect over £20 in increased revenues.

But how do you go about buying design?

The old-fashioned way, and why it’s flawed as a process

I don’t know exactly when it became standard practice, but the way most businesses find an agency to help them with their brandwebsite or any other part of their marketing, is usually as follows:

Step 1 – Research a number of possible suppliers

You start by going online and searching for an agency in your area that does what you’re looking for. You search for something like “website design in Sussex” and take a look at the first half dozen results.

If you have a PA, you ask them to do this bit, but for some reason you only give them the briefest of information, not stopping to think this might hinder them a bit when it comes to working out who might be suitable for the project.

The problem

Googling local agencies isn’t necessarily the worst way to start your research, but stop and give some thought as to why you’re doing the project.

Why do you need a new website? Why do you need to improve your search results or online presence?

Once you’ve identified the problem you want to solve, ask around in your network for referrals to people who’ve helped others in a similar position to you.

Step 2 – Shortlisting design agencies

Based on what you see on their websites, you reduce your long list down to a shortlist of three, or if you’re feeling bullish, five. These are the lucky few that you’ve decided will “get the chance to dance”. Your expectations are that they’ll be falling over themselves to show you what they can do so they can win the project.

The problem

Shortlisting is obviously important, but you need to make sure you’re making your decision based on the right criteria.

More on that in a moment…

Step 3 – Sending out the design brief

You send the agencies on your shortlist a brief of the project, which took you ages to put together because you’ve never done it before. You hope you’ve included all the information that’s needed, but just for good measure, you throw in plenty of buzzwords to make it look like you know what you’re talking about.

You ask them for a proposal by a certain date, promising them you’ll be making your decision X days later (a deadline you’ll definitely miss).

Step 4 – Reviewing the proposals

You receive the written proposals, which are all different and based on varying assumptions from your brief. Confusion reigns as you struggle to understand which one will offer you the best outcomes.

The problem

If you ask a good creative agency to write a proposal based on the limited information in your design brief, what you’re going to get back are half-baked ideas. Do you really want to pin the future of your business on something that’s not been thought through?

Fitting the pieces together for your brand design brief can be tricky

You’re also asking the agency to write the proposal for free. Good agencies will be busy with other clients’ work, so they won’t have the time (or need the work desperately enough) to spend ages on it.

The agencies that spend longer on it probably aren’t very busy, which is not a good sign. And let’s not even get into why you think it’s ok for someone to work for you for free…

“Stop asking for proposals – there’s a much better way.”

Step 5 – The presentation meetings

At some stage you want to meet these agencies so you can decide who you might want to work with. It gives you a chance to check them out, see if you could see yourself working with them, that sort of thing.

You set aside a day to see everybody, and schedule 30 minutes for each. That should be enough.

You might ask them to “present some initial ideas”. This is called a Creative Pitch, and drives designers round the bend.

The problem

Good designers can only do their best work when they understand the bigger picture and the context of the project. When you ask them to present some initial ideas to you this early in the process, they don’t have either of these things.

Imagine saying to an architect “I want you to design me a house – show me some ideas”. They’re not going to know where the house is, what style you prefer, how many rooms you need, nothing.

How can someone come up with a solution to your problem if they don’t have all the information about what the problem is?

Step 6 – The final design decision

You either:

a) choose the cheapest
b) choose the one with the nicest looking portfolio
c) choose the one you got on best with at the meeting, or
d) put off making a decision altogether, which means you’ve wasted everybody’s time, including your own

What you won’t ever do is choose the one who’s going to give you the best outcomes.

Because this process doesn’t enable it.

The alternative

But fear not – there is a better way.

For your design project to be a success, you need to allow the agency the time to investigate your problem deeply, so they can come up with properly thought through recommendations.

Understanding the context and seeing the bigger picture allows them to explore all possible avenues and put forward the best approach based on their experience and insights.

When we do this with our clients we call it a Discovery session.

How a Discovery session works

In Part 1 of the session, we find out as much as we can about your business goals.

We ask you lots of questions about what you want the future to look like, and get you thinking about your business in ways you might not have even considered.

This first part needs to involve all the key decision-makers and is run as a half-day workshop.

In Part 2, we take away what we’ve learnt in the workshop and, as a team, have a second session at Tomango HQ. We explore what’s needed to get you from where you are now to where you want to be.

This enables us to open up the conversation and think about how to get the best return on your investment.

In Part 3, we present our recommendations.

We prepare and talk you through three costed options so you can decide which one you’d like to go ahead with.

Our Discovery Session takes 3-4 weeks to complete and costs £900 + VAT, payable up front.

The benefits

Because the Discovery session gives the project some context, it opens up the discussion and allows you to consider other things you might not have thought about.

It gives us the opportunity to really find out about where you want to go with your business, what you have going in your favour to help get you there, and what hurdles need to be overcome.

It enables us to gain valuable insights into what the problem is that you’re asking us to solve.

The issues clients always raise

Often when I talk to potential clients about altering their process and looking at this better alternative way, there’s an element of doubt.

I understand why; what I’m suggesting is that they completely alter the course they’re on – possibly a course that’s been set by their boss.

There are many routes you can take after a Discovery session

The usual questions are:

How can I compare design agencies?

You might be worried that you’re committing to a decision without being able to compare agencies against one another.

But this doesn’t need to be the case.

You’re still able to make judgements about the agency’s suitability, and whether there’s a good fit between you, BEFORE doing the discovery.

This is the part of the process where you ask your questions about their experience and expertise, what insights they can bring to solving your problem, the work they’ve done for others and the results they got.

And remember, it’s less of a gamble spending a smaller amount first to take a first step that might lead to the next step, than committing the whole of your budget to someone you might not have worked with before.

How do I know that I’m paying a fair price?
The design agency should be able to demonstrate the value they’ll deliver to your business, and from here you can decide whether you’re prepared to pay X for that value.

If you’re working to a budget, and that’s all you’ve got to invest, then this should be discussed early on.

Recommendations can be made to fit your budget to give you the best ROI for what you’ve got to spend.

How do I know your ideas are going to be any good?
Look at previous work they’ve done for other businesses like yours, or who had similar problems to yours.

Don’t be worried about an agency that’s done a lot of work in your industry, possibly for your competitors; previous experience with similar projects is an advantage, because the agency will have gained insights and knowledge that make them even more effective when they work on your problem.

How to buy design for your business to get maximum ROI

So, here’s how to choose the agency that’s the right fit for you and going to deliver you the best return on your investment:

  1. Source or research your long list of potential agencies in the normal way (by search, by referral, and by asking in your network)
  2. Include these questions on your checklist –
    1. Have they worked on similar sized projects to yours?
    2. Do they have similar types of client to you?
    3. Have they worked with any of your competitors? If they have, this shouldn’t be seen as a negative. They’ll have experience of your industry and be able to offer insights as to what’s effective.
    4. Do they measure what they do? How effective is their work? What results have they achieved?
    5. Do they have a range of outputs or are they all somewhat similar?
    6. What sort of experience do they have? (A new company can have owners and designers that have vast experience.)
    7. Do you like the work they do? Will it work for your customers?
    8. What information is available? Can you get a feel for who they are?
  3. Make a shortlist of a maximum of three agencies to talk to
  4. Call each of them on the phone to find out more detailed answers to the questions on your checklist. Hear what they have to say about their process. Listen out for the agency that’s most focused on results – after all, that’s why you’re doing the project, isn’t it?
  5. After talking on the phone, arrange to meet any of the agencies on your shortlist that feel like they might be right for you, to see if there’s a fit between your needs as a business, and what they can offer
  6. Make a decision about your preferred agency at this stage, and enter into a paid discovery or diagnostic session with them

Just because something’s been done the same way for years it doesn’t make it the best way.

Don’t follow the herd.

Be brave.

Choose wisely.