A challenger brand's guide to choosing the right agency

A challenger brand's guide to choosing the right agency

We have a guest post this week from Lisa Desforges at B&B studio, a London based agency with an impressive list of challenger brand clients including BEAR, Pip & Nut and BrewDog. Here Lisa outlines some key questions owners of challenger brands should ask themselves before committing to an agency.


You’ve seen our website and you like the look of our work (well, why wouldn't you?). But what about that agency with the Trademark™️ strategy process? They must be real smart cookies. And those guys pointing at designs around a big oak table? They seem pretty creative. So how do you go from online attraction to a full-blown affair? And how on earth do you choose between us?

To liken the agency search to the dating game is a hackneyed analogy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not accurate. Of course, you could invoke the ghost of Cilla Black and get us all to answer a daft question in a limited amount of time, then choose whoever gets the biggest round of applause – we call this pitching.

But if you’d like to find out whether we’re genuinely compatible, we’d recommend some good old-fashioned telephone talking and a getting-to-know-you tryst. So once we're face to face, what should you be looking for? How will we know if we’re ready for a relationship? Here are the seven key questions we think you should consider…

1. Do we 'get' each other?

It sounds obvious, but make sure the agency takes the time to listen to what you have to say and understands the unique opportunity of your project.

Challenger brands often depend on the personality and energy of the founder, so if the agency arrives armed with a ready-made opinion on the category and your place within it without getting to know you first, they’re missing a very big trick.

Similarly, we’ll be looking for evidence that you value design, appreciate the role it will play in your success, and respect the way we work to make that happen. Great branding doesn’t happen overnight – we’ll be embarking on a strategic, creative and collaborative process, and your role in that is as vital as ours.

2. Is there passion on both sides?

We’re not talking about our passion for each other, but our individual passion for what we do every day. We’ll be judging whether you genuinely care about your product and if there’s a compelling story behind it, or whether you’re simply looking to take advantage of an upcoming trend.

Likewise, you should feel reassured by the agency that gets visibly animated when it talks through its own work. And beware the sycophantic new business exec who waxes way more lyrically about what his agency can do for you, than about what they’ve done for anyone else.

3. Do we want the same things?

What’s your ambition for design? Do you want to create a quintessential example of your category – a desirable design that perfectly expresses recognisable codes and fits neatly among its peers? Or are you looking to disrupt with a design that’s deliberately different, and turns category codes on their head?

Your choice of agency should reflect this ambition. Ask yourself why you admire an agency’s work – if it’s because they’re familiar with your category or have worked with similar materials, then you need to think again. It’s the agency’s philosophy that matters here, so make sure you understand it.

As an agency that likes to challenge, we’ll be on the lookout for clues that you’re willing to do things differently and go out on a bit of a limb. If you’re determined to consumer test every colour change, we’re probably not the agency for you.

4. Is this just a bit of fun on the side?

The truth is that challenger brands can make exciting case studies for agencies stuck in a rut. And they can be scheduled in the studio as welcome (read: light) relief for designers usually bogged down in corporate or mainstream work.

It’s wise to make sure that the agency you choose has a track record of working with entrepreneurial businesses, understands the demands of those relationships, and absolutely values you as a client. Don't become a big agency’s pet project.

5. Should we split the bill?

If this is an option, then ‘pet project’ alarm bells should definitely be ringing. No matter how revolutionary your product or exciting your opportunity, you’re not doing the agency a favour by giving them the project – this is their business too.

Be realistic about the fees involved in asking branding experts to create an effective visual and verbal identity and its associated packaging design. Understand the value a good agency brings and consider the return on investment – at the end of the day, they’re trying to help you make more money.

Of course start-ups are budget-sensitive, but you should never select an agency on price. It’s a bit like the wine list – it’s not about choosing the cheapest or the most expensive, it’s about finding the one that matches your personal taste. If it’s pricier than you banked on, then think about skipping dessert.

6. Where is this going?

Not everyone wants a long-term relationship. Be clear about your expectations beyond the initial project, and how involved you’d like the agency to become in your broader brand development. Are you looking for the ongoing support of a single brand guardian? Or will you manage multiple specialists on one-off projects?

Of course, as with all relationships, things might work out differently, but it’s helpful if everyone starts off on the same page.

7. Do you even like us?

This is the killer question. Assuming the people you meet at the meeting are the people you’re going to work with (and that can be a pretty big assumption), be honest about whether you can spend time with them – and definitely spend time thinking about whether you can be honest with them.

It’s a relationship after all (did we mention that already?) and that means trust, teamwork and telling it like it is!

Lisa is Strategy Director at B&B studio, a creative and strategic agency committed to creating and strengthening the brands that matter, including BEAR, Pip & Nut and BrewDog.