What to consider in choosing the right branding agency

Selecting the right branding agency to work with is a process that typically happens before your project starts and is a crucial first step. For some clients, having everything under one roof is desirable but it’s quickly realized that it often comes with a price tag that can cause extreme sticker shock.

The traditional model

The days of genuine full-service design agencies are few and far between. A typical more prominent agency has a lot of top-heavy management that outsources work to smaller shops or contractors who do the job. So you end up paying for margins and overhead at that point. Or the big guys are buying up smaller companies or creating new branches to crush the competition. At that level, you’re often faced with many promises and the good old broken telephone, which can cause tension and politics that slows down any momentum.

Sure, you could try your luck on Fiverr or hire a freelancer. For many that go down this path, they quickly realize that to get the results desired, you have to make a wise decision and invest once into a verified leader in the industry. Because time is money and you don’t want to do the same thing 2 or 3 times before you get it right.

The alternative

Enter the agile, ‘anti-agency’ that can fulfil your needs with thoughtful planning, strategy and handpicked team members who are specialists in their own right. Refreshing transparency and reasonable budgets to get the same, if not better quality of work complete.

Qualifying an agency is no different from an agency qualifying a client. It’s a relationship like any other and you’re going to be working with each other for the duration of the project and, ideally, well beyond that, so you want to make sure it’s a good fit.

We happily categorize Jackson Wynne as this option.

Things to look for

How they work

You’ll notice a lot of overlap and similarities in processes between branding agencies, depending on what you’re looking for. Having a process in place ensures that a project runs smoothly and it’s not their first rodeo. This provides structure and a formula that can be followed for consistent results. Some agencies get a little carried away, branding and trademarking this and that, which gets to be a bit much – but it speaks to packaging something up that feels more like an exclusive, secret formula. It’s a bit market-y and cheesy, but someone is buying into it. Of course, you need to go off-script for something new or different.

Services offered

Does the agency offer what you need? Often there is some wiggle room if you require something more specific. Things can be accommodated and brokered or project managed, but make sure the core services offered align with your needs. Occasionally, you are not sure what you need, so that’s where consultation and planning phases help map out insights that are useful to do the work properly.

Track record

There are too many “fly by night” companies who won’t be around next year. You want to make sure you hire someone with a well-balanced, seasoned portfolio with specific examples of work via a portfolio or case study format.

Having some experience in your industry is beneficial. Sometimes taking a calculated risk is fine because transferable skills and related projects can apply. Enter the catch-22 – how does one get experience if they are never hired for it?


This is a standard. Most work will speak for itself, but it helps to verify things by a client who worked with the agency. Ask for references if needed.

Things to be cautious of

Companies claiming they can “do it all.”

There are a lot of inexperienced companies that claim to be able to do it all. I would be very suspicious of that claim since diluting your core service offering means you’re spread thin and become a jack-of-all-trades; yes man, “we can do that for you.” But you just have to wonder if they really can do it and how well they can do it, if at all in most instances.

Too trendy

Flash in the pan agencies who are one-trick ponies fill a niche, but you want to be careful about those young companies still figuring things out. The allure of hype and PR only takes you so far. Buying into excitement is fine, but you need to consider your short-term *and* your long-term needs.

Trying too hard

I’ve seen smaller agencies try to look bigger than they are by doing some pretty weird stuff like Photoshopping the same employee 4 or 5 times into a photo to make it seem like there are more people in the office. Overcompensating for lack of warm bodies is embarrassing at best and just comical to see. If the end product you produce speaks for itself, you shouldn’t need to throw smoke and mirrors at clients to feel like a legitimate service provider.

Lots of buzz words

I cannot stress enough how important it is to understand and see through this veil. If the rep you’re talking to throws around many big words, they’re selling hard and don’t know what they’re talking about. Little do they realize that they are probably scaring you off unless they’re speaking your language, then it could be music to your ears?

Things to consider


With the internet, working with companies abroad is becoming standard. Figuring out time zone differences can be tricky to work around but very doable. There is something to be said about face-to-face that is a challenging element you want to try and have if possible but work with what you have.

Starting small

Building trust and rapport is essential to make sure both sides are committed. Starting on a large project may not be an excellent first step. Perhaps you want to try a smaller project first to test the waters and develop a working relationship before you dive in. That is more than fair.

There are many providers out there that offer similar services. They all have very similar processes and approaches, use the same technologies, etc. Ultimately, develop a relationship with people you think you would enjoy working with! What makes these companies different? It all boils down to that.

Talk to them, meet them, get to know them and trust them to do the job!

What is Brand Strategy?

What is brand strategy and what does it have to do with your business?

Think about it in terms of goals. To satisfy the needs of your business, you’ll likely have short-term goals and long-term goals.

Brand strategy addresses the demand of your shifting needs. Perhaps you’re looking to grow or expand, competition has gotten fierce and your voice is getting drowned out. Or maybe whatever you’re doing now is getting stale, so you need to revisit a few areas that could be improved. It could be that you have nothing currently in place and are only just thinking about it now.

Figuring out what’s working and what’s not is the first step. That can be achieved through data, research, interviews and so on. Maybe you have an exciting new product launch and you’d like to ensure it hits the mark right out of the gate.

Having a plan is one thing, seeing it through and keeping on top of it is all part of a successful outcome.


Brand direction is usually a document paired with some form of a guide that will lay out goals, positioning and messaging that will tie into things like your print, web and campaign pieces. A well-thought-out action plan organises things that are already working and elevates everything else by adding any accompaniments that will help round out any gaps.

Getting it right is important and it needs to align with marketing. Appealing to benefits in a clear way will help. Knowing what you stand for is one thing. Cohesively communicating your brand in a concrete fashion activates potential.

This is where having a brand strategy and content strategy in tandem is highly effective.


Tomato, tomato – call it consistency, whichever. This is making sure you stay true to the plan during the execution phase. If you spent a lot of time and money on a beautiful brand and then decide to use off-brand cliche stock photography in marketing material, you’ve got a consistency problem. Stick to the plan and constantly ask “Does this fit with our brand?”. Does it look like our brand? Does it feel like it? If you think it does fit, but it doesn’t the better question to ask is “Do I understand our brand?” or “Am I following the brand strategy?” or really, “Do we have a brand strategy”.


Assessing your internal communications, values, external communications and partnerships will ensure everything aligns and every participant is on the same page.

Further, communication to your audience is ideally well received. Are you relatable? Have you over-thought or over-complicated things to the point that leads to confusion and frustration? People don’t have the patience to figure things out all the time. Make it easy for them.


Don’t be afraid to change as needed dependent on how the tide is going. Being able to adjust as needed in a quick fashion can be instrumental in ensuring success. An extreme pivot is hopefully not necessary, but often you’ll find while underway that new insights are gained that will load you with actionable direction.

Remember, your brand is ever evolving just like your customer. People shift gears, grow up, get new tastes or interests. Understanding this, it’s best to revisit your strategy annually. Evaluate things and see if you need to change it up.

Follow through

Make sure your team is carrying the torch so to speak. This is important because internally teams need to work together to make sure that all the effort thus far was not all-for-nothing.

A successful brand strategy makes sure your customer will understand everything you offer, perfectly. Familiarity breeds comfort and it makes your job that much easier.

If done right, you’ve answered Maslow’s hierarchy for the brand. You’ve fulfilled basic needs and are now ready to respond to the harder questions like why customers should love you. Appealing to make them feel good about their decision and finally, should you reach self-actualization you will know who you are and so will your customer.

Final Thoughts

Be weary of brand strategists coming in and selling their hearts out throwing around a lot of buzz-words and telling you everything is great and wonderful. It’s all fun and exciting but leaves a lot to be desired. Usually, their knowledge on brands and doing the actual work can create a disconnect where things get lost in translation. They’ll tell you a lot of great things but have poor follow-through. Good brand strategy with good brand execution is everything.

Don’t expect results overnight. But a well-thought out and crafted strategy when implemented should reap the rewards in the foreseen future. Trust the process and stick with it. You may just love where you end up.

The appropriate channel for your message

Sorry, but not everything you think, do or say is newsworthy.

In most cases, the thoughts we post in this space are dedicated to a discussion of branding.

But sometimes we need to diverge from the norm—at least in part. This is one of those times. In this case, we need to talk about communications and the impact it can have on an organization’s brand.

I was reminded of this point recently when I read a press release written and distributed by a large corporation (that shall remain nameless) designed to make a big splash about a new product. Trouble is the press release really said nothing. The reason was simple: it wasn’t newsworthy, or even noteworthy, in the first place.

This is a common problem among senior executives or managers of large companies who become so tied to the products or services that they’re trying to sell, that everything related to their brands becomes news. Except it isn’t, at least not in the eyes of most of the audience members they hope to reach. This is a major challenge for organizations hoping to make PR waves via social media, mainstream media outlets or through other tactics such as content marketing.

The good news: it’s a pretty easy fix, if those same executives listen to their (hopefully astute) PR and communications people.

Check out our new soap!

Reading that aforementioned press release reminded me of my days as a journalist in Toronto. Because I worked in a small newsroom with only two reporters (myself included), I covered beats ranging from politics and general news, to entertainment and sports. Not surprisingly, I got pitched by every PR person in the city—and some outside—to attend their next event, try their new product and write about whatever it was they were trying to promote.

The one pitch I remember most clearly, and the one that pushed me towards a post-journalism career in marketing-communications (surely I could do a better job!), was from a large multinational maker of personal care products. Their PR person was charged with pitching an article on a new soap scent they were about to release. Not a wonderful, game-changing type of soap that improved human hygiene by leaps and bounds, perhaps alleviating the suffering of a great number of people in some far-off land. Not an innovation in the personal hygiene experience. No, she was merely promoting a new scent.

After politely inquiring as to the newsworthiness of the wonderful opportunity on offer—I think they were pitching an interview with a company exec—the PR person eventually conceded that the ‘news’ was really just about the smell. In my view (having never tested the soap), the pitch stunk. I kindly turned it down.

When a little role playing comes in handy

If a major multinational can get trapped into thinking non-news is worthy of BREAKING NEWS treatment (more on that in a moment), it can happen to any company. Indeed, I’ve worked with more than a few business owners and managers who felt insignificant developments across their company were worthy of front page coverage. Sometimes an idea could be massaged and built into a viable media pitch. Most often it was a non-starter.

In situations such as these, some CEOs or managers are quick to shoot the messenger. They don’t want to hear that their idea or new product/service/thing-they-think-is-cool-but-isn’t, is a dud. They’ll sometimes accuse their communications person of being lazy or not buying into their vision.

An experienced marketer should not only be an idea generator, but also a check on the occasionally delusional instincts of the executives they serve.

Companies that try to make news out of everything should ask a simple question before hitting ‘send’ on their next press release or e-blast: Would you care about this information if you were a member of your organization’s target audience? Does what you have to say deliver value to that target audience? Is it worth disseminating in the first place? Then be careful to be highly objective when coming up with an answer. Having a few independently-minded people in the room to contribute opinions to this discussion will help make that important determination.

Your brand will be defined by the information it broadcasts

Most of us think of a brand as being an organization’s look and feel, its voice. All of that is true. But the information an organization chooses to disseminate on a regular basis will also shape how it’s perceived by a target audience.

Our recommendation is to advertise information as news only when it really fits the definition. That could include a new product or service line—if it’s more than just a new scent—maybe a deal to sell into a new market or the announcement of a new acquisition. But companies should be wary of burning out their audience with BREAKING NEWS! You’ve probably seen that crawl on cable news channels when almost every morsel of information is promoted as a game-changing headline.

But audiences eventually start tuning out information they don’t regard as timely, relevant, interesting or informative (see one of our previous blogs for a more detailed explanation of that magic content-generating recipe).

Instead, focus on disseminating information that makes sense from a brand-building perspective.

Typically, that’s content that your audience will find useful in some way. That could very well include commentary from a CEO on recent developments across her industry, or insights that deliver value to readers. Knowing what to communicate and when means sometimes playing the role of journalist, or at least an objective reader, to make a call as to what news can help the organization gain (the right kind of) attention and grow its client/user/audience base.

Unless that happens, your organization runs the risk of alienating that audience. So, remember this simple rule of thumb: if your ‘news’ appeals only to a small cadre of individuals, most of whom are employed within your company, then save it for your company blog, forget pitching it to the media, and give up on trying to position it as BREAKING NEWS.

Until next time.

Managing your creative service providers

Yes, you still need to manage your outsourced marketing service providers. Here’s why

In an effort to cut costs, the outsourcing of marketing and creative service providers has become a go-to strategy for organizations both large and small in recent years.

Why build your own marketing team when you can simply hire an outsourced firm to handle tasks—everything from graphic design and website development, to public relations and analytics—on your behalf? It’s just smart business strategy. (Full disclosure: Shockwave and Jackson Wynne essentially exist because companies have embraced this approach, so we’re more than a little biased in favour of outsourcing. But I digress)

The outsourcing strategy, however, comes with challenges.

There are many CEOs who assume that once a marketing responsibility has been outsourced, the initiative will be developed, deployed and, presto—instant marketing success. All that’s left is to simply sit back, serve the stream of new clients pouring through their real or virtual doors, and pay out the service provider. No fuss, no muss.
In reality, it never works that way.

A tough situation

Let me give you an example. A couple of years ago we worked with a global service provider, delivering high-level marketing consulting and management services to support their existing marketing department. Although we weren’t responsible for managing the outsourced agency that handled graphic design on the client’s behalf, we watched from afar as a tough situation snowballed into a disastrous one.

The trouble began when the design firm received little creative direction at the start of the relationship and quickly discovered that key management personnel—from whom they needed approvals—were almost always unavailable. Presenting work at stages during the months-long engagement was impossible. The engagement quickly turned sour when the agency delivered what they thought was a final product, work the client wholeheartedly rejected as being off-brand and off-message. The agency reminded the client that they had tried to engage various managers, but couldn’t.

At that point it didn’t matter. The client spent thousands of dollars on creative they didn’t love, but were forced to use due to their significant investment.

Some important lessons

All parties involved in that situation could have worked more effectively to ensure a strong outcome from the project. The agency could have taken additional steps to open lines of communication with the client, for example.

But, ultimately, clients need to manage their service providers to ensure a high-value engagement. Exactly how to do that depends on the organization and their structure, of course, but there are a few simple rules to follow to make sure your outsourced marketing relationships run as smoothly as possible:

Define objectives—One of the major challenges companies have at the very start of an outsourcing arrangement is a lack of clarity around their marketing objectives, and in turn, the expectation of the service provider. Before engaging a firm to outsource a marketing responsibility, determine what you need to achieve, how you want to do it and what a positive outcome will look like over the longer term.

Set a budget—Knowing how much you can spend on a marketing campaign or initiative is a first step in determining the kind of outsourced service provider you can engage. I’ll delve more into the topic in a later post, but remember that your end results will generally be a reflection of the initial and ongoing investment. Having a budget (even a rough one) in mind will help you narrow a list of potential service providers—which could include freelancers, a boutique firm or possibly even a national agency if your organization has deep pockets.

Identify key point people—Any experienced service provider will ask for you to identify one or two main internal point people to contact for ongoing questions and approvals. Without those contacts, they’re essentially working in limbo. Make sure that whoever you do appoint to manage the project or relationship has the time available to monitor the service provider’s progress and address any concerns they might have. These point people should also be prepared to provide the service provider with a creative brief, as well as background training or an overview of your organization’s employee culture, brand considerations and business operations to ensure the work they deliver is on-brand and on-message.

Stay in touch—Don’t assume that one or two meetings will be sufficient to manage an outsourced marketing relationship. Insist on semi-monthly calls or meetings with the service provider to assess their progress and answer questions. The call or meeting might only last for 10 minutes, but it’s a reminder that you’re serious about the project and expect results, while giving the provider an opportunity to present work, seek approvals and ask for clarifications.

Set regular milestones—Another important consideration to avoid project cost over-runs or delivery delays is to set short-term milestones for the service provider to achieve. These could be monthly or quarterly (depending on the nature of the engagement) and could even be tied to payment. This tactic will not only help you assess progress, but also helps keep the service provider motivated. From their perspective, it’s easy to drift and become lackadaisical about a project when even the client seems disengaged and indifferent about its outcome.

Until next time.

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