Today, I’m drawing a line in the sand. The time has come to define two distinct kinds of design businesses: the Studio and the Agency.
If your design business is based on a passion for creativity and has a culture which values design and aesthetics above all, stand to the left: you have a Studio. Everyone else — you lot talking about project status reports, you with the staff who “handle” clients, and you who refer to design work as “the creative” — stand to the right, you have an Agency. Anyone still standing in the middle, please make up your mind now!
I am passionate about design and I run a Studio. For all our clients — businesses building a brand where design is important — I believe that nine times out of ten, a design Studio suits them best. Here are ten reasons why.
Studio — The client talks with the designer directly to work through the brief, ideas and outcomes.
Agency — A traffic manager goes between client and designers, easily becoming a game of Chinese whispers, making it hard for clients to convey their feedback and frustrating designers who can’t reply for themselves.
2. Personal & Continuous Service
Studio — Clients get to know and trust their designers, and know what to expect of each engagement.
Agency — Anyone in-house or outsourced can do each task.
Studio — By talking directly with a designer they know, clients can communicate feedback quickly, and the designer can understand and act promptly.
Agency — The traffic manager needs to interpret each piece of feedback between client and designer, adding time to each interaction.
Studio — The designer (or Studio owner) will assess and balance each change in the project against their passion to create great work. Additional fees may be needed to cover extra work.
Agency — The client manager will check if any change is within the agreement and additional fees will be requested for any variation.
5. Network of Talent
Studio — Most designers have a strong network of similarly talented photographers, writers, illustrators, coders and all other kinds of people needed to bring projects to life. They enjoy the creativity of collaboration.
Agency — Most Agencies have a network of photographers, writers, “digital”, “social” and “SEO” suppliers they can outsource work to.
6. Design Quality
Studio — Will always place paramount importance on the excellent representation of your brand, both visually and in terms of your brand’s business objectives.
Agency — May not have the eye to ensure all visual design is of the highest standard.
Studio — Because Studios are smaller, they can specialize to particular industries or kinds of projects, so you should be able to find one with some experience with your kind of project.
Agency — Tend to offer a generalist service, in order to cover their larger cost base and hedge their exposure.
8. Personality of Outcomes
Studio — A small, consistent team can create strong personality for your project.
Agency — A varied team my find it hard to create and consistently present a particular voice.
9. In-house Talent
Studio — Attract and retain the very best designers who want to work on design-lead projects.
Agency — Attract designers looking for work.
10. Scale of projects
Studio — In my experience, and surprisingly, just two focussed designers working directly with a client, with dedicated time, can deliver an amazing volume of work. I would go as far as to say that there is no project they could not deliver well. Studios can increase their output by working with other creative people in their established networks.
Agency — Present themselves as broadly resourced, but effectively deliver projects of any scale with a team of one designer and one manager. If my calculations are correct that equals two people. Agencies can also outsource parts of projects to increase their capacity.
Bonus point! 11. Management
Studio — Effective management in a Studio can help your project run smoothly by taking care of timelines, budgets and administration. A Studio Manager may be a designer who grew up to become a manager or someone with a creative passion to organise.
Agency — Your client manager will manage most aspects of your projects.
Bottom line: Studios are better.
Different people and design businesses have all kinds of superpowers which compliment each other and often work well together. But the vast majority of projects will be delivered to a higher standard, more quickly and smoothly, by a Studio.