How to Pick the Best Creative Agency

Koba Molenaar
Last Updated:

Really good adverts are few and far between. The ones that stand out (and can stand the test of time) were most likely designed by a creative agency, and not your in-house designer-cum-marketer. 

Good creative agencies, though, are much easier to find. You just need to know what to look for and which questions to ask when choosing a creative agency. 

From understanding the different types of creative agencies to budget considerations, we share eight essential steps that will streamline the process for business owners. Prepare to get your ducks in a row and equip yourself to find a creative team with a track record of crafting creative advertising campaigns and strong brand identities.  

8 Steps for Picking a Creative Agency

Steps for Picking a Creative Agency

Creative agencies can offer a mix of services. Some concentrate on consulting, while others prefer to be more practical and get on with the design. Your business goals and key performance indicators (KPIs) will determine the type of agency that would be the best fit for your projects.

If you’re still busy developing a product, choose a creative agency that includes consulting services. Their team will be able to guide you through market research to identify a new target market as well as help with product development. 

On the other hand, if your goal is to develop a mobile app, for example, you’ll need to search for an agency that includes IT services. 

Then, you also have the option of partnering with a full-service digital agency. A full-service digital agency can assist with all the creative elements and phases involved in branding and campaigns. Design will be a core offering, along with all the essential services needed for marketing and advertising campaigns. 

One of the main benefits of working with a full-service agency is that you can create better consistency across all your campaigns. Aside from consistency, it also comes with added convenience. You can use the same agency for your paid ad campaigns for market research, for instance, making this the better route when you have a large project.  

Budget will feature later again when you’ve narrowed your search down to a few and it’s time to address the nitty-gritty details. However, knowing what you can afford to spend before you actually sit down with a few agencies will save everyone time. There’s little point in browsing portfolios if you know that the agency’s minimum project fee is too expensive. 

To give you some idea of what you can expect to pay, the average minimum campaign size ranges between about $5,000 to more than double that, depending on the location of the agency. For example, the top creative agencies in Chicago are generally the most expensive and pricing starts at on average at nearly $12,000 per campaign.

Some prefer to charge an hourly rate. This pricing model is less common, but commonly used for extra services or requests. As for the average hourly rate, you can expect to pay between $88 and $115. 

Knowing these average rates will also come in useful to determine the “worth” of an agency. If a company charges a lot more (or less), proceed cautiously. 

In addition to the agency’s location, keep in mind that the timeline and the project’s scope will also impact the final price. If your goal is to unveil your rebrand as soon as possible but you’re working on a shoestring budget, consider extending the timeline rather than hiring the cheapest creative agency.    

There are countless reputable agencies and you’ll need to find some way of narrowing down the list. To simplify your mission, you’re searching for a creative agency that offers the services and skills you need and has worked with businesses in your industry. These two criteria should be your main filters at the start. 

Most agencies list their capabilities and industries served. If they don’t, you can refer to their client list to get an idea of which sectors they’ve worked with before. 

Experience matters, but more so does experience in your specific industry. If you have to choose between an agency with 10 years of experience but none in your field and one with half the experience but work to show for businesses in your niche, go with the latter. 

In fact, some agencies will tell you beforehand that they don’t work with certain industries. Respect this and continue with your search. 

Looking at their team will also give you a more accurate idea of their actual expertise. Creative agencies generally have: 

creative agency key roles

  • Graphic designers
  • Copywriters
  • Website developers
  • Digital marketers
  • Branding experts
  • Consultants 
  • Strategists
  • Video producers

If you have your own in-house marketing team, identify their weakest skills and look for a creative agency that shines in these areas. This way, you’ll get the most value for your marketing spend. 

Most agencies are happy to function as an extension of your team. So, if you have a great team of graphic designers already but only one junior copywriter, it will make more sense to focus on agencies that specialize in copywriting.  

Also look at how the team is organized. For example, do they assign a creative director to oversee your project? Does the web dev team include user experience (UX) and user interface (UI) designers to ensure the final product is intuitive and offers the best experience? 

Agencies often share short bios of their team on the company’s website which will give you an idea of the individual team members’ background and expertise. If they share only their names, you can use a platform like LinkedIn to find out more about their years of experience, formal training, etc. 

Many companies hire talent remotely nowadays. If you see that they have a remote working policy, don’t read this as a negative necessarily. One of the perks of hiring remote workers is that businesses have access to a bigger pool of professionals, allowing them to hire the best rather than the best in their location.  

Another factor to consider is that some of the services might be outsourced. For example, if they don’t have their own in-house video producers, they’ll typically outsource any video production requests to agencies that specialize in video marketing or production. 

As with remote teams, outsourcing is also not necessarily a bad thing. If your project involves video marketing, you would prefer that the agency entrusts this to specialists instead of asking their in-house copywriter. 

Making time to look at some of the agency’s previous work serves a dual purpose. 

Firstly, you’ll get an idea of their style and quality of work. These two criteria alone will play a determining factor if the agency makes it to your shortlist. 

You’ll notice that while agencies are versatile and can work with a range of industries and projects, they often have a distinctive style. The quality of work might be flawless, but if their style doesn’t really speak to you, don’t feel pressured to arrange a meeting. 

Secondly, by looking at sample works, you’ll also come across ideas that you like. Bookmarking these projects for future reference will come in useful later and can make the initial brainstorming sessions more productive. At the same time, if there’s a style that you dislike, make a note of this too. Knowing what you don’t want is equally important.

It’s also the best way to compare potential agencies. Two agencies might offer the same service on paper, but when you look at what they’ve actually done on paper you'll see how they’re different. 

When you’re checking out previous work, you can also take it one step further and check if the said client left a review. Alternatively, a case study can also be a valuable source. 

A new logo can look great, but how was it received? If they were tasked with designing an ad, which results did it generate? Case studies dig deeper to answer these types of questions. 

Refer back to those KPIs that you identified earlier. Does the agency have a track record of generating a lift in the areas that matter to your business?

Aside from your own KPIs, the following are essential metrics for evaluating a creative agency:

  1. Customer acquisition cost (CAC)
  2. Customer churn rate
  3. Conversion rate
  4. Lead time per project
  5. Estimated vs actual project time
  6. Estimated vs actual project cost

The first three KPIs will help you assess the value they can add to your business, while the last three will give you insight into their productivity. You want to find an agency that can deliver impressive growth results but within the allocated time and budget. 

Awards can also be an indication of the quality of work that you can expect. It’s not a dealbreaker, but rather an added bonus. 

If there are no awards to display, look for other noteworthy achievements. Perhaps they were included in a recent listicle about the best places to work? 

Yours truly regularly publishes lists of the top marketing agencies in specific fields and locations for the very purpose of helping businesses connect with the best service providers. In fact, on our website there are several listicles featuring top creative agencies in areas like brand visibility, branding, and ad creatives production to name a few. 

Some advertising agencies like Reload Digital, one of the top digital marketing agencies in the UK, use their own proprietary frameworks that they’ve built using years of experience. The agency doesn’t need to go to these lengths, but they should rely on some third-party tools.

Areas where they’ll typically need extra help include: 

  • Analytics
  • Communication
  • Email marketing
  • Search engine optimization (SEO)
  • Pay-per-click (PPC) marketing
  • Social media management
  • Project management

The agency doesn’t necessarily need to reveal which specific tools they use. However, what you don’t want to hear is that everything is completed manually. 

Your preliminary research would’ve revealed a couple of potential partners. Now, it’s time to dig deeper.

Few agencies publish pricing information on their website. This will be one of the first topics that you’ll want to chat about openly soon as possible. As mentioned earlier, digital agencies typically charge a minimum fee per project. In addition to asking about their fees, specifically ask if they have a minimum budget.

Another important question that you’ll want to ask is about their style of work. When you evaluated past projects you would’ve gained insights into their design style, but it’s also essential to know how they approach projects and clients. For example, do they frequently contact clients during all the stages or is regular interaction only limited to the planning phase? 

If you noticed that their team lacked certain roles like a branding expert and a rebrand is on the cards, now will also be a good time to ask about their outsource policy. 

Another essential question is about their communication. It’s crucial that you stay in the loop. Specifically ask how often you can expect a call or status update.  

Examples of other questions that you can ask include:

  • Do you have enough capacity to take on another project?
  • Which metrics do you use to determine success?
  • How do you measure return on investment (ROI)?
  • Who will be my point of contact?
  • Who forms part of your team?
  • How much input will I have?
  • Do you have a preferred method for efficient communication?
  • Can you walk me through your creative process?
  • Which recent project are you exceptionally proud of?
  • Do you have references from companies in our industry?
  • Are you currently working with any of our direct competitors?
  • Which security measures do you have in place to keep my data secure?
  • How often will you send reports?

You can email them a list of your questions, but arranging a formal meeting can be more insightful. This way, you can sense if your personalities align. Having a solid working relationship just makes everything else involved easier. 

After all these steps, you should have between three and five potential agencies. You can now invite the best ones to pitch their services. In addition to sharing a brief that specifies the business goals, the agency might also enquire about your current advertising campaigns. 

After a few weeks, the agencies should be ready to present their suggestions. It’s important to keep in mind that this typically doesn’t include any creative solutions. This pitching process is rather an opportunity for a potential design partner to take you through their proposal and share how much they’ll charge for these services.

Based on these presentations, you can go ahead and select your favorite. While the actual proposal and level of research that they completed carry a lot of weight, as mentioned earlier, let rapport and communication style guide you too.

Aside from understanding the requirements, their team should also share their excitement about the project. It goes both ways. Both parties should be enthusiastic about the new partnership and campaign. 

If their suggestions are great but they come across as disinterested, you won’t be getting the complete package. In fact, if you get the sense that they’re actually interviewing you too, it’s a good sign. You want the agency to ask you questions about matters like your target audience, ideal potential customer (aka your ideal customer profile), marketing strategy, visual identity, etc. 

After this, you’ll still need to negotiate Ts and Cs. Both parties should reach agreement about logistical matters like projected timelines, how much time you’ll have to give input, access to which information they’ll need, etc.  

Plus, if you haven’t done so yet, remember to follow up with references.  

Key Takeaways

There’s no such thing as the perfect agency. So, the goal of this process shouldn’t be to find the perfect partner. If that’s your mission, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. 

That said, there are more than enough reputable agencies that can create quality creative assets. You just need to be willing to research and accept that it will take weeks. 

If you had to summarize the factors that carry the most weight it would be industry expertise, online reviews, and their approach. The best agency for your business will be the one that takes a client-focused approach, has experience working with your specific industry, and enough satisfied clients to back that up. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s a creative agency?

Creative agencies usually focus on four key areas: strategy, advertising, design, and technology. They combine a creative approach with innovative strategy to help companies achieve their marketing goals. Some take a full-service approach and offer a wide range of services, while others limit their scope and label themselves as advertising agencies. Examples of services offered by creative agencies include market research, graphic design, and branding.

Which businesses should hire a creative agency?

Businesses of all sizes across most industries can benefit from hiring a creative agency. It’s a great option if you don’t have an in-house marketing team or your own internal team lacks the skill or the time. Creative agencies can also be the solution to businesses that need a fresh perspective and/or creative expertise to help boost their marketing.

What should I look for when choosing a creative agency?

Here are the key considerations when picking a creative agency for your brand:

  • Industry experience and knowledge of industry trends
  • Client reviews and testimonials
  • Services offered
  • Quality of their work

Which are some of the leading creative agencies?

Here are 10 of the best creative agencies that you can check out:

  1. Column Five Media
  2. Rule29
  3. MiresBall
  4. Rooted Creative Agency
  5. Epicosity
  6. Naked Development
  7. ThreeSixtyEight
  8. GLOW
  9. Jacob Tyler
  10. Hammer Creative
About the Author
Koba Molenaar, with nearly a decade in content writing, specializes in digital marketing, branding, SaaS, and eCommerce. Her writing is geared towards helping brands, from solo entrepreneurs to established companies, effectively communicate with their audiences. As a member of the Golden Key International Honor Society, Koba's dedication to quality is apparent in her work. She holds a BA Honours in English Language and Literature from the University of South Africa, which has profoundly influenced her approach to content creation. Koba’s journey began in the realm of academic writing, where she honed her skills in research and articulation. This background has uniquely equipped her to transition into writing for the web, blending academic rigor with the engaging style necessary for digital platforms.