Why Traditional Agencies Need an In-House Design Practice

Harnessing the power of dual perspectives

Advertising has always had an intimate relationship with graphic design. When you get right down to it, they are two sides of the same coin: communication. Each has a desire to elicit an emotional response that can favorably influence the attitudes a customer might have toward a product. They simply use different talents and symbology to deliver their message. 

But there is beauty, harmony and real power when they align to communicate. 

I studied graphic design. My first job was in a small boutique agency. I got to do everything: logos, packaging, brochures, video graphics, ad campaigns. That's where I also fell in love with advertising and writing. As it turned out, I loved words as much as I loved symbolism and interesting visuals. I loved how you could use words in unique ways to make a more powerful point that would resonate and stick with people (aren't words simply symbols of ideas?). But my real passion was using design to dial in the subtleties of the message. The combo, that's where the real magic was found. Design is like a handshake—the first interaction a customer has with a business. Advertising is the storytelling that reveals what's behind the handshake.

You'll find great agencies that subcontract the design work, and great design firms that subcontract the words. The issue that sometimes arises is that those specific cultures tend to put more value on their own expertise and lose the exponential power of the symbiotic relationship of words and symbols when they are used as one. It's a real boost for a brand to have an agency that can steward the brand communications both verbally and graphically. It can create a broad spectrum of communication consistency at every touch point with whomever encounters the brand—customers, employees, shareholders—wherever they encounter it. 

Now, if you are one of the Fortune 500, you probably have the resources to have both an advertising firm and a design firm (maybe a stable of them for each and every specialty you can conceive of). But if you aren't one of the Fortune 500, let's hope you are lucky enough to find a communication agency that can handle the bulk of your communications needs for you. You'll invest a lot less energy trying to get creatives to align. I'm not sure where the term "herding cats" originated, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was referring to a brand manager who has to get different creative teams to align. 

I'm here to advocate for developing an in-house design capability. And frankly, it's not hard to get started (it's hard, though, to make it great). 

The first step is to recognize the power of design to add to your client's communications.

Then, you need to hire people with talent and an eye for design. 

Next, you pair them with people whose expertise is in advertising. 

Finally, you can watch the beauty that comes from meshing these dual perspectives.

These days, I am lucky enough to be an ECD at a firm with the talent to do ad campaigns one week, and then turn around and design your website, your new packaging and your new logo and brand identity system the next. The combination has proven to be a door opener for project work, new business, awards, small budget media campaigns … and more. Best of all, the dual capabilities have helped build our client's businesses. 

Because our clients know that we don't need to be coached about how the brand expresses itself no matter where it expresses itself.

It's like getting one powerful centaur instead of a horse with a jockey … and a whip.

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Chris Buhrman
Chris Buhrman is executive creative director at Hanson Dodge, a Milwaukee-based independent agency.

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