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Choosing A Designer

Advertising and promoting your business is expensive, so it's important to get the most from your advertising budget. That means understanding how to get the most from your ad agency or graphic designer.

Let's start by understanding the difference between agencies and designers. Typically, a designer will work on specific projects under your direction. For example, you may request an ad design for your Halloween event, and give the designer your copy (the text) and the party theme. You are responsible for booking the ad with the newspaper, getting flyers printed, having posters made, etc.

An ad agency plays a more active role in planning the promotion of your events. They can work with you to plan your ad schedule, suggest the right mix of promotional tools to reach your audience, help you evaluate the effectiveness of your promotions, and negotiate ad rates and printing rates on your behalf. They can also help with choosing promotional themes and writing ad copy. Of course, you will pay more for these additional services - but you may actually save money by letting your agency do your negotiations and booking.

Whether you are working with a designer or a full-service agency, it pays to plan ahead. If you can plan your advertising a year in advance you should be able to lock in much better ad rates. Leaving a couple of extra weeks when printing flyers will save you "rush printing" charges. And giving your designer extra lead time will almost certainly get you a better looking result!

A typical small agency might require final "concept and copy" at least a week in advance of newspaper deadlines, four weeks in advance of distribution for printed materials like flyers (to avoid rush charges), and six to eight weeks in advance for complicated projects (such as die-cut and folded invitations). Many business owners don't understand why final copy is required so far in advance... they ask the designer to do a design, and add the text later. But in a good design, text and typography are very important to the look of the piece. So if you want your advertising to look good, plan on providing the copy when you give the job to the designer.

The above lead times allow time for the client to proof the final artwork, and make minor corrections, based on a single design. But when working with a new designer, or when promoting an important event, you may want to see several design concepts, and possibly several versions of the artwork. This can add one to two weeks to the schedule (more for very complex ads), and of course will cost more than a single design.

When ordering the work, make sure the designer understands your market and the image you are going for. For example, you may look at a design and say, "That's not cool enough for our market." Another business manager may look at the same ad and say, "Whoa, that's way too weird for our customers." Show your designer ads you like (and don't like) to help them understand the look you want for your business.

But what if you don't like the designs your agency produces?

Well, you obviously shouldn't run an ad that you feel really damages your image, doesn't convey your message, or isn't what you requested. But at the same time, avoid the temptation to micro-manage the design. You are paying your designer for their professional skills; their judgment is probably better than yours when it comes to layout, typefaces, color choices, etc. Also, if designers feel that the work they do for you is going to be extensively changed, they won't give you their best efforts.

So find an agency or designer whose work you like, and trust their design sense. If you find you consistently don't like the work they're producing, talk to them about the problem, and if necessary find another design firm. But don't spend your time trying to "fix" the designs.

It's also very important that one person from your business deals with the design firm, and has final authority on all design and copy decisions (many agencies will insist on this). If a designer is getting conflicting input from several people, they can't do a good job for you. If you need to, talk about the design with everyone at your business who is involved in the decision... but select one person to convey your feedback to the design firm. (A good design firm can schedule meetings with clients where everyone can contribute ideas and feedback - as long as one person represents the client when it comes to final input and decisions.) Note that this can be complicated when co-op advertisers or sponsors are involved. Typically the person or company being invoiced provides the input, unless they specifically designate a different person.

So far we've talked about printed advertising and promotion, but for most businesses, the internet has also become an important promotional tool. Print design, web design, and e-mail promotions require different skills and tools, so you may use different firms for each. However, there are some advantages if you can find a single firm to handle all your needs. The design firm can make sure that your print and web communications project a consistent image. And you will only need to provide your event information and promotional goals to one firm, who can then make sure that the print ads are placed, the website is updated, and the e-mail invitations are sent. Some firms can also handle other design tasks, including menus, signs, and promotional items.

Typically, in order to get this range of services, you'll need to work with a mid-size agency or design firm. There are advantages and disadvantages to choosing large or small agencies:

An individual designer (free-lancer) or very small agency can give you personal attention and often lower rates. But you will need to work around their schedule if they are out sick or on vacation, and you will need to find a new designer if they change jobs. Individuals and very small agencies probably cannot provide a complete package of design services.

Mid-size firms give your somewhat less individual attention, and may charge a higher rate than free-lancers. But on the plus side, they can provide a broader range of services, and they have several designers on staff so they can accommodate your needs even if someone is out, or if you need a lot of work done for a key event.

Large firms can offer a full range of services and a large staff to meet all your needs. Unless you are a large account, you will probably get little personal attention. (In fact, in a large firm, the smaller accounts are often given to junior designers and trainees.)

So, how should you choose?

Above all, find a firm whose work you like! Ask for samples and references, and if possible meet with the designers before making a selection.

Decide if you want to hire a design firm (and manage the ad planning and placement yourself) or an ad agency to provide more assistance with your promotional planning (most ad agencies will also provide "design only" packages if you prefer).

Find a firm that is large enough to meet your needs, but small enough to care about your business. We typically find that local, neighborhood businesses are best served by free-lance designers or very small firms; regional or metro-market businesses do well with mid-size firms, and major national companies get the best results from large firms (and can afford to pay for them).

Talk to the firm about how you will measure the effectiveness of your advertising. It's a good idea to try different types of advertising over time to see what works best for you. Consider coupons and special offers to measure how many people are responding to your ads.

Remember that even the best advertising campaign gets stale over time. Plan for (and budget for) occasional reworking you advertising. Most designers respond very well to an opportunity to do something new for a client, and you will get the best results from both your design firm and your customers if you freshen your advertising every 6-12 months.

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