Designing for an ad agency vs a saas company

Cecilia Martinez
9 min readFeb 9, 2018

The “what was tricky” of coming from a creative world into marketing.

Have you been in this situation? Moving from an advertising agency to a startup or tech company? It is a fun ride that comes with a lot of learning curves.
2013 was the last time I worked in an agency. Proximity BBDO (“The work, the work, the work”) and Wunderman Mexico were the interactive agencies where my professional career as a designer began.
Agency life can be very relaxing or very intense, all in the same day. Here is how it usually works:

It never stops. That’s why agency life can be tough. But in the process, you end up with a lot of experience and I would highlight these points as the main learnings:

  1. Teamwork and trust are crucial and should not be taken for granted.
  2. Respect for others ideas is the beginning of creative freedom.
  3. Every delivery is important. Be professional and take risks.
  4. Never underestimate how a strong concept or idea can create deep bonds between a brand and its audience.

In these two agencies, gamification and user experience became part of my daily basis. That’s how my interest in design thinking started.
Understanding how to be more strategic in solving problems, considering conversion and performance and learning to think first about the user’s needs, was the path to become a better designer.

That’s why I decided to leave the agency life and come to Canada to study Digital Design at VFS. During that intense year of school, I learned about different design approaches like information architecture, user experience, user interface, design systems and it blew my mind. When the program was over, every student understood how truly important the role we play in any business is.

After that, I got an offer to work at Unbounce. My first time in a tech company.
Unbounce has a marketing department that requires design services for the benefit of different projects such as, content pieces, awareness campaigns, marketing events and so on.

Most of the campaigns are created around big content pieces with insights and information relevant to our target audience. When I started working, there were more content writers than copywriters, and not all of them were experts in writing copy for web. They became good at it with time and practice. Most of these content pieces were tips on how to become a better marketer, but not much about the benefits of using our product, which was peculiar to me at the time.

In those first years, designers weren’t integrated with the marketing team until senior leadership decided to try Spotify’s framework. Squads were supposed to work as small independent teams with a long-term mission. It wasn’t until then, when we got out of our design bubble, that we started actually knowing people on the marketing team. But I couldn’t stop comparing this job with the other agencies and I noticed some things that were very different from what I was used to:

For me this came as a bit of a shock and with some professional and emotional challenges:

  1. It was becoming really hard to prevent future UX and UI problems or come up with functional and creative ideas without having any context when receiving the copy.
  2. Most of the team don’t have any ad agency exposure, so I struggled with how to show them what could be possible with some process changes. I wanted to motivate them to think outside of the box, take more risks and not feel afraid of making mistakes.
  3. At the beginning, I felt like I was at a disadvantage because I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about marketing. I had to learn quickly if I wanted to be heard.
  4. It was very frustrating not having access to the data needed to validate my ideas. Which meant that they would probably never happen unless someone else came with the same idea but with actual information to support it.

When these pains where identified, the design team took the initiative to request professional development on some of these areas.

After analyzing all of these things and understanding which of the problems we could control and fix, we started by educating the design team on marketing. We needed to learn all about the funnels, contact lifecycle stages and so on. Knowledge was immediately provided by the experts in the marketing team.

We also started showing more interest in the product, in the new features and why the company was prioritizing some projects over others.

Besides all this new knowledge, we started using the Sprint Book as a guide. Designers introduced this workflow to the marketing team. It became very refreshing to collaborate with people from other departments. And most important to see designers finally having a seat at the table and start taking big decisions.

During this time at the company, we found that our old style of project management was no longer working for us.

Between the director of marketing, art director, marketing manager and myself we are now trying to come up with rules and guidelines that can help anyone to have a successful project where they can involve the correct people for their projects from beginning to end. And one that encourages a better ideation process.

The process below is a summary of what we have learned.

If you are a project lead or a designer and have had the same experience or find yourself in a similar situation I hope this process can help you feel more motivated and more integrated into the project.

The process that every project lead should follow:

Step 1. Request a designer

In this phase, team leads should know what problem they want to solve. And have a rough idea of how much effort they want to put into the solution. So yeah bring the designer in the beginning! Make her/him feel like part of the team, and believe me, the end result is going to be so much better.

Step 2. Pretty obvious but frequently forgotten. Have a kick off meeting.

Here the idea is to discuss what the problem is. What is the goal of the project? Who is your target market? What is the measurement of success? Who is in your RACI? And all the information you need to start your project.


The brief should be your north star. This document is going to keep you on track every time you want to improvise. Don’t make it over complicated, have a short nice template with the things your team will need to do their work and then make sure the rest of the department uses the same one.

Step 4. Research

At this step, we use the lovely “ask the experts” method from the Sprint Book. Give them time to be prepared. Create questions that will help them know what your team is looking for. Get the people inside the company that are really relevant to your project.

Step 5. Documentation

Have all this documented in the same place where your team can access it. Google Drive has been working for us. Make sure to add wireframes, mockups, usability tests, etc.. Having all that information will help you to create an amazing case study one day.

Also as my team lead used to say “If one of you gets run over by a bus we all know where your files are.” True.

Step 6. Brainstorming

Again you can use the Sprint Book format. Make sure your team understands the research that has been done so they can bring good ideas to the table.

Here is where I would like to start experimenting with ways to motivate marketers to feel more comfortable with out-of-the-box thinking.

Step 7. Scope your Project

Project leads have to take design strategy and processes into consideration during scoping. Adding design tasks like the creation of mood boards or usability tests will make the scope and timelines very accurate which can prevent delivering projects that are not as professional as they were intended.

Project management is about making sure the team is on track more than making great tools like Wrike too complicated for your team to follow. It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that your team is checking their daily tasks, but that is not always the case, there should be constant check-ins and communication with the whole team.

Step 8. Feedback

This one is tricky. There can be too many stakeholders in the project that probably will make you want to cry every time they give their opinion. That is why is so important to stick to your RACI and learn to respect review deadlines.

Step 9. Usability Test

Another step that can be easily forgotten during scoping. Create a list of people that are relevant for testing your projects. For example, I’m always trying to find non-customers that are evaluating tools to create landing pages. It can be time-consuming to find them, but the feedback is worth it.
Designers are not the only ones with the power to do this, marketers and copywriters can learn a lot from doing this too.

Step 10. QA

You can create templates in google sheet to help you organize a QA. Have your whole team check for everything from an interaction glitch to a typo. I should have mentioned it before but remember to keep looping in the devs when you have your scope ready, so they are aware of what is coming down the pipe.

Step 11. Retrospective session

When a project didn’t go as expected, it can be easy to blame others or not take accountability. Having these sessions helps the team to improve communication and workflows.
I like to follow the feedback model:

Source: Mark Bell, ©Copyright Roy Group

For this model to be effective, it needs to be done just after the project was completed so the team doesn’t lose momentum. This will allow anyone on the team to give specific observations. Also, it will be low in judgment which makes it easier to take the feedback and learn from it.

Coming up with these steps wasn’t that hard, some of these felt very natural from the experience I got during my time in an agency and some of these processes were applied and solidified inside the web team before our actual effort of standardizing them throughout the rest of the marketing team.

But still there is something that I’m missing and that is the creative freedom.

Looking at the big picture there are hard times for creative people, more with AI coming closer. Ad agencies and in-house marketing teams are different worlds, but both are in the same business of selling. Can’t we bring a little bit more of creativity and risk into our ideas? I’m pretty sure we can.

The challenge right now is how to take some of that creative freedom into strategic results. How can we motivate ourselves to take the time to come up with more emotional and insightful campaigns that are going to increase the awareness of our company into something no one can easily forget, something that will make our future customers excited and intrigued with the idea of using Unbounce.

We’ve learned a lot during this process and we are exited to move forward with what we’ve learned. Have you gone through similar situations in your career? How did you bring these two worlds of creativity and strategy together?