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In the agency/marketer ecosystem, we talk a lot about channels. Brands want to spread their communications and promotional efforts across the most strategic mix of channels to make sure their messages are dynamic, contextual and crafted to inspire specific action. The better you understand your brand and what you’re selling, the smarter you can be when deciding where to focus your efforts and your budget. Traditional advertising (tv, print, outdoor), content marketing, video, social media, email marketing, direct mail, events, sponsorships. This list goes on for days.

As our industry, and the planet, started reeling from COVID-19, our first fear was that client budgets would shut down entirely, and agencies would find themselves alone out in the desert. The belt-tightening did happen right away, and agencies have already had to respond proportionately with layoffs and aggressive cost-cutting. But the economy hasn’t actually stopped. It’s shifted. All of that work, meant for all of those channels, still needs to happen — but it’s clear that the ‘digital’ channel, and all of its digital tactics, are the clear path forward. …

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Most digital agencies are started by experts, do-ers, from one discipline. People who’ve done the work for other agencies at a high level, client-facing, and thought they could do it better. Or just didn’t want to work for someone else, in someone else’s stodgy agency, any longer.

A senior agency tech lead takes the leap, brings some buddies, maybe a client, and crafts a new flavor of tech shop that excels at his or her area of focus. If they do well, they start pulling in more people just like them, then complementary freelance specialists in other disciplines to round out a broader set of service offerings, then eventually they hire and staff those roles full time. Tech was the spark, and tech remains the core.

Or a creative director realizes that their best work won’t have the chance to exist until they start their own thing. So they launch a creative shop that does killer creative. As clients demand more and more elaborate execution and production, the agency brings on other creative freelancers, then dev freelancers, then video freelancers, whatever — and as it becomes clear that their agency will grow faster with those roles filled full time, they staff up. …

There’s nothing as pure and ripe with creative possibility as a visual identity design engagement. This is where designers get to create something from nothing — to craft a look and feel that aligns perfectly with the essence of a brand, and something that has never been seen before. For me, this is the height of graphic designerdom. Heavy on the artistry. Fertile ground for newness and design insight. Helping a brand to claim new space, come into their own, stand apart from and above the competition.

But there’s so much more going on here (sometimes less), especially from the client’s perspective. If we don’t set our design-nerd joy aside for a minute, we may not get to the heart of what the client really expects out of this engagement. …


Gabe Ruane

Former SF-er in Bend, OR. Brands, digital, design, start-ups, side projects & insights from the small agency perspective. Co-founder @TurnAgency

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