Agency Branding: Time to Hang Up the Beret

by Eric Holter, RewardingToil.com

I have a good friend who is a fine artist. He goes into his studio and paints. And then, after creating work, it ends up on a gallery wall where someone might buy it. But the owners of those galleries know that buyers don’t plunk down thousands just because they like the colors. An art buyer doesn’t just buy a painting, they buy the artist. They care about the name, the reputation, the history, the story, and the vision of the artist. And gallery owners don’t just sell paintings, they sell brands—the artist is a brand. My friend is wound up in his art, his art is an expression of himself, and those buy his work want to know as much about him as they do his art.

Fine artists therefore need to “paint pictures” about themselves—building their brand—as much as they need to put paint to canvas. That’s a big part of marketing for the fine artist. But commercial art is not fine art. Gasp!

Fine Art: Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock

Design is Art, But Not Fine Art

Don’t get me wrong; design is art. And every designer knows how much artistic effort gets poured into their work. And we’re right to celebrate and appreciate the achievements of great designers. But when was the last time you went into your studio and produced a beautiful logo, a gorgeous layout, a refined typographical treatment, and then sought out a client who would buy it?

So when it comes to selling commercial art—to selling design, to branding a design firm—it’s not about the designer and their story, vision, or history. It’s about what the work can accomplish for the client. Your buyers, your clients don’t really care that much about your story, your history, or your artistic personality. They care about what your skills can do for them.

And yet how many design firm websites focus precisely on artistic elements and expressions? As a consultant to design firms who sifts through hundreds of your websites every month I can tell you that the default positioning of most firms leverages their artistic vision far more than their professional expertise. It’s more about them than it is what they can do for their clients. I admit I find many of these websites entertaining, interesting, creative and clever. I often think it must be very fun to work there (which is not an irrelevant function of a design firm’s site, but also not the main thing).

Design is art, and the practice of good design is a deeply artful endeavor. But design is commercial art, not fine art. Selling design is not at all like selling fine art. And your brand needs to reflect this.

Frustrated Artists?

Some designers really are frustrated fine artists. They wish they could just go into the studio and create. They wish their work wasn’t affected by the demands of clients who often dilute and downgrade from great to good, or even not so good. Not all designers are frustrated fine artists, and I don’t think any of them should be. Commercial art is not inferior to fine art just because it’s purchased in advance and has defined parameters. (I wish some fine artists had more defined parameters—might make for better art!)

I wonder though, that if when it comes a design firm’s brand, their inner fine artist re-emerges? Designing their own brand is like going into the studio without parameters and with no client shooting down the best ideas. Finally, all their creative ideas can flow unhindered!

Creative Freedom is Not Good for Agency Branding

While this does result in clever and creative design firm brands, it does not serve them well in the end. The agency brand is way too important to be left to the fine artist. The commercial part needs to drive their brand, their positioning, and how that gets articulated and proven on the site. The firm’s marketing and business development future hangs on it. The crafting of the agency brand or the design firm website needs to be built according to definite and exacting commercial constraints. It’s not time to play and create. It’s time to be rigorous about building a platform for the future success of your firm.

Selling commercial art is about what your artistic abilities can accomplish for your client, not about your vision or your story. A prospect is not interested in your pets, your superpowers, the pubs you frequent, or favorite latte. Your work for them is not going to be framed and hung over a mantle. It is going to go to work for them in a competitive marketplace. Your work needs to give them an edge, and your branding needs to make the case for how you can help them win. They are not concerned with providing you an opportunity to be creative—they are paying to be effective. And good design, properly implemented, can be very effective.

Take Another Look at Your Website

So take a look at your website again and ask yourself the following questions.

  1. Does my agency’s branding say more about who we are than what we do for our clients?
  2. Is our branding expressed primarily by our story, our history, and our personality, or by the expertise we bring to the problems our clients have?
  3. Does our website seem like more of a portfolio piece showcasing the potential of our unencumbered creativity or does it showcase the kind of work that convinces a prospect that we are the right firm for them?

If your brand is more about you, and your inner artist, maybe it’s time to rethink your brand without the beret.


Eric Holter is a RISD grad who studied letterpress printing and wood engraving, who then naturally transitioned into founding a leading web development company. He is now a business consultant helping designers from freelancers to mid-sized firms. He can be contacted at RewardingToil.com.


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