What to Expect from a Creative Agency

What should you expect from a creative agency?

After 30-something years in this industry, I’ve talked to a lot of catalogers and a lot of creative agencies. And I’ve found that there are a lot of opinions about what a creative agency does, is good at, should do, shouldn’t do, doesn’t (but should) do, can’t do, etc.

I guess that’s the nature of any agency, though. No two are exactly alike, and no two clients have exactly the same needs.

But, based on my years of informal research, I would divide creative agencies into two categories that I like to call “thinkers” and “do-ers”.


A “do-er” creative agency is also known as an “order-taker” agency. Think of a waiter, standing beside your table, notepad and pen in hand. You’ve reviewed the menu (which has a limited number of choices, prices clearly marked, and simple descriptions of each option). You’re ready to have some delicious food and drinks, pay, and leave. Mission accomplished.

The do-er agency will get the job done for you, but they will do the work you “order”, and nothing more. They won’t guide you or strategize on ways to do better than what you ordered off the menu.

In this scenario, who’s taking the risk? You are. You’ve agreed to pay the prices stated on the menu whether you like your food or not. The only risk the restaurant is taking is that you might not come back, or that you might “dine and dash”, an unlikely outcome.


A “thinker” creative agency is a trusted advisor. A person (or group) that has deep expertise in your industry. Someone who has the knowledge, experience, and wherewithal to take your company in new directions, improve your image, bring in new customers and, most importantly, position you to make (a lot) more money.

As opposed to the waiter with his notepad, the thinker agency will start off the relationship by listening to you and learning about your business, your goals, your marketing plan, and where you see your business in one, three, or five years. And their goal is to get you there — by strategizing, guiding, advising, and doing top-notch work.

The thinker agency might also suggest doing one or more things that sound risky. Something you may not have considered before. Something that takes you out of your comfort zone. And in this case, the thinker agency will assume some of the risk. You’re in this together. You both have skin in the game. You’re both fully invested in the outcome.

How Do You Choose?

Like I mentioned, no two clients have exactly the same needs, and no two agencies are exactly the same. Some catalogers will want that risk-heavy, menu-driven option, while others will want a trusted advisor who is willing to share the risk – and offer potentially more lucrative outcomes.

Here, in no particular order, are some questions to ask, and behaviors to observe, when talking to a creative agency (or even to your in-house creative team):

1. Are they interested in learning about your business and financial goals first, and talking about creative solutions second?

2. Do they have case studies, branding explorations, and/or before-and-after examples of their work?

3. Are they willing to do unpaid “spec creative” work to show you their chops? (Warning: trick question)

4. Are they up-front when explaining how they charge for their work?

5. Do they offer a high level of expertise in direct marketing/catalogs?

6. Have they done work for brands that you know and admire?

7. Do they understand (and are they experts in) the business, creative, marketing, and production aspects of direct marketing/catalogs?

8. Are they willing to admit what they’re not good at?

9. When presenting their fees, are they asking you to take a leap of faith and to “just trust them”?

10. Bonus: Ask what their opinion is on using non-standard paper, inks, trim sizes, or other ways “to make your catalog stand out in the mailbox”.