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”.

How can you make a bigger than normal impact with your catalog, showcase your existing products in a new way, and make customers (and prospects) sit up and take notice?

A focused lookbook or, as I call it, a FocusBook.

A FocusBook is typically smaller (either physically smaller or a lower page count) than your regular mailings, and offers customers and prospects an edited selection of products, with the book focused on at least one specific group of buyers. This temporary redefinition of your products can serve many purposes and accomplish many different goals. It can also serve as a great test vehicle that can help define your direction as you move forward.

Here are just a few examples of how a FocusBook can be used for nearly any retailer:

1. If the majority of your products are aimed at women, with a smaller men’s selection, pull out products that would appeal to men and create a Father’s Day FocusBook. Creative can be very masculine, keeping page design simple and straightforward (the way men tend to respond best when shopping).

2. If you have a primarily self-purchase customer, select the products that could be good gift items and create a gifting FocusBook. Headlines and editorial copy can educate the gift buyer as to what your typical customer may need or want.

3. For a home décor business that is furniture-heavy, focus on non-furniture accessories, or a specific category of product (bath accessories, outdoor, textiles, etc.) and create an accessory FocusBook.

4. Jewelry catalogs often scare men away – so think about creating a “jewelry gift guide” FocusBook that helps men choose styles that may appeal to the lucky recipient. Copy can focus on matching styles she owns with new items that complement what she already wears.

5. Your comprehensive selection of apparel and/or shoes can be separated out into a travel FocusBook showcasing items that are appropriate for travel (easy packing, lightweight, wrinkle-free, quick-drying, etc.).

6. A toy retailer might think about a classic toy FocusBook that offers a collection of, for example, handmade wooden toys that might appeal to a more discerning buyer (who also may be willing to spend a little more to get a better quality product). Instead of expecting those customers to filter through 400 products in your catalog to find the 50 classic, handmade, wooden toys, give them their own FocusBook.

Why should you consider a FocusBook? Again, just a few reasons that this could be an interesting option for you:

1. It will allow you to feature products (or product categories) that you suspect could give your sales a bump, without committing to making a major change to your catalog program.

2. It gives you the opportunity to change up the size, shape, paper, or binding style of your catalog.

3. It allows you to test new creative without redesigning your main book.

4. It’s a great opportunity to try out a new creative team or agency on a one-time “test” book.

5. You can test out a different mail/list strategy.

6. You will likely bring in a new set of buyers who have not been drawn to your brand in the past.

Hopefully your mind is swirling right now, considering how your products could be re-shuffled and presented in a new and interesting way. Who isn’t buying your products that you think should be? Do your potential buyers need a more focused selection in order to make that first purchase? Is your “generalist” product mix making it harder for customers to shop? Is your creative getting stale? How could these problems be solved by mailing a FocusBook?

In other words: this is a great way to test, test, test, without making a huge commitment to change anything permanently. And isn’t “testing” what we’re all about in this business?

During my stint at a web/ecommerce agency, I learned a lot about User Experience design (also known as “UX”). It’s really the only way to plan out an ecommerce website design because it forces the issue of figuring out, in advance, how a visitor to the site will navigate and ultimately find (and buy) products.

To someone like me who enjoys the structured, organized thinking that is required to design a website or a catalog, I have really embraced the whole UX way of thinking. So I wanted to figure out how UX design could be translated to a print catalog — for exactly the same reasons, and to get to exactly the same result.

Here is what I came up with – it’s my own personal take on how UX is done (if you’re a “real” UX designer, please don’t take this as an attack on your profession – I know you’re better at this than I am!). This is a cursory overview but hopefully it will help you to think about your catalog design in a different way.

1. Start with a shiny new pad of Post-It® notes

2. Stick one Post-It up on the wall for each catalog spread (if your catalog is 64 pages, put up 33 of them – 31 spreads plus a front cover and a back cover)

3. Using your pagination document (you have one of those, right?) it’s time to transfer each of your catalog spreads onto each of the Post-It’s you’ve stuck up on the wall.

4. On each Post-It, write a short description of what you want each spread to do for you (for example “opening spread – intro new Summer collection” or “detail shots of all dining chairs”)

5. At this point, you can very easily shift your catalog spreads around (just un-stick them and stick them back up where you want them). This is an important step because you know how many opinions you’re going to get and this will make it easy to look at lots of different pagination options.

6. Once you’re happy with the page order, I suggest going back in with a very important mission: write down, on at least every other spread, how you’re going to “tell the customer what to do next”.

If you’ve read my other blog posts, you have probably heard me use that phrase before, and it’s worth repeating — because if you don’t tell them, they aren’t going to do it.

You need to tell your customer what to do next.

Telling them what to do can encompass many suggestions such as using a web driver bug, directing customers to more styles/colors/versions online (either using words or icons), using customer testimonials, promoting your customer service team members who can help customers choose the right product, directing them to social media (both your own social media accounts as well as Pinterest), etc.

This is the part that feels most UX-like – directing shoppers to where you want them to go. Just as on a website, no savvy marketer wants to leave it to chance. Web visitors may feel like they’re browsing freely, but there is always an underlying goal, a pathway that the site architects have paved for you to follow, and that path will always lead to a chance to purchase with as little effort as possible. Brick and mortar stores work the same way (why do you think the cosmetics counters – which represent the highest margin of any department — are always at the main entrance of any department store, where you are forced to walk through them no matter where you’re headed?)

The bottom line is that an intelligently thought out pathway should be there for your customers no matter how and where they’re shopping. You have the power – use it to your advantage!

Having trouble telling your customers what to do next? We’ve got lots of ideas, and they all start at Binger.

bout a month ago, I needed a new coffee grinder. And I knew exactly which one I needed. Not just any coffee grinder – a really cool one with a built-in scale so that every morning when I was ready to make my cappuccino, I could measure out precisely 18 grams of coffee and make the perfect shot of espresso.

I had known about Baratza, the manufacturer, for years, and knew that they made high-end grinders. But it wasn’t until a local barista told me about this new grinder that I decided it was something that I “needed”.

Even if you’re not a coffee geek like I am, you most likely will understand the occasional need for a top-notch customer experience when you’re buying something you really care about. So allow me to walk you through my online shopping journey.

Note: this grinder I was coveting was a brand new product that had just been released, so many retailers did not yet have it in stock.

My Shopping Experience

Step 1: My first stop was the manufacturer’s web site and their easy-to-find “Where To Buy” page. On that page was a list of retail stores (search by location) as well as online retailers (separated out by US and Canada).

Forty-six online retailers in the US! I was actually happy to see so many options and I set out to choose where I was going to spend my money.

Step 2: My first choices were the 11 retailers that I had heard of or where I had bought items previously. Clicking through to those sites revealed that none of them actually had the grinder I was looking for on their site (not just “not in stock” but not even listed).

Eleven down, 35 to go.

Step 3: I perused the names of the retailers and started clicking on names that sounded like they would be hipster coffee suppliers. Those included names such as Barista Lab, Caffe Forte, Chromatic Coffee, Prima Coffee, Roastmasters, and Venia Coffee Roasters & Equipment. In my mind, those sound like places that might cater to coffee geeks like me.

None of these retailers had (at the time) the grinder I was looking for.

Seventeen down, 29 to go.

Step 4: Start clicking through the rest, searching for worthy-looking possibilities (and for someone who actually had the product on their site). What I found was that at least half did not have the grinder I was looking for, and many had web sites that I felt did not portray a seriousness about coffee.

Step 5: I had narrowed down my choices pretty well by this point, so I really didn’t have much of a choice. It then came down to which one of the remaining contenders had the best purchasing options and offered the most information (when would I receive my grinder, did they offer free shipping, etc.). In the end, I settled on “Coffee Engines” which fit all of my requirements, and I placed my order.

What did I learn?

This shopping experience was an interesting exercise, as I clicked through to all 46 websites and saw the good, the bad, and the ugly.

How important is your website design? In my opinion, very important. If you don’t look like an expert in whatever specialty area you are in, you just look like a plug-and-play online retailer. We all value expertise and a passion for what we’re doing (or selling) and shoppers only need a couple seconds to decide if a website says “passion”.

What about your website UX? I was shopping for a Baratza grinder and I really appreciated the links that took me directly to a page of Baratza’s products with one click. It surprised me how many of the websites did not have the capability to sort by manufacturer. Make it easy to shop!

How do you stand out in a crowd? When presented with nothing more than a list of links (as I was in this situation), having a recognizable brand is your best option (although, interestingly, even though Crate & Barrel and Williams Sonoma were listed in my search, I didn’t view them as coffee specialists so I had no thoughts of ordering from them). Beyond that, your name does make a difference, even if it’s not a known name, and depending on your specialty, a bad name could actually drive customers away (I’d give up coffee for life before I’d order from a store called “Kitchen Kapers”).


Even in a sea of online retailers, there are steps you can take to make your brand more powerful. In conversations with retailers, I find that many of the things I’ve listed here are not always taken seriously. It’s hard for a lot of companies to see themselves through a shopper’s eyes, but having an outside audit of your website (and catalog) can make a huge difference.

If you want to talk about branding, marketing (both digital and direct), websites, catalogs, bad company names, or coffee, drop us a note. Now it’s time for a coffee break…

What if I told you that there was an easy and relatively effortless way for you to increase your revenues, bring in new customers, raise your conversion rate, position your brand more powerfully, and maybe even turn your whole business around?

Well, if you are like 95% of retailers, you would say “no thanks!” and continue doing things the way you’ve always done them.

That’s not an insult. That is reality. It’s human nature. We tend to be turned off by offers that sound “too good to be true” and we also tend to politely turn down outside advice on how we might do our jobs better.

But every once in a while, for whatever reasons, we find ourselves in a place where we are ready. Ready to open our minds to making some improvements. Ready to take the chance that maybe we really could be doing something better, or making more money, or bringing in new customers who we thought didn’t exist.

Those five-percenters typically have some similar issues that they’re grappling with – maybe you recognize some of these tell-tale signs:

You’ve reached a plateau. Sales have been looking good over the past couple years, the line on the graph keeps going up and to the right, and then suddenly, it’s flattened out. What’s going on?

Your creative isn’t evolving. You’re running out of ideas on how to present your products — in your catalogs, on the web, in emails. What can you do to freshen things up?

Your process and schedule seem out of whack. Things are taking longer than they seem like they should. Your creative team, photographers, stylists, copywriters, and production vendors are like ships passing in the night. How do you get back on track and get everyone coordinated?

Competitors’ catalogs look better than yours. So frustrating. Why can’t ours look like that? What are they doing that’s making their catalog so much more appealing? Sometimes the answers aren’t obvious.

The “Sleep Aids” aisle at CVS is calling your name. You’re losing sleep over the direction that your business is headed. You’re feeling depressed about what the future looks like. You’ve made some great changes, tried some innovative ideas, done a good amount of research, but things still could be better.

Do you see yourself in any of these descriptions? If so, what will it take to make that call or send that email to get your business back on track? You know there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but you need a push in the right direction.

Many businesses have experienced this same trajectory; they’ve hit the plateaus, they’ve felt a let-down when they see their newest catalog looking just like the last one, and the one before that, and the one before that… They’ve cursed their competitors for doing it better.

And they’ve hired us to do a Brand Study.

Our Brand Studies are different from most, and they are probably not what you’re expecting. It’s an intensive study of your brand, what drives you, who you are, what you do, and what your story is. We help you to build a strong foundation for your business which will support all of your future marketing efforts.

It’s about a 6 week process, start to finish, and only requires about one full day of your time (a half day kickoff and information-gathering session, and a half-day presentation of the study at the end).

Our clients have consistently been blown away by the work we’ve done, and if you don’t want to take our word for it, let us know and we can put you in touch with one or more of them so that they can tell you themselves.

What would it take for you to bring in an incomparable team of branding, marketing and creative experts to help you bump your business up to the next level? If you’re ready, we’re ready too.

While walking around a city I happened to be visiting, I spied a store that I recognized. Well, their catalog was really what I knew – I had never been into one of their stores before. I was curious to see their products as I remembered their catalog (which I hadn’t seen in quite a while) being beautiful, with top-notch photography, compelling stories, and the branding piece to end all branding pieces.

As I walked through the store, admiring the products that were still high quality and beautiful, I was, to be honest, scanning every surface hoping to find one of their catalogs. I finally did find one on a display table and grabbed it. But my excitement quickly turned to surprise as I realized that their beautiful, high quality catalog had become… boring and low quality.

What happened? Instead of the big beautiful format, it was now a thin digest sized book. Just 24 pages and fairly pedestrian in every way. The products were all there, but there was no excitement or bold branding.

Being the ambitious type, of course I sent an email to their CEO. “What happened to your big, beautiful catalog that I remember so fondly?” I asked.

The answer I got was (in part) a terse “What happened is, we aren’t going to pay thousands of dollars to design and print a fancy catalog! Catalogs aren’t what sells our products!”

While I disagreed with that assessment, I did get the strong message that it was really the creative that they weren’t interested in paying for. They didn’t feel that having excellent creative, photography, and branding (as they had in the past) was worth it. At all.

This wasn’t the first time I had heard this type of reasoning; I have heard variations of it from time to time over the years. And yet I’ve also known of (and worked with) many, many brands that all but insist on having the best creative, photography, and copywriting that can be produced. But being a creative guy myself, the naysayers make me wonder.

Is a strong creative presentation of your brand worth the time, cost, and attention?