How to pick a packaging design agency

Robert Parker My role is a hybrid of creative direction and strategy. I approach creative from an aesthetic and analytical point-of-view and work through projects at every stage – from top-level thought leadership to concepting, positioning, direction, presentation, refinement, and rollout

It’s hard to cut through the noise when it comes to finding a packaging firm. Every Marketing Director Googles ‘best packaging agency’ and every packaging agency optimizes SEO for ‘best packaging agency.’ After a couple of hours online it’s easy to feel trapped in a loop.

Brigade has been in this industry for more than 15 years. We’ve seen first-hand what the wrong partnership looks like because many times we’ve been brought into projects half-way through when the previous agency didn’t deliver or wasn’t the right fit. Of course, we hope you will consider us – but more importantly, we hope we can help you figure out how to find your right partner.

What is the first step to picking a packaging design firm?

The first question you need to ask when looking for a design agency should be directed right back at yourself. That’s right, to succeed in the packaging Shark Tank you need to start with some Oprah-style soul searching.

Being honest about the kind of relationship (and transaction) you want to have with any agency is key – but because it’s out of the scope of most briefs it’s almost always overlooked. Look inwards and identify your own goals as well as your team’s needs. The key to finding the right fit is understanding what you can contribute as well as where you need support.

Don’t shy from being a bit selfish: will your career benefit from learning more about the packaging design and strategy process? Find an agency that is set up to involve your decision making at more touchpoints of the project: agencies that are small-to-medium-sized with a healthy scope of small-to-large clients fit this sweet spot.

Or perhaps you want to focus your career-building energy elsewhere and let an all-inclusive agency navigate every stage of the project for you. Seeking this type of relationship will lead to a different set of questions and things to prioritize – you likely want an agency with more of a household name in the field – they’ve likely designed some political logos over time and will have a large roster of big clients. With the right budget, this is powerful.

How do I find good packaging firms?

Our pro tip is to avoid the endless Googling loop and instead go directly to the packaging award sites. Go to the Dieline. Look at the packaging edition of GD USA. Lookup international competitions like the Pentawards. Find work that you like the most – there’s no wrong answer at this stage.

The biggest reason why it’s best to go to award sites is they let you consider the pictures of designs without the overlay and marketing spin of the agency website itself. Even Google is influenced by SEO storytelling and Ad Words, and at the end of the day, it’s still impossible to use text-only search results to show you that an agency has the kind of aesthetic your brand is looking for.

Another benefit is that award sites often offer categories that will help you narrow things into your specific scope – from eco-focused packaging materials to liquor packaging. Plus – award sites are basically more serious versions of Pinterest that your coworkers won’t judge you for… just an observation.

How do I create a shortlist of agencies that will fit my needs and goals?

Once you’ve found some work that holds your interest, investigate the agency’s websites, and look at their larger portfolios. Is their aesthetic in-line with your brand? Are their capabilities in-line with your goals?

Be critical and try to narrow things down to as many agencies as you want to reach out to – perhaps 3-5. Then, prepare to talk about you and your vision. This is when you should be sharing a formal brief – give the agency a couple of days to digest and do their research – you want a partner who is willing to learn about you.

In the meantime consider developing a question some of the work in each agency’s portfolio to use to evaluate whether or not they’re a good fit for your project. Will your package need to be shipped without being packed inside an outer shipper – ask the agency to share their experience or approach to that.

Don’t shy away from hard questions and listen to your instincts – this is your biggest opportunity to feel right about a potential partnership.

When should I talk about budgets with potential agencies?

Even though most people are taught to dread them, budgets are easy because they either fit or they don’t.

We think you should be upfront with your budget range before you even get to a phase where you’re interviewing. If you have a budget of $100k and the agency you’ve found doesn’t consider projects under $250k, it’s not worth either of your time to pursue things. Share your budget after you’ve narrowed your agencies down to a list of 3-5 – it may save you some phone-time pursuing a partner who is not the right financial fit.

What are three things I should be aware of while interviewing potential agencies?

  1. Look at agency portfolios with a critical eye. Some firms seek to highlight spec work that was never produced. Others can create a design but don’t advertise that they didn’t bring it through the production phase. Ask specific questions and don’t be nervous if they seem obvious.
  2. Seek out an agency with real-world production experience in packaging – especially if it’s not an area you or your team is comfortable in. It is easy to design beautiful packages on-screen or talk about how things shouldwork – but the true test of a packaging firm is seeing a product through to completion. A great packaging partner should feel confident using real-world techniques to uphold your creative vision. At Brigade, part of our philosophy is not just creating a beautiful and effective design – but also bringing that design to life.
  3. Know your own limitations and even consider leaning into them during the interviewing process. If you don’t understand something ask a question. If the answer doesn’t compute poke at why. If a meet and greet isn’t connecting you should consider finding an agency that makes more sense. Remember – even when the assignment is just creating a package, the best agencies should make you AND your packaging look good.

What opportunity have you seen marketing managers repeatedly miss?

Packaging is just one touchpoint a consumer has with your brand. In a store, consumers might also see the retail point of sale, signage, or advertising. Online, consumers will be evaluating your eCommerce experience, your social messaging, or your Amazon page.

When you find a partner who can consider your larger brand story while creating your packaging, your packaging will become a springboard that can amplify your brand’s impact. Consider agencies with an ability to foster consistency at a wide variety of consumer touchpoints in the future – they should start with the packaging, but think bigger and plan further.

We hope these insider tips help you navigate choosing the perfect packaging partner. Above all else, take your time. Deadlines are always tight and there is always a boss/consumer/fiscal goal that will push you to rush through the upfront stage of a job. It’s like Shark Tank Oprah always says, “When you find the right partner, things just make sense.” Hopefully, this has helped you make sense of things.