Helder Cervantes

Hire an agency like a rock star

Helder Cervantes, Web specialist


A good working relation begins when you request a quote. Hiring creativity has its own set of challenges. Here are some tips to start off on the right foot.

One of the greatest thrills for anyone doing business is when you get an email from a new client requesting a quote. It's a feeling that equates what Columbus must have felt touching ground on the New World, only with a flock of cherubs fluttering around trumpeting a Vangelis tune, the clouds breaking open and an almost blinding beam of light shining down upon the land. What wonders does this email hold? Will this be our next awesome project? Or will it be a time-waster?

New-business is part of life, and we designers don't have a chart for estimating a project. Proposals take a lot of work, and I'm talking real hours here. It's easy to spend a whole afternoon, if not a whole day or even more than that preparing one. We have to study your company, discover what you want and most times decode what you ask for. We'll have to ask you questions and do actual research in this process. If we were your physician, psychologist or lawyer, how much would an afternoon of diagnostic cost you?

Sometimes we can get the impression that this or that client is wasting our time, so here are some suggestions to make this process as peaceful and respectful as possible:

Choose by portfolio

Don't ask for quotes from 10 different agencies. That will just create noise and make your decision a nightmare. You should first look at a few agencies, get some recommendations from friends, look at their work and ask yourself if this company feels right for the job. If they don't feel right, just don't bother. If they feel more or less right, but that other company feels better, don't bother. You should limit your decision to the least number of agencies as you can, and preferrably go in with a favourite in mind.

Don't be afraid to state your budget

Why oh why must this be awkward? If you've got 1.000, 2.000, 10.000, that MUST be part of the conversation. We don't just charge whatever the client can pay for. That's so obviously bad for business. People talk, most new-business comes from word-of-mouth, and if we screw a client they'll eventually discover it and no more business for us. Plain and simple.

What designers sell is time. Our time has a price. We look at your project and estimate how much time we'll have to put into it, do some basic maths and reach a price. If you don't state your budget, you risk getting a proposal that is twice what you can spend, wasting both our times. But if you state your budget...:

  1. We can straight up tell you if that will cover it or not;
  2. We can spend your money better;
  3. We can negociate what to include or not so it fits your wallet;
  4. If you have too much budget (and this happened to me recently), we can advise you to take part of that money and invest in producing a good video or promotional campaigns.

Losing a project because the price was too high is one of the most unfair things in our business.

Get rough estimates, pick an agency, and then work on the final price

You have 3 agencies in front of you. You have their portfolios as an example of the quality of their work. At this point you shouldn't expect a final price-tag from each of them. Instead, you describe your project, your needs and ask for a rough estimate. That will help you understand how far your budget can take you with each of them, and pick one agency to take to the next step.

Once that's decided, actual consultancy starts. We'll discuss your briefing, question your requirements, do research, throw ideas at you, marry your knowledge with ours and fine-tune the solution. This is a process that takes time, discussion, often multiple meetings. That final price is the result of collaboration and decision making. It's not something that can be properly done when you're pitting agencies against each other and making them fight for your project.

Also, many times we need privileged access to information you may not want to give out easily. Imagine you already have a site that has a database of products. You need to make a new one and transfer content from the old to the new one. If you want me to tell you how much that will cost, I will need access to your current platform, to evaluate if and how that content can be exported. Otherwise I can only give you a rough estimate.

Hold your design cravings

Don't ask for design proposals from multiple agencies so you can choose the one you like best. It takes a long time to do properly and it's not just making things pretty on screen. There is a sequence of steps to this: We discuss the project with the you, figure you out, agree on requirements, plan the project and THEN design. If you ask for a design as part of the proposal you'll get a random, ill-informed piece of crap that may look nice and help us win the project, but then we get serious and have to rethink everything because it was designed based on guesses.

When I start designing a website, I spend hours researching, looking at the client's competitors, trying out ideas, scrapping and fine-tuning. It's a process that takes days. I'm just not going to do it until we agree on a price and a requirements list. Then we can start designing stuff.

Don't ask for a discount

Here's a tip for you: there's no such thing as a discount. If we shave off X bucks, we shave off Y hours of work. I'm very upfront about this. If you really need me to reduce the price so it fits your budget, I'm either taking off features, simplifying, looking for shortcuts, or limiting my time designing or coding. You're never really getting a discount, you're just negociating the requirements to make the budget viable. But that's ok, as long as we're clear on what to expect.

Negotiation specs over price is what this process is all about. I do that on just about every project. What I can't do, however, is give you a better price than what I've charged yesterday's client. Much less slip into underselling. That will drive me out of business.

Don't withhold information

I've had clients not wanting to give me references because they thought that would somehow cripple creativity or lead to plagiarism. That's simply wrong. To make a successful proposal we need to understand the client's mindset, the company's position in the market, its major competitors and heroes. Expressions like "futuristic", "avant-garde", "clean" or "dynamic" mean very different things whether you're in the toy or law business. We have to decode your own definitions of the adjectives you use and references go a long way in that effort.

I've had clients tell me after the design proposal that they were going through a rebrand.

I've had clients wanting to transfer content from one website to another without giving me access to the CMS.

I've had clients approve a design and very late in the project reveal a mistery decision maker that didn't participate in any part of the process and only now shows up to question everything.

Please... avoid that.

If you must make it a design competition...

If you really "need" to get design proposals from multiple agencies, at least make it a leveled playing field. All agencies must know all the requirements and at least deserve to know how many are in the race. Let them decide if it's worth the risk.

You must also make your decision criteria clear and stick to that. It really sucks to stick to the requirements and lose to the guy who didn't. Or make an awesome design and the client chooses the cheapest proposal. That happened to me more than once and for that reason I tend to stay away from this kind of opportunity.

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