Creating A Cohesive Adaptive Packaging Agency

Dr. Steen Tjarks is the President and cofounder at T&T Design, a global packaging and artwork agency that specializes in private label.

Dr. Philip Kotler, the father of modern marketing, defines the function he pioneered as “the science and art of exploring, creating and delivering value to satisfy the needs of a target market.” Yet, I see one branch of marketing, the packaging agency, as one that consistently fails to deliver to its clients.

When utilizing packaging services, clients typically have two agencies: design and artwork. To illustrate the differences, a parallel can be drawn between the packaging industry and construction. The strategic design agency is the architect, bringing vision, depth and contextual insight. The artwork agency is the building contractor, executing efficiently, adhering to budget constraints and adapting to changes in the blueprint.

The construction market evolved, realizing that design and build went hand in glove. Joining forces strengthened their proposition. Like Batman and Robin, it was the complete package, delivering superior value that neither party could match on their own.

Forced Partnerships

In packaging, several agencies have staked their claim on the coupled model, bridging the gap between strategic design and practical artwork. But in many respects, I’ve seen that this often does not work out so smoothly.

I think the reason is that they are often forced partnerships instead of natural, voluntary unions. The best-known “all under one roof” agencies exist through acquisitions and mergers, bringing the constituent parts together in an artificial and disjointed way. The result is a clash of cultures. Less like Batman and Robin’s mutually supportive alliance and more like Punch and Judy, a fractured relationship characterized by friction and antipathy.

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The problem is that the design and artwork camps are different breeds. Designers often look down on art workers as akin to clock-watching factory workers, while art workers resent designers’ loftiness and reluctance to deal with the practical end of the job. Forcing them together and expecting them to have each other’s back is unrealistic. If there is a gulf between the two sides, the benefits of integration are lost.

Yet, I see how clients are strong advocates of the advantages that the so-called “adaptive agency” can bring. Understandably so, as it makes total sense from the client’s perspective. So, is it possible to have an agile, insight-to-shelf packaging agency model? One that genuinely doesn’t compromise on creativity or struggle to churn out artwork for multiple SKUs with speed, accuracy and within budget?

Undoubtedly, yes, if the agency is built that way from the ground up. Then it’s possible to ditch unhealthy rivalries and establish a single, homogeneous team—one in which every person cares about the full agency service and understands they are only as good as the sum of their parts. If the DNA is intentionally set that way, people gel and do what the marketing textbooks say: Deliver what the client wants.

And what clients want is not rocket science. Clients appreciate ground-breaking design based on validated consumer insights and sound strategic planning. They value packaging that stands out both in-store and on the digital shelf. They want work that reflects their brand’s attributes and vibes with their intended audience.

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They increasingly expect a deeper level of engagement, linking to an immersive brand story via AR/QR codes. Nowadays, the sustainability angle is high on the agenda too, which places even more emphasis on the collaborative relationship between design and production.

The Ideal Packaging Agency

Also important for clients, arguably more so, is the business end of packaging design. When client briefs require a thousand SKUs, the issues that keep them awake at night relate to deadlines and cost. The agency modus operandi demands not just rigorous processes and technological automation but regimented control and an uninterrupted line of sight—from design through finished artwork.

What matters most is the ability to scale, adherence to design integrity and responsiveness to daily requests. These are all subject to frequent change and tight turnarounds. Speed, accuracy and cost are the real currency of packaging agencies.

The concept of the ideal packaging agency needs to change. Not because the agency world says so but because its clients do. Companies across multiple packaging categories that want to roll out a myriad of SKUs per brief—with diverse formats, sizes, substrates and line extensions—are becoming more vocal about their pain points and want a solution that’s fit for purpose.

Just as other industries have gone down the route of vertical integration, I believe so too can packaging agencies. We can thread together upstream (research and strategy), midstream (design) and downstream (artwork/production) discipline to be one harmonious team.

The adaptive route can solve clients’ biggest headaches, delivering quality across the spectrum. It can help lead to award-winning designs, fewer rounds of amends, less rejection at print stage and lower overall costs. But the adaptive agency cannot be fabricated. It must be adaptive by design and conceived from the start with like-minded people who share the same passion, conviction and problem-solving culture.

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Creating A Harmonious Team

Alas, the question should be asked: How can we create a harmonious team between the two camps? In my experience, the answer lies in collaborating from the outset and defining clear expectations.

Next, working together on a project as a whole team from the onset can alleviate any problems later in the process. That means designing within the limits of production for that project and getting as much production advice as possible before presenting any work to a client.

Finally, defining clear expectations of each team as a part of the business’s key offering is critical. I’ve found, for example, that leading by design makes it so the design team is required to push the limits of production. Through this, a finely balanced symphony can be developed that few can compete with and clients will cherish.

Simon Sinek has one soundbite that is particularly astute: “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” Adaptive agencies exist to give clients the best of everything. But, from the founder to the office dog, everyone needs to buy into that common purpose.

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