Creating a cohesive adaptive packaging agency

Dr. Steen Tjarks is the chairman and co-founder of T&T designa global packaging and artwork agency specializing 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 meet the needs of a target market.” Yet I see a branch of marketing, the packaging agency, as a branch that consistently fails to deliver to its customers.

When using packaging services, customers 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 and brings vision, depth and contextual insight. The art agency is the contractor, executes efficiently, adheres to budget constraints, and adapts to changes in the blueprint.

The construction market evolved and realized that design and construction went hand in hand. By joining forces, their proposition was strengthened. Like Batman and Robin, it was the complete package, delivering superior value that neither side could match alone.

Forced partnerships

In the field of packaging, several agencies have laid claim to the linked model, which bridges the gap between strategic design and practical artwork. But in many ways, I’ve seen this often not go so smoothly.

I think the reason is that they are often forced partnerships rather than natural, voluntary unions. The most famous “all under one roof” agencies exist through acquisitions and mergers, where the constituent parts are brought 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 marked by friction and antipathy.

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

Still, I see how clients are strong advocates of the benefits that the so-called “adaptive agency” can provide. Understandable, because from the customer’s perspective it makes perfect sense. So, is it possible to have a flexible, insight-to-shelf packing agency model? One that really doesn’t compromise on creativity or struggles to produce artwork for multiple SKUs quickly, accurately and on budget?

No doubt, yes, if the agency is built that way from the ground up. Then it’s possible to ditch unhealthy rivalries and create a single, homogeneous team – one in which everyone cares about the agency’s full service and understands that they are only as good as the sum of their parts. When the DNA is set up that way on purpose, people get in the gel and do what the marketing textbooks say: deliver what the customer wants.

And what customers want is not rocket science. Customers value groundbreaking 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 characteristics and vibes with their intended audience.

They increasingly expect a deeper level of engagement coupled with a compelling brand story through AR/QR codes. Nowadays, the perspective of sustainability is also high on the agenda, which means that even more emphasis is placed on the collaboration between design and production.

The Ideal Packaging Agency

Also important to customers, if not more so, is the business side of packaging design. When customer instructions require a thousand SKUs, the issues that keep them up at night are deadlines and costs. The agency’s modus operandi requires not only rigorous processes and technological automation, but also regulated control and an unbroken line of sight – from design to finished artwork.

Most important is the ability to scale, adherence to design integrity, and responsiveness to day-to-day requests. These are all subject to frequent changes and short lead times. Speed, accuracy and cost are the true currency of packaging agencies.

The concept of the ideal packaging agency must change. Not because the agency world says so, but because its clients do. Businesses across multiple packaging categories looking to roll out a large number of SKUs per job – with different sizes, formats, substrates and line extensions – are becoming increasingly vocal about their pain points and want a solution that is fit for purpose.

Just as other industries have gone down the path of vertical integration, I believe packaging companies can do the same. We can bring together upstream (research and strategy), midstream (design) and downstream (artwork/production) disciplines into one harmonious team.

The adaptive route can solve customers’ biggest problems and deliver quality across the spectrum. It can lead to award-winning designs, fewer rounds of corrections, fewer print-stage rejections, and lower overall costs. But the adaptive agency cannot be manufactured. It should be adaptive by design and conceived from the start with like-minded people who share the same passion, conviction and problem-solving culture.

Creating a harmonious team

Unfortunately, the question must be asked: how can we create a harmonious team between the two camps? In my experience, the answer lies in working together from the start and defining clear expectations.

Then, collaborating on a project from the start as an entire team can alleviate any problems later in the process. That means designing within the limits of production for that project and seeking as much production advice as possible before presenting any work to a client.

Finally, it is critical to define clear expectations of each team as part of the company’s core offering. For example, I’ve found that leadership through design forces the design team to push the boundaries of production. This allows the development of a finely balanced symphony that few can compete with and that customers will cherish.

Simon Sinek has one sound bite that’s very smart: “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 rally behind that common goal. Business Council is the leading growth and networking organization for entrepreneurs and leaders. Am I eligible?