From time to time we write about things you might find useful such as what we're working on and thinking about.

A picture of Cam
Managing Director

5 min read

Benefits of choosing an agency that specialises in Design

Specialist vs Full-Service

If you’ve worked on a project with a full service digital agency you might know why choosing to work with a separate specialist agency is a good idea. If you haven’t then we hope that this is a good opportunity to benefit from our experience of working in both.

A full service digital agency offers a broad range of disciplines and these will likely include design, development, infrastructure support and maintenance, marketing, SEO and PPC (Pay Per Click). In summary, they offer a lot.

However, some full service agencies can sell vagueness masquerading as high level strategy without the depth to explain how something will be done or with the assurances of quality. Specialist agencies know their stuff but the great ones also know how, and where, they align with other specialists to deliver the wider set of objectives. Your suppliers shouldn’t be treading on each others toes, they need to enter into your project with an open and collaborative outlook.

Full Disclosure

Full disclosure, Paper is a specialist agency. So this article is biased but we’re not naive. We have listed both the benefits and the risks.

There are lots of different ways to identify an agency. They might work with the same content management system (CMS) as you, or they have a case study in a similar sector to you, or they have offices located just around the corner. Those are valid reasons for taking a look at these companies and you should do it.

But once you begin to dig deeper the difference should be their ability to deliver something that fits with your needs not theirs.

For Paper, this is research and design. If an agency can’t understand your business, your stakeholders or your customers they won’t solve any of the issues.


So what are the benefits of working with a research and design agency?

  • Complementing in-house teams.

    The shift in our industry to clients developing their own in-house teams has been dramatic and will, in likelihood, continue. This means there is greater overlap with internal skills and those that are offered by full service agencies. Specialist agencies give clients the chance to pick and choose how to supplement the team they already have internally to compliment their internal capabilities.

  • Checks and balances.

    Having one impartial and independent agency that is vocal on behalf of users and savvy enough to challenge your other delivery partners can you give you peace of mind and keep the project in good health.

  • Technology and platform agnostic (but knowledgeable).

    Rather than design for the limitations of the technology involved, a specialist agency can design for the business and user needs. This gives everyone better visibility of what the needs are and how they stack up against different technology and platforms.

  • Depth of expertise.

    Training and R&D investment is more focused in a specialist agency and they can confidently say no to anything that they aren’t already great at doing. You get the benefit of working with an agency that is investing in cutting edge processes and technology and not spreading this investment too thinly.

  • Pick the best tool for the job.

    A research and design agency can work alongside other partners and will probably play an important role in encouraging collaboration, but they can also help you to identify the right partner at the right time in the project.


  • Duplicated costs.

    There is a risk that if you engage multiple suppliers on one project they duplicate some of their costs e.g. you might have multiple project managers each managing their own agency work. This risk is mitigated by centralising project management. At a higher level this risk is mitigated by the efficiency savings associated with specialists producing better quality work quicker than novices learning on the job and leaving design and technical debt in the project which will impact future cost to change.

  • Co-ordination.

    By having multiple suppliers working in different locations and with different deliverables there is a risk that the deliverables don’t align in terms of handover and in terms of timing. The mitigation for this risk is to centralise project management and encourage co-located teams. Where possible (and at appropriate points in the project) encourage people to work side by side with each other.

  • Communication.

    You may end up in a position where you’re spending your time rounding up details and information from a few people and going round in circles. There are plenty of tools out there that can help, but the best way to reduce this is to a) make sure you have a regular time to catch-up with wider team (i.e. a daily hangout or stand-up, weekly call or review), and b) encourage an environment where everyone has a voice. Don’t hide ‘bad’ news, don’t forget about the quieter members of the team, don’t forget to celebrate the hard work and the good work. Make time for everyone, irrespective of where they are based.

The biggest risk is asking an agency to do most of what they’re good at and some which they’re just having a punt at doing. Every time we have seen this it has resulted in missed deadlines, escalating budgets and frustrated relationships. Your project team will be demotivated and the end product (whatever it is) will carry the design and technical debt into the post-live optimisation stage creating drag as you try to unpick past mistakes instead of making progress.


Specialist research and design agencies like ours give clients the opportunity to put customer needs first before locking themselves into a specific technical approach or copying competitors in a race towards homogeny.

Understanding the needs first is a key component of innovation throughout the service design industry. Better quality, accountability, and decision making come from working with a specialist agency.

If this sounds like an approach you’re interested in, then we’d love to hear from you. And to be honest, if you read this far you deserve a prize so get in touch.

In this article we stopped calling ourselves a studio and reverted back to agency. We’re a studio, not an agency. But that’s not important. Thanks.