The Allied Team Model: Our Approach to Design Parntership
Throughout our agency’s history, the way we work has evolved. But one aspect of that approach has always stayed the same: Our commitment to long-term partnerships with our clients.
We haven’t spoken much about our “engagement philosophy” because every project is a little different. But as our experience has grown, we’ve ironed out some core details that make our client relationships special. We’re calling this approach The Allied Team Model.
The Old Model
The craft of digital product design has come to occupy a unique space on both the in-house and agency sides of the business world. Because design is always changing, the rulebook for offering these services is still being written.
In the olden days, companies would reach out to traditional ad agencies for ideas, stories and design that they lacked the creative resources to create themselves. We’ve all seen Mad Men, this isn’t news to anyone.
As more businesses — across every industry — adopted digital components, “Managed Service Providers” provided staff augmentation for large companies in need of resources. Staff augmentation allowed these large companies to add dedicated specialists to their team for extended periods of time without the hassle and commitment of full-time hiring.
Modern Design Needs
Today, we’re all swimming in software. Along with the big-name tech behemoths, 100-year-old industries are also going through digital transformations. They’re improving old services, creating new ones, and developing both internal and public-facing products as they do so.
Many of these large companies are just now beginning to build out their design orgs, and figuring out how to correctly structure a design team can be a big learning curve. Budget limitations, time constraints, lack of design leadership and limited access to talent can make the choice between full-time hiring and pricey agency retainers difficult for leadership to parse out.
In the startup realm, many companies have engineer-founders who need help learning to do design at scale for the first time. And then, of course, there are the digital companies (with existing in-house design teams) who are looking to grow and level up their people.
Having spent time on both the agency and client sides of design, our founders had seen firsthand the friction stakeholders at these organizations faced. From the beginning, they structured Funsize’s methods, processes, and contracts in a way that was specifically geared toward convenience.
Consequently, a considerable portion of the work we do has started to blur the lines between agency and in-house. For us, that’s intentional. Because even though we’re still an agency at heart, we’re more focused on providing clients with what they actually need: A true design partner.
What exactly does that mean? In two words: Adaptability and integrity. Clients are looking for partners who can prioritize their success above agency revenue.
In fact, true partnership can often mean setting in-house teams up for greater independence. Sometimes, we even recommend that clients hire internally. Before agency owners fall out of their chairs at the last couple sentences, we’re not advising anyone to give away free work or pass on good opportunities — only to prioritize long-term value for clients.
When we first started working with you two years ago, we were 7, including myself. We’ve gone from 7 to 36. And during that time, no one–PM, account manager, designer–has come to me and said that we aren’t able to get the work done and you guys have been at the center of that. You guys carried it significantly more than anyone we’ve worked with. Thank you for that.
— Credit Karma
We will admit that it sounds counterintuitive for agencies to work themselves out of a job. But for us, the results have proven otherwise. Giving companies the help they need has always created more opportunities.
These opportunities are earned entirely through trust. And to build that trust, transparency has to be at the forefront — even if it’s at the expense of a more immediate payday.
This general mindset or approach to client work is what we refer to as The Allied Team Model.
The Allied Team Model (ATM) enables organizations, departments or design teams to retain dedicated design talent in the most cost-effective and flexible engagement framework possible. It’s sort of like a “missing link” between traditional agency engagements and the complicated, time-consuming hiring process. Its goal is to form long-term partnerships with clients that allow them to have design success for years to come.
How Does it Work?
As we said before, staff augmentation was traditionally thought of as a way to add headcount to an existing team. In that regard, ATM offers services similar to staff augmentation. But it differs in the level of strategy, collaboration and flexibility offered to the client.
In our way of doing things, the engagement really begins before a contract is even signed. A Funsize partner (or Design Director) meets with client-side leadership to parse out the skillsets that are necessary for the project so that we can build the right design team for the job.
This allows design leaders to receive recommendations on staffing solutions from a design veteran who has led similar projects and knows what it takes to do the work well.
Once we’re aligned on the type of skill sets and experience levels necessary for the project, we put together a team that will work within client processes (or our own, depending on what makes the most sense) to execute on design priorities as efficiently as possible.
Doing the Work
Throughout the engagement, there is a very tangible sense of two teams working together. Our design leaders collaborate with in-house design leaders and we are involved in one another’s cadences.
We also do everything we can to make sure that designers on both teams feel connected to one another’s cultures. For instance, our designers have been known to participate in clients’ larger company meetings to get a higher-level understanding of business goals. The two teams can also participate in training or workshops offered by one another, so that everyone grows together. And of course, it goes without saying that joint Happy Hours will always be a thing.
All this shared institutional knowledge sets us up for success with extended, productive engagements that can go on for years. Having that mutual understanding of each other’s cultures allows for another one of ATM’s differentiators: Designer rotations. To preserve an optimal agency environment for Funsize and provide the best work to clients, we do everything we can to make sure our designers don’t work on one project for more than a year.
In the past, our clients have been concerned to see some of their favorite Funsize people cycle off, but all of them quickly come to realize how vital this is. There is no other way to preserve the necessary level of design excitement for these long-term projects. Bringing in fresh perspectives allows the work to keep accelerating as it should. And, because we’re an agency (and not a MSP), the incoming designer has the guidance of the existing Design Director and the project’s former designer to make sure the hand-off is seamless.
“It’s been amazing to work with you all …I think the relationship we were able to form with your team is unique and something I’ve never seen before. This is not just me talking either — everyone has been very appreciative of the work and general ethos that Funsize brings to the table. Thank you all again for everything- tell the team we really appreciated their involvement, personalities and their work ethic. I know when the time comes to call on you all again, I definitely will not hesitate. I won’t be a stranger either :)”
Advantages of ATM
1. Familiarity Breeds Results
One key advantage of The Allied Team Model is that companies get access to a team of individuals who already work well together. That means there’s no wasted time on figuring out workstyles or communication methods between new team members. It also optimizes the quality and speed of output as team members know how to compliment one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Having the comfortability to ask for help or bounce ideas off another designer is often crucial for problem-solving in these engagements. And that’s something clients don’t get when hiring freelancers.
Of course, there are plenty of situations in which Funsize has plugged individual designers into different teams within a company. But we’ve found that the best work gets done when designers have someone they can collaborate with. Because of that, we like to pair designers up into teams as often as we can.
2. Specialists Become Effective Quickly
When companies need to hire fast for big design projects, every moment counts. Hiring full-time employees means a lengthy onboarding process (even if there’s already a good one in place), commitment, turnover risk, training and more. It can easily take months for a new hire to start making valuable contributions.
If the company is hiring an individual contributor who was formerly in-house somewhere else, there can be an “un-learning curve” in which the designer has to spend time figuring out new ways to work within the organization as well as their place within it.
And if the company is hiring a freelance contractor for help on the project, it might have been a while since that person worked with an internal team in that capacity, if at all.
With The Allied Team Model, the designers assigned to the project have spent the majority of their Funsize tenure working with internal design teams of all shapes and sizes. They’ve seen every process imaginable and are accustomed to working with any tool stack a team could dream up. That means they know how to communicate, collaborate, present work, and organize deliverables in a variety of different contexts.
In some situations, our people have even helped create processes within companies where it was lacking, setting them up for more future success after our time with the client has ended.
ATM gives companies an on/off switch in terms of design capabilities. Rather than spend years hiring for a variety of design positions they need (and hoping they work well together), they could instead spin up a fully built out design team in a couple weeks or less.
Instead of having to make difficult resourcing decisions and sinking their investments with layoffs, companies can simply ratchet down the hours or team members on a project within two week’s notice.
For organizations looking to build out a design department, they can also avoid the chaos of over-hiring an army of full-time staff in a compressed time frame. ATM allows design leaders to maintain momentum and strategically scale at the same time.
This approach worked well for our client, Credit Karma, who grew from a design team of ten to forty by the time our engagement with them had concluded. We were able to adapt and fill shifting skill gaps while they focused on hiring the right people.
The Allied Team Model typically takes two different forms: Foundation-focused and Exploration-focused.
When we’re foundation-focused, Funsize acts as a production anchor. We take on the production work that must be done so that the train stays on the tracks. This allows teams the freedom to devote their energy to planning for the future. That can mean efforts to create a design org from the ground up or simply giving internal teams more time and space to focus on future product roadmaps instead of being trapped in the weeds of the day-to-day design minutiae.
Those building an in-house design org can see big benefits from having a stable design team already employed. This is because Funsize is actually able to provide guidance and consulting on which types of positions might be needed or what sort of team structure could work best. It is not uncommon for us to help organizations through the hiring process.
Exploring What’s Possible
In exploration-focused engagements, we’re the ones pushing the design envelope for your company. We leave the day-to-day production work to you and your team, who know the product best already, and use our team to provide fresh design perspective on exciting opportunities within existing or future products.
In these situations, we’re often brought in as specialists in a specific discipline (such as Visual Design) who can do things that no one else on the team can.
Everything, All at Once
Even though projects often fall into the aforementioned camps, it’s important to note that we also have many engagements where we’re doing all of the above simultaneously. In fact, sometimes, we staff an entire service team (own the entire workstream ourselves).
Summing it Up
There are plenty of ways to do good design. We think that finding the best path for in-house and agency relationships will always be a collaborative effort in this ever-changing landscape. Though we may not be the first to run The Allied Team Model, it’s a service that has become a speciality of ours. And we like to think that we just might be the first ones to give it a name.
Funsize is a digital product design studio that helps inspiring product teams, small and large, uncover opportunities, bring new products to market, evolve digital products and services, and explore the future.
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