Ad Agency vs. Design Firm, what’s the diff?

Written By

Lisa Correu



Posted On


Ad Agency vs. Design Firm - Brand Design Kansas City

Say “advertising agency” and the immediate reaction will probably be thoughts of Mad Men. Name any movie or TV show from the past 60 years that required a main character to have a cool job (with no actual work done) and I guarantee they worked in advertising. And were also uncannily attractive.

But design firm? Isn’t that where people go when they need help deciding which couch goes with what drapes or duvet cover, whatever that is?

Yeah no, that’s not what we do here at Willoughby. So just what is the difference between an ad agency and a design firm? The simple answer: A design firm designs the package, the ad agency tells you to buy what’s inside of it.

The better answer: We do a lot of the same stuff. Design firms have been expanding their services in the last 20 years and now go way beyond logos, brochures and annual reports. Ad agencies will often have internal design teams as a part of their client services.

A design firm will create the brand strategy, brand identity and brand standards with which the advertiser can create the print, web or television ads. It’s the core stuff that anchors the brand. And an agency may create a campaign with support materials supplied by the design firm. The cross-pollination can go pretty deep. For instance, we work very closely with Panera Bread and their agency, Anomaly, to create in-store design and messaging that jives with their advertising.

Willoughby is still firmly rooted in the traditional craft of graphic design: logos, packaging and signage while also working with digital and experiential clients. We’re creating campaigns that combine video and animation. It’s all rolled into the bigger goal of creating a compelling brand experience for the consumer. This happily gives us the opportunity to partner with many different entities from architects to animators, videographers, fabricators and even robot makers to carry out the plans we create for our clients. And because we’re small, we can call upon the perfect collaborators depending on the needs of our client and what manner of fun and trouble we want to get into.

That’s why we love it when we have the opportunity to implement the results of our branding efforts to all the new expressions of the results. We may create labels, brochures and catalogs but we also dive into retail experiences, restaurant concepts, interior installations, education and even public transportation.

So, yes, there is a difference between agencies and design firms, but those differences are becoming smaller and smaller. One thing we DO have in common is that we’ve all managed to find a way to merge art with commerce to create beautiful, meaningful things and while we may encroach on each other’s traditional territories from time to time, we’re still friends.