From 50 to 1

Posted by on Oct 3, 2013 in Design philosophy, Process


Finding love — it’s a little bit like playing roulette. You win some, you lose some. While you of course hope for a good partnership, you have no idea what it will be like down the road.

Finding the right creative agency to work with is a little bit like that. Here’s how we went from 50 options to just 1.

Step 1: Casting

Dear friends,
I am looking for the world’s brightest, most innovative creative agencies who are strong in digital media. It doesn’t matter where they are in the world, how big or small they are, or whether you’ve worked with them directly. If something about their work has “wowed” you, give me their name. Oh, and ask your smarty pants friends too.

RECEIVED: 50 names.

Step 2: Pattern matching

Dear colleagues,
We’re shopping for the world’s brightest, most innovative creative agencies who could help us envision the new TED.com. We are open to anyone who does truly incredible work. Have an idea? Send on their name, a paragraph on why you think they’re a great fit, and a favorite project from their portfolio that resonates with you as a good indicator of how they could approach TED.

RECEIVED: 28 names.

We dropped the 3 weakest recommendations from the set of 28. I cross-referenced the first 50 from the network list with the set of 25 colleague-generated recommendations, scanned through the group that was not in the colleague recommendation set, and hand-picked 5 of them. Final count: 30.

Step 3: Detailed analysis

I popped open a Google Spreadsheet and placed our evaluation criteria in the columns:

  • Has a well-organized portfolio site that gives a point of view without being overly design-y. Has to work across platforms.
  • Has worked with strong, reputable brands we love.
  • Has written extensive and thoughtful case studies on the strategy and product design thinking behind their work.
  • Example work showcases strong ability to organize complex navigation systems.
  • Example work is strong in the media, news, content and social categories.
  • Example work shows thoughtfulness around grid design principles.
  • Is primarily a web/digital shop. (As in, the digital arm is not an add-on to a different core business offering.)
  • Embodies collaborative spirit in the way it talks about the people working at the agency.
  • Has a fun spirit and a desire to give back to the public and community.
  • Is in a workable timezone to NYC.
  • Internal recommendation note, contact person, and recommender name.

I placed agency names in the rows, and started filling in details.

At this stage, the strongest options started sifting themselves up from the list. I skimmed the list of 30 and identified 17 strongest contenders.

Step 4: Collaborative analysis

Dear team member,
Enclosed please find the 17 strongest candidates among the world’s leading creative agencies that just *might* be a fit for us. Please take a moment to thoughtfully browse through their work and send me your top 5 recommendations along with reasons for selecting them. Please also include in your notes reasons for *not* selecting the rest.
Always your troublemaker,

RECEIVED: 6 analyses.

Our cross-disciplinary team met to arrange the 17 candidates into 3 buckets. 5 strong, 5 medium, 5 decaf. Dropped 2.

Step 5: Reach out

I called 10 agencies. Walked them through the general mission and spirit of the project, the potential for collaboration, and the desired outcome. Provided a comprehensive RFP document that outlines the conversation, plus detailed directives that summarize our research and user requests to date. Contained surprise when 4 of 10 agencies dropped out at that point because the timing didn’t quite work for them. Asked the 6 remaining agencies, all enthusiastic, to provide a pitch deck that included collaboration structure, a phased approach to tackling the work, project outline and pricing. Looked for whether the agency truly understood what we were setting out to do and how organized they were at approaching the solution. Remembering my own experience working at an agency, I was aiming for a very collaborative team that could be in the same room together as much as possible. A lot of creative agencies engage with the mindset that the client doesn’t know what they want or is not familiar with the industry. We are neither of these, and we were looking for an extension of our team. A lot of the evaluation at this stage feels very similar to interviewing teammates. At this point, we narrowed it down to the final four.

Step 6: The creative spark

In the last stage, I tasked the final four agencies with a very vague challenge:

Dear agency,

We love that you are excited to work with us. How can we better understand your creative spark? In one week, we’d love to have you present to us your point of view on the project, given what you know so far about our challenges and the general direction we hope to go. Interpret that however you want. Present it in any format you want. Bring your entire team. It would be a great moment to meet everyone!

All the best,


Arguably this could be the point where a lot of agencies back out. I knew I was asking for a lot, but without this it would have been very hard to know if we would find the right fit. This challenge would help us evaluate: (1) who is willing to double down the effort to win the work; (2) who understands our brand best. Leap-frogging the TED brand with an all-new digital presence was a very big project for both parties. Imagine the disaster that would occur if we signed a team on board and then found the collective creative energy flatlining in the first week. One team backed out, and three remained. We flew in the final three candidates and all their team members to meet ours.

Step 7: Cross the finish line

Everyone in the running was at the top of their game. Everyone came in so strong with very different, very delightful points of view on what the new TED could be. The final selection was difficult to make. Appreciated all the presentations, and got ready for the difficult final selection. Chris and June–TED’s curator and executive producer–pondered for a long while. The final call was based on synergy, convenience, and most of all a leap of faith.  

This long and winding process left us with the right creative agency. We picked Huge for the enthusiasm the team brought to the table, for their motto (rugby, not relay), and for the give-back-to-the-community spirit that is embodied in the things they do outside of this project. It also helped tremendously that they were in Brooklyn, very nearby, and that they could give us keys to their office and have us pretty much live there with them for months. (Thanks for all the coffee, guys.)


PS. For confidentiality reasons we will not reveal the full list of agencies in the running. We like everyone and will engage with those who didn’t win this specific bid on other projects. 


hello_thaniyaThaniya Keereepart is the Director of Product Development

She spends Saturdays surfing and eating tacos. Find her @thaniya.