These days, more and more enterprises are taking tasks typically performed by traditional agencies in-house, as opposed to outsourcing every part of their digital efforts.
From an economic perspective, this definitely makes sense. Large organizations spend obscene amounts of money on agencies, so I can see why it may be economically advantageous to move some of that effort and spend in-house where one can exert more control and get further throughput.
Indeed, the role agencies play is becoming more and more focused on the “thinking” while the “doing” is being commoditized by production players.
But the nature of the digital medium makes insourcing everything difficult. Each part of an end user’s digital experience relies on many different disciplines, making it nearly impossible to hire every part of a digital team in-house.
A digital production team could have any number of folks that carry a different skillset: a CTO to oversee technical operations; a back-end developer, a front-end developer, and UI/UX design experts; copywriters, SEO specialists, and analytics gurus; marketing automation specialists; project managers and QA team members…
The list goes on and on. And as the medium has evolved, each title has gotten progressively more and more complex, leading to fewer cases where one person can hold multiple positions at once.
For this reason, while it does make sense to take many of your digital efforts in-house, it must be done with careful consideration as to the true capabilities of your team and where any gaps exist. With that known, it is possible to augment your team in the most advantageous way with a focus on the most common needs/requirements and the reliance on expandable, “on-demand” outside help for areas where deeper expertise or less frequent assistance is required.
With that in mind, this post will help guide you in the right direction so you can properly plan, procure, and integrate an outside team into your existing workforce with minimal pain and hassle.
Step 1: Define Your Needs
If you are reading this post, you may already know you need additional help to round out your team. But what do you need exactly? While you may have some ideas as to the gaps that exist, there is a good chance you are unaware of precisely what components would tie together with what you already have in place.
The best way to figure this out is to consider what your initiatives are in the near term. For example, it isn’t unusual for an organization with an in-house team that can handle the bulk of required work to seek outside help for a major project. Often, it is hard for an internal team to scale and accomplish a large-scale undertaking while supporting what already exists. In this case, finding and procuring a partner is relatively easy, as your project should be well-defined and be best served via an open-and-shut engagement.
However, if your needs are ongoing, that’s a bit of a different story. A good way to define your needs is to simply contemplate where your bottlenecks have been recently. Typically, to find where you need help, just look at where the biggest pain points have been.
Where it gets really challenging is determining HOW much help you need. What kind of help is pretty easy to figure out, but understanding the quantity of help required can be difficult. We’ll delve into that in a bit.
Step 2: Define Current Capabilities
Understanding what you need is important. However, thoroughly defining your current capabilities is essential as well.
Obviously, if you need help in a particular area, it is probably because the in-house team is lacking in that specific discipline. However, it’s important that you spend time evaluating what your in-house team IS capable of, and to what extent their skills can accomplish those tasks.
Unfortunately, this is a difficult step. It’s hard for an internal decision-maker to judge capabilities with any level of fine-tuned accuracy.
For one, as a decision-maker, what you hear from team members can be obscured or muddied by personal biases and political undertones. We all know how corporate politics can make even simple communication difficult. And technical engineers don’t always know how to answer questions about their own abilities, mostly because they focus too much on wondering why they are being asked!
Secondly, you may not even know how to evaluate the responses that you get. A technical person can easily derail or confuse the process of finding outside resources. Most typically, this is because employees often feel threatened by outside contractors—even if they shouldn’t be.
The best way to define capabilities is to undergo an audit from a third party that can accurately assess what your current situation really is. The best way to perform a situation analysis is to engage with a third party who is independent from all angles and can actually evaluate not just the specific areas where your team focuses, but their true capabilities in each area of focus.
Step 3: Find Potential Partners
With a clear idea of what your capabilities and requirements are, you should now be ready to find the assistance you so desperately seek. I don’t want to drone on and on about the ins and outs of procuring digital services. In fact, there are many posts we have written in the past on this very topic. I do, however, want to focus on a couple of key points.
As I mentioned, the type of agency or team you seek should be dependent on the results of the first two steps. What is your need? Again, if it’s a massive project roll-out, that is a different requirement than, say, an ongoing SLA or maintenance contract.
Similarly, what firm you procure needs to fill in those gaps that you identified in step two. If you simply need design work, it’s best to find a best-in-breed design agency to complete that work and then hand off the deliverables to your in-house resources. If it’s ongoing development work, a production agency will go a long way. And if you need an ongoing partner to dedicate not just “doing” but “thinking” as well, then you have to search for a deeper, more capable group to work with.
If you had assistance in your audit from a third party, this is a great place to lean on them to make suggestions and guide you through the procurement and implementation process. Assuming you were happy with their engagement, trusting them to make recommendations, introductions, and vetting could go a long way in avoiding the future headaches that come along with a failed development or design project.
There is no one rule that I can share here in terms of procuring an agency or outside resource that can 100% mitigate all of your risk. However, I can say that finding an agency that makes risk mitigation a centerpiece of their process should be of great interest to you. During introductory calls, you should work to determine their process for ensuring success either in the short term or long term.
It’s rare to get guarantees, but proper planning can pay dividends down the line.
One last thought to consider—which is probably worthy of a post itself—is whether you are interested in a partner to be an order-taker, or a strategist as well. There is a major difference. Many agencies that are built to scale with hundreds of employees are more focused on delivering work product only within a production factory model. This means they take your requests as orders and perform only what is asked of them.
This is different than an expertise-focused agency, which will take your concepts and deliver them into end products with much of the advancement and definition of the idea being delivered as part of the service.
It’s hard to determine if you are speaking with a thought partner or a production partner. The best way to figure out which is which is to carefully walk through past projects, engagements, and case studies with them to see what they brought to the table with previous customers.
Step 4: Engage in Appropriate Agreements
The type of arrangement you engage in with an agency or outside firm may depend on the work at hand, as you have defined it. For a one-time development or design job, it is a bit easier to engage, as there is or will be a defined specification in place.
For these jobs, we always encourage all of our clients to undergo strategic work first, determining the exact specification so as to reduce budgetary and/or delivery timing risks in the future. A one-time project is probably something you have done before, and it’s certainly something we have discussed often in this blog, so I won’t dig too deeply into that topic here.
Ongoing work, however, is a different beast. Many agencies sell ongoing support, maintenance, continuous improvement, or whatever it is they call it via a variety of means. The terminology may include the concept of an SLA, or service level agreement. The idea of a “retainer” is thrown around often as well, either with the legal model of a deposit/withdrawal mechanism or, more commonly, a monthly minimum commitment of services.
If you are looking to engage in an ongoing arrangement, it’s important to have an idea of what commitment you are willing to sign up for. Many agencies will work this model in units of hours, although the concept of day or half-day rates are common, as are “sprints” in terms of larger scale work.
If you have worked through the previous steps properly, you should have some idea of the scale of help you require, which makes plotting the extent of your commitment in terms of budget and resource allocation a bit easier.
The most important thing to consider with an ongoing SLA is the actual determination of who does what, who is accountable to whom, and how the relationship progresses as time goes on.
With that in mind, the next step is essential to defining success.
Step 5: Define the Line
“The line” is something I discuss with all potential customers when it comes to team augmentation. It’s a relatively simple concept. Where does your team end and where does our team begin? Simple yet complicated, this concept will ultimately determine the success or decline of your relationship.
Some in the agency industry decry the idea of retainers, saying that either from day one or shortly thereafter, some level of client/agency resentment forms. This may be true because like all ongoing relationships, a retained services agreement can ebb or flow. However, you can easily work to resist this potential downfall by forming some procedures around who does what, how that work is completed, and what goals and objectives look like in the near and short term. “The line” should be a clear demarcation of what responsibilities fall on the in-house team and what falls on the partner.
While we are on this point, it’s also important to treat the third-party agency not as an agency, but as a real extension of your team. This even means making a cultural connection as well. Spending time with each other in person goes a long way toward building the rapport that a professional relationship needs to succeed in a communicative and productive way.
Your goal is a clear boundary of responsibilities while maintaining a culture of inclusivity between teams.
Final Step: Integrate systematically
The final step required to augment your internal team is to actually integrate the new team so they can work within the system you have already in place. This is more complex than it sounds because the proper foundation will ensure success as the relationship progresses.
Ideally, the integration of a third-party team would happen with each side having some level of account or project management resources in place. That person would serve as the middleman on each side, ensuring each team is working at maximum efficiency with an open line of communication. This “air traffic control” is essential to making sure there is seamless connectivity between the two silos.
In my experience, it isn’t helpful to allow all lower-level team members to communicate with each other on either side of the aisle. This is typically because on the agency side, there could be many players, and not each player will always understand the big picture of what, why, and when. Having an intermediary on either side avoids issues that can crop up when it’s a free-for-all in terms of one-on-one communication.
Likewise, the same issues can occur within the client organization, where lower-level folks may have issues communicating with production specialists on the agency side due to a lack of experience or grasp on the larger vision. Having a system in place to facilitate communication is key.
Also essential is the proper management toolset. Luckily, today tools such as Trello, Slack, and other project and communication management suites make the task of team and resource management simpler and more refined. But don’t forget the old-school tools that work as well. Ongoing, regular communication is essential, and is best conducted as weekly or bi-weekly calls between key players.
As I mentioned, the integration of a team is not just about barking orders at the partner. Rather, it takes cultural assimilation to get to an end result of seamless connectivity.
There will always be a need for outside resources. Building a digital team today is complicated, as there are so many roles that you need to fill. Your company may have issues finding the right employees for every slot. Geographically, this happens all the time. There may be some roles that are too specific for a sole hire, and there may be a limited talent pool available to fill such roles.
For whatever reason, hiring internally can be difficult, and in these cases, an outside agency can fill the gap and provide a valuable service. All that is left to do is find the right partner and integrate them properly.
When that integration is completed, the value added should become quickly apparent as you iterate and achieve benchmarks faster, and with fewer complications.