If you’ve ever spoken with me one-on-one, we’ve most likely discussed my concern about mitigating the risk clients take on when hiring a digital agency. I’ve covered this topic countless times on this blog, so I won’t dig too deeply into the plethora of problems with the digital production services industry. However, I will refresh your memory as to why so many projects—up to 70% according to the CHAOS report—fail at some level during their lifecycle.
The simple fact is that digital services is a highly unregulated, disorganized industry. Sure, there are some certifications available to developers, but it isn’t to the level of what, say, an MD or JD student will undertake.
Do you know what plumbers, hair dressers, and bus drivers all have in common? They are all licensed by authorities to practice their craft—unlike any web designer or developer you’ll ever hire. And this leads to our skillset being one of the most difficult services to procure. In many cases, there simply isn’t enough information for you to rely on when making a procurement decision other than your gut instincts about the people you have met so far at the agency you are considering.
So, with all of that said, what is the one point that serves as the foundation of the future failure of your digital project?
For those who have been through failed projects, they may give you a variety of different reasons that everything unraveled. “The agency didn’t understand our vision,” “the developer didn’t know what he was doing,” or “the project took way too long and went over budget.” There are literally hundreds of reasons why projects fail.
But at what point do they fail?
Given the above excuses, you may think that they failed all at different points. I look this a bit differently, though. For the most part, projects start to fail at the same time: the minute you put pen to paper and sign a contract.
Why make such a generalization about EVERY failed project, you ask? Because at the end of the day, the agency is the group that is responsible for avoiding project failure. The agency understands (or should understand) all the unknowns of which you obviously are unaware. And the agency knows what their own abilities are better than you can ever.
Indeed, it’s my belief that the success or failure of your project almost always lies in the procurement stage, the point when you, as the client, must comb through all of the information and figure out the true answers to your inquiries. The agency will more often than not determine the success of your project—hiring the wrong one is where the trouble begins.
Why is hiring the right agency so often bumbled?
Typically, it’s because the process of procurement sucks.
Too many companies employ old tactics for hiring digital service providers. The most offending process is the RFP, an old-school technique that involves sending convoluted documents to many agencies hoping to find the lowest bidder. This tactic has a deep history in vendor procurement, and you see it often with non-profits, government agencies, and the occasional private-sector company that is used to the practice.
RFPs do not encourage agency creativity, but rather encourage the commoditization of digital services. It’s a race to the bottom. Many agencies are now refusing to participate, having done the math that responding to RFPs costs more than they can earn in the long run. This has resulted in lower-tier agencies competing more and more, winning RFPs that they probably shouldn’t even be responding to.
Why do RFPs stink? Well, that can be a post all to itself, but in a nutshell, RFPs result in a lack of emotional connection between the agency and the client. They are stringent, based on defined “rules” which, in many cases, the client isn’t even sure why they included in the first place. They are limited in that the agencies often can’t communicate with the customer other than via the proposal itself.
RFPs are process-oriented, but the process is misguided. Instead of focusing on the process to mitigate client risk and ensure success, they aim to fit all respondents into the mold the client deems proper, again stifling creativity. How can an agency contribute original, creative support when they are being forced to basically fill out a form?
All of this culminates in a mechanism that is completely contrary to what you are looking to acquire with digital services: quality and vision. It raises the overall risk you face. Instead of building that aforementioned emotional connection with an agency, you are focusing on entirely the wrong factors—price alone with no regard to methodology.
It’s a recipe for disaster.
Unlike a construction project, where 95% of the labor is using parts and 5% is creating creative solutions, the opposite is true with digital service providers. It’s 95% ingenuity and 5% parts.
That being said, why do so many companies revert to antiquated techniques like RFPs and expect to limit their risk? Probably because they learned it during one of their college business courses 20 years earlier.
RFPs are bad, but they aren’t the only issue. Internal politics can lead to horrible decisions about procurement. Many times, the wrong agency is chosen for all the worst reasons. Nepotism, personal preference of an executive, or just plain laziness can all lead to improper agency selection. Many times, an agency is selected simply out of risk aversion from the lower-tier employees who must give the project their blessing.
Whatever the reason, the minute pen is put to paper, both parties tend to take a breather and projects begin to unravel at the foundation.
So how can you avoid project failure? I have highlighted five key factors you should consider during the agency selection process that, when used together, should mitigate most of the significant risk factors.
5 Ways to Avert a Project Failure
1. Understand that digital is different than almost any other service provider/client relationship.
Digital services can’t be compared to construction, home services, or any other service for which you may personally hire a contractor. As I mentioned, digital services are inherently more consultative than production-oriented. You hire a thinker, more so than just a doer.
Bearing this in mind, you need to adjust strategies for hiring an agency partner. The commoditization of these service providers—i.e. comparing them to each other based on price alone—doesn’t ever result in positive work product when it comes to digital.
The worst disasters we’ve seen are clients who didn’t understand (or respect) the digital medium, thinking all contractors are the same and shopping on old world factors like price alone. The surest way to find success may mean throwing out those old rules you are accustomed to, and it definitely means you’ll need to commit not just to reeducating yourself, but also members of your team. The end result will be less project failure.
2. Find experts.
Another factor I see often in failed projects is the fact that the client didn’t find a true expert in their required discipline. Granted, clients in the digital world are at a disadvantage—they don’t know what they don’t know, as I’ve stated earlier. But there are ways to know if you are working with an expert or a hack.
First, did you actually review their past work? Sure, every developer has a portfolio of work. But did you get in-depth demonstrations and speak to references? It amazes me how often this step is overlooked. Have them walk you through past projects from concept to completion and get a feel for how they were completed, the quality of the work, and how they helped the client in the long run.
Secondly, does the agency have a track record of thought leadership? Do they contribute content to the community and are they educating you? Or are they simply selling to you? The best sales process is a conversation lead by a strategist or expert who actually understands the work they are proposing. All too often, clients are convinced by professional persuaders (AKA salespeople) that they are on the right track when in reality, the agency’s claim to expertise is flawed at best.
Finally, is the agency specific to your needs? Or are they all over the place? Experts are narrowly positioned and specifically targeted toward certain disciplines. For anything else, they will either bring in assistance or refer other experts. If you have an agency that is proposing work in many different areas, you should ask how deep their expertise goes in any one area. You may realize you need expertise more than the support of a generalist in order for your project to succeed.
(We have a post about mitigating risk when hiring a web developer that you should review, as it highlights the different types of agencies and how each differs structurally.)
3. Hire thinkers, not doers.
There exists in the digital production world a major gap between thinkers and doers, a problem that rarely exists in other client/vendor relationships. As I mentioned, in our medium, there is a breakdown of 95% thinking and 5% utilization of parts. Actually, I would go as far as to say, in some cases, it’s 100% thinking and 0% parts, especially when it comes to creative work and not development.
Compare this to any other vendor you may hire—mechanics, construction, repairmen, etc. In their fields, it comes down to parts, instructions, and doing. Sure, there is the occasional crafty workaround they may employ, but for the most part, those professions are structured around a certain way of doing things.
Take it a step further and compare this to expert practitioners you deal with regularly—doctors, lawyers, accountants, investment professionals, etc. They work in a world where thinking outweighs the doing. They have a diagnostic process that culminates in a custom solution that is crafted for your specific purposes.
Which of these types of practitioners would you prefer to hire to help your company achieve the goals you have outlined? Unless you know 100% what you want and what you are doing, doers will not result in the desired outcome. It’s the thinkers who can move the needle of success from one end to the other. Yet, so often in procuring agency help, client calculations are muddied by comparing the services rendered to the wrong type of vendor. They confuse doing and thinking, hoping they can commodify the services required and thus compare easily, with the end goal of getting the best deal.
Your goal? Hire the thinkers first, and either allow them to facilitate the doing or, at a minimum, work as a part of the implementation process.
4. Budget for procurement.
If I’ve convinced you to hire a thinker and not just a doer, you have to be prepared to allocate some of your budget to procuring the right partner.
The simple fact is that no expert gives away thinking for free. It never happens. Anyone who does provide thinking for free probably isn’t thinking anyway. This is evident in “spec” work, something that creative agencies have dealt with for years. In today’s industry, where work and timeframes are so stressed, almost no agency can produce meaningful, creative off-spec work. There simply isn’t time to focus on the problem, identify areas of opportunity, and then craft solutions in the window given to deliver the concepts—for free, no less.
Spec work demeans the client, who is basically telling agencies that their work isn’t important enough to spend much time thinking about, and it demeans the agency who may feel compelled to participate even though they know they can’t deliver their best under the circumstances.
So, back to my point on experts, thinkers, and procurement. Any expert will typically engage in a diagnostic engagement. This engagement will be some sort of initial project, typically aimed toward assessing the current situation, the desired future state, and the pathways to get there. This thinking is valuable, and it won’t be free, so it’s best to budget for it and have the flexibility to engage the right experts as you find them.
One final note on this point: An agency that is quick to propose budgets without doing a deep dive into your situation is a recipe for disaster. Would you trust a doctor that prescribes medicine without doing initial scans or tests? I didn’t think so.
Be wary of agencies who are fast to suggest expensive fixes. And be wary of agencies that “productize” their offerings as if every client has the same challenges. Neither of these practices will result in a positive outcome for your project.
5. Be open to their process.
This is a thought that may be difficult for some companies to embrace. Many clients are under the impression that the more controlling they are, the better the outcome of their projects.
While I do think it’s important for clients to control certain aspects of the relationship, there is a fine line between being protective of your interests in a project and trying to steer the ship yourself. If you are hiring experts, you need to undertake a philosophy similar to what we heard in the 80s: Trust, but verify.
If you have found an expert and have budgeted for procurement, it is essential that you trust the process. Those experts have honed it based on experience. That experience means they have seen your exact situation before and know how to approach it. As such, let them undertake their process in their way, especially during the initial engagement. This is the “thinking” that you covet, and the outcome of this thinking is the plan of attack you can either embrace or decide isn’t right for you. But bear in mind that it isn’t possible to simultaneous ask the experts to create a plan based on their experience and then try to control the process at each stage. It’s counterintuitive.
Trust the expert, trust the process, and then deliberate over the findings.
Project failure is the most frustrating experience for clients. I’ve seen it happen countless times over the years. Many projects that come our way were originally tried elsewhere and didn’t succeed. I’ve heard likewise of executives who lost their jobs over badly procured agency relationships.
So much is riding on the investment your company makes in digital properties and initiatives—avoiding project failure is essential. With the above tips, hopefully you can prevent failure from day one and focus on a clearer pathway to procurement that gives your company and initiative the right chance of success from the get-go.