As an agency owner for almost 20 years, it’s not an exaggeration to say that at this point, I’ve seen it all. I’ve worked with all types of clients on many different projects in a wide range of industries.
Obviously, there is a lot of great variety in agency life, but one thing that is frustratingly typical is how many disparate factors customers use to judge which agency to hire.
I’ve spent a lot of time lately reading and studying behavioral economics, i.e. the psychological and scientific research that goes into how humans make decisions. What I’ve come to learn is that 90% or more of prospective clients will use less-than-skillful judgment in hiring an agency.
The fact is, humans often forego logic, embracing irrational factors to make important decisions. As an agency owner, this is frustrating. More than you would believe, we see customers make bad procurement decisions and come back to us later with the same exact project, only after having wasted a year and countless dollars with other designers or developers who weren’t a great fit to begin with.
At the risk of sounding like I’m complaining, I thought it important to write a post about some of the factors that matter—and others that don’t—when it comes to hiring a design or development agency. These are themes that we see quite often and that I figured would be good to spotlight.
Do any of these apply to you?
First: What Matters
I can’t emphasize this point enough. The thing that matters the most when procuring any type of service is proven competency in your particular area of need. This should be the number one factor when hiring any design, development, or marketing agency.
- Can you see concrete evidence that the agency was able to work with other clients who faced similar challenges as you?
- Can you speak to those clients and discuss the working relationship they had with the agency?
- Can you see that a long-term, quality partnership existed between the client and the agency?
The answers to these questions should add up to 80% of the weight you apply to your procurement decision-making process.
Along with work history, you should look for other signs of competency as well. Thought leadership is an important area.
- Does the agency you are looking at lead in their space?
- Do they publish regular content or research contributions?
- Are they positioned tightly within your area of need?
Competency comes in many forms: actual experience and the ability to lead in the space where that experience was applied.
I can’t say how many clients have hired less-than-competent agencies based on factors that simply don’t matter. We’ll get to some of those factors shortly, but how frustrating it is to lose business to an agency with an office that features fancy chandeliers and meditation room while in the meantime, that agency is a revolving door of junior employees providing sub-par service to their customers. Or the classic “agency up the street” that wins business because they are geographically close, even though they are not necessarily qualified.
If you read no other part of this post, take away this one point: Focus on competency and judge it carefully. There are no licensing authorities and few regulations in this industry, so it’s up to the customer to carefully consider how qualified an agency is before hiring them.
All agency relationships are managed to mitigate risk for the client. After all, those clients are making a massive investment in terms of dollars, time, and opportunity cost every time they hire an agency. As such, they would do well to carefully consider the process each agency has for approaching the problem they need solved.
A published, thoughtfully crafted process means a few things. First, it means the agency has done something so many times, there is an efficient and comprehensive approach in place rather than guesswork. That alone mitigates your risk as a customer and allows for the most cost-effective and thorough process to complete the task at hand.
Secondly, it means that you have an ability to know where you fall during the engagement based on the process and where you stand within it. From a client perspective, just knowing where you are in the proposed timeline of a project can make all of the difference when dealing with internal deadlines and pressure.
And finally, it lets you prepare and understand how the project will proceed, as the process in this industry typically begins with definition/architecture/planning of the overall project. This means you’ll start slowly and carefully and have a nicely defined route forward—a method that mitigates risk to you as the customer and defines the timing, budget, and requirements the project as a whole entails.
Clients should be wary of agencies that discuss projects only briefly, arrive at a budget and timelines quickly, yet never spend time discussing the steps the project will actually require and the process they will utilize to complete the work.
Not having a process invites disaster, loosey-goosey preparation, and almost no accountability between the parties.
I’m constantly amazed at how many clients disregard the experience of the agency’s core team during agency procurement.
The fact is, the agency business is…well, a business. And agency owners make money by saving on payroll wherever possible. Most large-scale agencies will bring in their senior players during the sale, then pawn off the work to junior personnel the minute the ink dries on the deal.
When you are hiring an agency, spend time to meet the folks who will be doing the thinking. This means the principal, the project managers, the product folks, and the UI/UX designers. These are the people who will be taking your vision, goals, and requirements and crafting a solution. Be less hung up on the developers or coders, though—these are the commoditized workers who are putting together the work designed and architected by the thinkers.
Most client/agency relationships today have an ongoing component. Websites are never finished, and apps are always being improved. Therefore, it’s important that you know who is doing the thinking, what experience they bring, and how they will work on your project. If you find that the senior folks do all the talking without deferring to the expertise of their team, you may be getting into a relationship that will be problematic in the future.
Yet another area I see clients routinely disregard is the agency relationship from a personality perspective. Being able to collectively work with your agency in a thoughtful and professional manner matters greatly. You simply can’t collaborate with a person you can’t stand, so personality fit is a factor that you have to consider.
Luckily, there isn’t much I need to explain here. Either you like someone or you don’t.
The only exception to this rule is if the person you are vetting is so extremely qualified that you can overlook the fact that you won’t necessarily get along. But really, they would need to be the foremost subject matter expert for such a contentious relationship to be tolerable. Be forewarned.
What Doesn’t Matter
Partnerships / Awards / Some Certifications
For the most part, I am typically against many of these items. I feel they are half-baked ways of dazzling clients with fancy superlatives so they don’t feel inclined to dig deeper with their own vetting and due diligence. Let me dig into each item individually.
First, partner programs. Many agencies belong to partner programs with companies that offer software packages. We see this a lot with third-party SaaS providers and CMS vendors.
For the most part, clients need to realize that partner programs are not about them, but about the agency and the vendor. As a general rule, I’ve stayed away from these programs with very few exceptions. The partnerships we’ve undertaken are always with companies that are best-in-breed in their respective category. But other than that, partner programs are typically more about the software vendor augmenting their sales stream with agency partners, and agencies getting monetary consideration for their efforts.
Of course, I can’t fault the software vendors—this is a good business strategy. But the agencies have to be questioned when they push only the solutions of their partners. In our case, we attempt to be technology-agnostic. This means we’ll offer you the solution that fits your case as opposed to fitting your case to technology we are trying to sell.
In some cases, if you are already committed to technology, finding certified partners is good. However, if you are still entertaining multiple options, certified partners are going to always fit you into one of their partner platforms whether it makes sense or not. Tread carefully.
Regarding awards, I can go on and on about why a good 99% of them are bogus. In nearly 20 years, I’ve never submitted any project for award consideration.
First off, the companies issuing awards are doing it purely for monetary reasons. Awards are a business where each submitter pays an entry fee for consideration. In fact, the materials we receive on a regular basis asking us to submit is laughable in that it is clearly sales material.
Secondly, just because an award was issued to an agency doesn’t mean they will bring that level of service to your project. Awards are typically issued to agencies working on the highest-profile clients. Unless you are working for a Fortune 100 company, it’s unlikely they will be turning out that same kind of award-winning work for you. Award issuers don’t want to issue an award to a project for a company no one has heard of. In a way, it’s all a bit of smoke and mirrors.
Finally, beware of certifications. In this area, there are many certifications that are good. It’s good for a developer to have software vendor certifications, but watch out for third-party certification organizations. They have lower standards; typically, the lower-tier developers, designers, and marketers will seek these certifications out so they can pad resumes and agency websites.
Again, due diligence is required to avoid making a mistake you can’t take back later.
I alluded to this earlier. Somehow, in 2018, people are still choosing agencies based on who is up the street as opposed to who is eminently qualified.
The Internet is a global medium, and agencies today are working less and less in one location and more and more via a distributed methodology. Our agency has been working partially distributed since inception.
It simply isn’t necessary for your agency to be up the street to be successful and work well with your team. Modern tools allow for seamless integration and communication. Project management tools organize all tasks. The era of local management of this type of service business is over. Focus more on expertise and experience, and less on location.
Location only gives you one advantage—you can go up the street and yell at the agency if they make mistakes. But if you hire the right agency, you’d never have to worry about that anyway!
I’m a huge non-believer in some of these crazy workspaces you see today. Honestly, the more distraction-centric these workspaces are, the more likely it is that employers are just trying to make their employees stay longer hours anyway. In fact, every time I visit one of these offices, I always ask what the hours of operation look like. They’re almost always long and dreary.
Sure, no one wants to work in a dusty sawmill. And of course, you want to hire an agency with the legitimacy of a workspace. But don’t be distracted by office features that serve management’s purpose of extracting as much of the work/life balance from employees as possible. After all, there is no such thing as a work/life balance anyway. It’s all life. Find agencies that believe in that concept, and you’ll also find that your counterparts, the folks you work with daily, are happier for it.
I could have easily included another 20 points in this post, but focused instead on the most frustrating things I see as an agency principal on a regular basis.
Please, when procuring digital consulting services, focus on the right factors. Risk mitigation is the number one thing you need to focus on, and you can minimize the chances of project failure by investing in the right decision points, as opposed to the distractions you’ll be exposed to along the way!