As a Marketing Professional, I was recently asked by an acquaintance back in the UK, "How do you choose the right Digital Agency to build a website? What should I look for and what questions should I be asking?"
Choosing a Digital Partner to build your website is an important decision. The result can consume a considerable portion of your annual Marketing budget, it can have a huge impact on customer perception of your brand, and it can help advance your career as a Digital Marketer.
While I don't pretend to have all the right answers, and a lot of the time the decision could well come down to going with whatever your gut tells you, I thought others out there might also find the advice interesting, since it doesn't centre on the considerations I often see mentioned.
But first, let me tell you a little story...
Two Sides Of The Same Coin
I've worked on both sides of the fence, both as the employer of a Digital Agency while working 'client-side', and now as the employee of one, having joined Sitback in 2017.
When I was the employer of an Agency, I got my fingers well and truly burnt during the process. It took far too much of my time to manage the situation to ensure it didn't spiral out of control and now that I'm on the other side of the coin, I can see from the inside (or rather, agency-side) what caused the problems I experienced, and how they could have been avoided.
My Agency Nightmare
My journey started off well enough. I was looking for a local agency to help build a replacement for an ageing website. Distance was important because I knew we would be meeting regularly, and proficiency in the Drupal CMS was paramount because of our company's security requirements (we were ISO27001 compliant) and also because Senior Management stipulated it.
I did the usual; asked my network for recommendations, did a few Google searches and read a lot of websites.
In the end, after shortlisting five agencies who all responded to a RFQ, I settled on a well-regarded agency just up the road who had won a number of awards for the design work they had produced.
From the outset, I was very clear with my requirements: optimise the functionality we've already got (i.e. no need to reinvent the wheel) and refresh our visual appeal (we were in the final throws of a complete corporate rebrand).
I met the Agency and got on well with the team. The project kicked off with requirements gathering, several very long-winded emails and a fair amount of documentation being created internally.
Looking back, alarm bells should have been going off at this point. While we were clear in explaining what we as a company wanted from the new website, at no point did the agency suggest learning what our customers actually wanted. It was very much a case of "Yes, Sir. No, Sir. Three bags full, Sir" from the agency and blind ignorance from my company. I cannot stress enough how this is the wrong way of going about it, but that's a post for another day.
Since we were none the wiser, we were excited to get stuck into the visual design and realisation of our new corporate branding in digital form. Some great design mockups were delivered by the creative designer and once we settled on a concept, development got underway.
After a couple of weeks though, the cracks started to show.
It's All Downhill From Here
The first hurdle came when the original Project Manager left the agency. They were replaced with a fresh-faced new employee who took a while to get up-to-speed with the way the agency worked, as well as our project. This delayed things slightly, but "these things happen" I thought.
Next, the designer who worked on the original creative ideas left the agency. Fortunately, most of the hard work had already been done in this area, but nevertheless, it still left a hole - we had spent a long time making sure our creative vision for the new brand was understood, and now this was gone.
As the project rolled on, I had to work with a number of other in-house and freelance designers but they never really got it because the initial designer hadn't left behind any sort of Digital Style Guide.
Shortly after, to make matters worse, the second Project Manager sent me an email to say that they would also be leaving the agency - at the end of the following week - and could I please attend a meeting to meet their replacement. While at the meeting, I also learned that two of the developers who had been key to the project had also left and been replaced in the intervening period without us being made aware of it!
To say I left that meeting wondering what the hell was going on would be an understatement. This project was my responsibility and yet despite my best efforts, it was unravelling at the seams - it was as if the agency were actively trying to get me fired! Fortunately, I had a very supportive Manager at the time who was well aware of what was going on and always insisted that we had everything under control when questioned by Senior Management.
Well, guess what? The replacement team was fraught with problems. Perhaps they would have performed better had they have been involved from the start. As it was, no one knew what functionality had been built or to what standard. Due to the mixture of developers involved in the build, functionally similar aspects of the site were implemented in totally different ways resulting in inefficiencies. Originally in-scope functionality was omitted and I had to constantly refer back to the original Statement Of Work and subsequent email trails to prove what had been agreed.
It was an on-going battle that still wasn't completely resolved 18 months after commencing with the engagement, and it left a very bitter taste in my mouth.
So What Is The Answer?
Having been through this debacle, and now having seen the other side of the agency land since joining Sitback, there are a number of things that I feel could have stopped the problems ever happening in the first place.
I've tried to summarise these points below, to serve as checklist of areas to look for when choosing your next Digital Agency Partner:
- Look for an agency that looks after their team: They become integral to the relationships formed with you as a client. If an employee leaves, it can be very hard (though not impossible) to reform those same connections. On top of this, they often hold a lot of project IP in their heads, meaning if they go, they take that learning with them. Make sure the agency's team is engaged, valued and happy. Hopefully then they'll stick around.
- Look for an agency that looks after you as a client: In the event that an agency employee does leave, they should go out of their way to make sure the replacement defines their own relationship with you as the client. It's vitally important to regain that initial connection. The agency should be providing the same level of care and attention to you, as your organisation provides to your customers.
- Look for an agency with strong standards and procedures: Having well defined standards and procedures ultimately means more efficient project delivery. It also means that if an employee does leave, it's easier for others to pick up where they left off. Developers that follow the same best practices and coding conventions will write more efficient code with less repetition.
- Make sure you clearly define your requirements: Having a clear outline of what will be delivered, and how, will ensure that there are no arguments further down the line. It will also help you to compare apples for apples when it comes to looking at differences in project estimates.
- Don't be bamboozled by beautiful: Meaningful digital experiences are about more than just pleasing visual design. Regardless of what you want to achieve as an individual, team or organisation, I guarantee that if an agency urges you to understand what your customers actually need in the first instance, rather than just focusing on how attractive they can make your website look, you will end up with a better end product.
I hope you've found these tips useful. I also hope that you never have to go through the process that I went through!
Do you have any additional, unconventional, tips to add to this this? Add them in the comments below - I'd love to hear them and hopefully they will help others who are also setting out on this journey. Thanks for reading.