Five tips for choosing a digital agency
If you work client side, then chances are that you’ve had a bad experience working with a digital agency in the past. You might be halfway through a project with this agency right now that you cannot wait to finish so you can move on and never work with them again. This is particularly common in the digital strategy industry where projects can be technical and complex and therefore require a high level of professionalism and expertise from agencies – and often they are not up to the task.
Chances are the digital agency impressed the pants off you initially. Hell they must have because you chose them over the others competing for your business. In addition to their impressive presentation/strategy/creative/proposed solution, they would have also met or exceeded all the points in your selection criteria right?
So how did you get it wrong?
In most briefs or RFPs that clients put out to pitch, there is usually a section somewhere near the end called something like “Selection criteria”. These are standard and usually read something like this:
- Demonstrate capabilities and experience
- Show examples of recent work relevant to the RFP
- Provide testimonials or client references
- Strength of the strategy/creative/technical solution that the agency is proposing
- Ability to deliver scope within budget and timeframe
- Outline your production process
- Company structure and/or team assigned to the client
- Then there’s usually a few more points that are specifically relevant to the RFP
Then of course there is the chemistry between you and the digital agency that is very important also. After all this will be a relationship and the vibe in your initial meeting is a clear indicator of how it will develop.
Any digital agency that doesn’t meet these criteria should not progress far and the company that exceeds these the most wins. You all feel great about working together, start the project, and then somewhere down the line the project and/or relationship goes south, you’re frustrated and you find yourself reading this article.
Sadly you chose the wrong digital agency. The right one may have been the runner up, or maybe there wasn’t a right digital agency on your list at all. You will never know if there was or wasn’t because the criteria you set for selection actually has no bearing on whether a digital agency is any good to work with or not.
There are five additional things that you should be doing when evaluating a digital agency that will enable you to properly determine whether they are worth the PowerPoint slides they are typed on.
1. TALK TO THEIR CLIENTS
Don’t just rely on the testimonials that a digital agency lists in their presentation. Get the digital agency to provide you with the contact numbers of 3 clients and actually call them! Make sure they are recent (worked with the digital agency in the last 12 months) and ensure the person that you are talking to actually worked directly with the digital agency on the project.
Don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions. Often referees are hesitant to say negative things and will resort to benign answers like “they were great” or “they were really nice”. This is excellent feedback for a popularity contest but will give you absolutely no insight into what the digital agency was actually like to work with.
These are the questions that you need to ask to illicit the answers you need to evaluate the digital agency:
- Were you satisfied with the company’s solution or output for your business?
- What was their process like? What process did they follow?
- How was their communication? How did they communicate with you? How often did they communicate with you?
- Was the project delivered on time and within budget?
- Was your account manager or day-to-day contact actually involved in the project and what skills did he or she bring to the project outside of being a liaison?
- Are you still working with the digital agency? If not why?
If you are happy with the responses to each of these questions then that’s great. You only have four more areas to address.
2. INSIST ON MEETING THE ACCOUNT MANAGER (DAY-TO-DAY CONTACT) – AND TEST THEM!
It’s no secret that in advertising and digital services that “account service” has become a devalued and irrelevant discipline (and for good reason). Nine times out of ten an “account manager” is just a glorified paper pusher and liaison that adds little-to-no value to the your project or the production process (often they can detract value). So much so that many suppliers have removed the “account service” function entirely from their agencies.
People who still work in account service will argue that their role is critical to “communication” and maintaining the “relationship” with the client. My response to this argument is as follows – if anyone (regardless of their role in an agency) is not capable of communicating and liaising with a client, then they have no business working in an agency at all – but I digress.
Whoever is put forward as your “account manager” or contact should be the person who leads the project on behalf of the digital agency. They are responsible for formulating the strategy and direction for your business and the success or failure of the project should ultimately lie with them. Here is how to ensure that this is the case:
1. This person should be the one leading the presentation and responsible for any of the strategic inputs in the pitch. If they are in the room but aren’t saying much then you should be concerned. If this person is not in the room at all this indicates that their role adds so little value that they weren’t even included in the pitch – run for the hills!
2. Ask who will be leading the “requirements gathering” phase of the project. If this person is anyone other than your supposed “account manager” then that is also a red flag. Your account manager should serve as your strategist, business analyst and liaison all in one. They should only be handing off to other resources when the work required is particularly specialised such as UX, design and development.
3. Make this person demonstrate their knowledge of your business and industry in the meeting. This doesn’t mean mentioning a couple of similar clients or projects that they have worked on in the past. Any account manager worth a pinch of salt should have already researched your industry and be able to rattle off the names of your competitors, your industry publications, findings from research papers and talk about relevant issues to your business like changes to legislation etc. If not – red flag!
4. Finally, put them on the spot to demonstrate their technical competency. You would be horrified to know how many supposed account managers have never logged into a CMS or don’t know how to use Google Analytics. Ask them in the meeting to give you a quick demo of the platform they are proposing to use in their presentation (give them no notice). Or better yet open up your company’s Google Analytics account and ask them to pull out a few observations or insights (and let them drive). You’ll be able to establish their level of competence very quickly.
If the account manager fails any one of these tests (it’s likely if they fail one they will fail them all) then you will be paying for a resource that adds no value to your project. Any digital agency that is comfortable appointing an unskilled representative to lead your project does not deserve your business.
3. MEET THE TEAM
Insist on meeting the team members who will be working on the project such as your project manager, UX lead, designer etc. If they are not already in the meeting, just ask if they can stick their head in and say hello or walk over to their desks and meet them at the end of the meeting. This is the easiest way to sniff out whether an agency has these capabilities in house or whether they outsource.
Now let me say that I have no issue with outsourcing or bringing freelancers into a project. In fact, it often ensures a better outcome for a client. However, if an agency is any good they will be transparent about whether they will be using freelancers or outsourcing and should go so far as including the details of these resources in their presentation.
If they are not upfront about this, it points to either of two things:
- They are being dishonest and hiding shortcomings in their capabilities; or
- They don’t yet have a plan for resourcing your project
Either of these are reason to be concerned and to steer clear.
4. CHECK THEIR DIGITAL AGENCY STAFF ATTRITION
This is an easy one and really should be done as part of the vetting process before you even send your RFP out to suppliers.
Jump on LinkedIn, go to an agency’s profile and take a look at their staff past and present. Take particular notice of how long each of their past staff members tend to work at the agency. I will caveat this and say that our industry is unlike many others in that the majority of us move between employers a lot.
However, a good agency will have the majority of their staff staying with them at least two years. This indicates that the team is happy and the agency is operationally sound.
If you find that the majority of past staff lasted under two years and that current staff are mainly recent hires then this will tell you two things:
- One or more of the team that will be assigned to you will definitely leave in the middle of your project;
- There are issues with the supplier’s operations which is causing staff to leave. These same issues will impact the outcomes and success of your project.
5. THE IMPORTANCE OF ONBOARDING
As I mentioned earlier, most selection criteria include a point that reads something like “What production process will you use for this project”. Unfortunately the response you receive to this question will be meaningless when evaluating a digital agency.
Anyone can Google the different production processes that exist to fake that they use this process when they present to you. Indeed, many companies will have processes in place but implement them poorly. You will never be able to tell initially and you will probably be shown nicely designed flow charts or infographics that outlining the agency’s production process.
So how can you establish whether or not a supplier’s process is solid without ever having worked with them before?
Most presentations will include some if not all of the following – a “project plan” slide, a “budget” slide, and a “next steps” slide. On each of these slides look to see if there is an item called “onboarding”. In the project plan it should be one of the first milestones; it should be one of the first items on the next steps slide; and it could possibly be a line item on the budget breakdown. Even better the agency may have a whole slide in their presentation dedicated to “onboarding”.
So what is onboarding and what does this have to do with evaluating a supplier’s production process?
Onboarding is the first step in initiating a new client/partner relationship after an agency is awarded a project. It usually takes place as a meeting (often combined with a project kickoff meeting, but not a requirements gathering workshop). In this meeting the agency will familiarise the client with all of the systems and processes that the agency uses to deliver a project.
Just by holding this meeting is indicative that a digital agency practices good process.
As part of onboarding you will be introduced to the team working on your project (this should be the second time), agree on when regular WIPs will be scheduled, go through any collaboration software and communication tools that the agency uses, discuss project milestones and any risks to these milestones, agree on the approval timings and establish the path to escalation should anything go wrong.
Sounds like common sense doesn’t it? But you would be surprised how few suppliers hold this simple meeting. No onboarding usually indicates poor process (if any at all). Look for this in responses to your RFP.
You don’t need to actually list these five things as selection criteria in your RFP. In fact, better if you leave them out and see if agencies can demonstrate each of these five things without being prompted. The agency that meets your RFP’s criteria and demonstrates each of these five things should be the one awarded your business.
If no agency does, then you should reach out to more vendors because your current bunch are all too risky to work with.
Feel free to share your thoughts or any of your own digital agency horror stories in the comments below and thanks for reading.