We’ve been in this digital agency business a long time… That includes many great projects over the years, supporting fun, innovative and hard-working clients. But we’ve also had a few, er, challenging situations too. Yes, as much as we try to do the right thing every time, sometimes the train gets off the rails – sometimes our fault, sometimes unexpected interventions, and sometimes the client’s fault. Because it’s not a perfect website development and online marketing world, we wanted to share some key things to do when hiring a digital agency. These tips should create a much better chance for a harmonious and productive relationship.
1. Set Expectations with the Digital Agency
When you are in the research phase of your project, you should have a strong sense of the project scope. What do you think the deliverables are? If you have this idea in hand, it’s much easier to shop for an interview potential agencies. Need WordPress help? Include that as a key search criteria. Looking for ongoing assistance with social media marketing after site launch? Add it to the list. Have special eCommerce requirements? Good to know! You’ll choose a better vendor if you know what you want.
That said, you may NOT know what you want. If so, look for a flexible agency, one who “teaches” you during the sales process. If they seem to be guiding you to a good solution during the courtship, chances are good they can deliver. Hiring a digital agency that mentors you is a strategy we endorse!
2. Work with the Agency on a Budget
Obviously you must have a financial relationship when hiring a digital agency. If you’ve never heard of the iron triangle, it’s an age-old software industry premise.
In professional services businesses, time is often exchanged for money, though it is possible to work on a fixed price project or a value-based plan. Just bear in mind that you get what you pay for. You can get work done inexpensively offshore, for example, although we’ve written about the downside of that in the past (from our own experiences). You can get work done quickly, though that may mean cutting corners on quality or scope. And you may hire a great digital agency, but the meter is always running, seemingly even when they’re on the phone with another client.
Circling back to setting expectations, you should factor expected milestones, specific deliverables and quality levels into your budget.
Note: If you cannot describe your project well, it will cost you more.
3. Get EVERYTHING YOU CAN in Writing
We’re certainly not fans of large legal bills, but the better your agreement with the agency, the more protected both sides are. Start by including documentation of the project scope. What are you getting for the established budget? What will it cost if there are changes to the scope? And as an attorney taught us many years ago, one of the most important clauses in any agreement is “Term & Termination”. Make sure you have a way out.
It is our strong recommendation that you never work on a handshake. Even with someone you know… Do not send money to a digital agency or similar vendor without a written agreement.
4. Establish Your Preferred Timeline
No one likes surprises, including both you and the digital agency (e.g., “It’s already August 8th, and we expected you to deliver X by August 15th. You’re not?”). As part of your budget and scope, you may also want to include a preferred timeline for delivery. Figure out what the Must Have items are for opening day, and add in the Nice to Have items for when everything is ready for prime time. Creating milestones is a great way to keep the project flowing smoothly on both sides. For example, you may have a schedule like this:
|04||Initial Page Layout|
|06||Testing/QA Completion & Launch|
|10||Review & Adjust|
5. Get Your Ducks Lined Up
Once the agreement is in place, you are NOT off the hook. Easily the most challenging part for a digital agency to complete a project on time is managing YOU. Yes, you need to answer questions, provide content, provide approvals at milestones and remain involved!
The easiest way to facilitate this process is to dedicate ONE, yes ONE, project manager and point of contact on your side. Management by committee is unnecessarily challenging for an outside agency – so have a single point person who herds your cats for you. It’s great to have a team, but bring them to consensus on decisions. We’ve done projects in the past with multiple points of contact who don’t agree and don’t answer in time to avoid problems. It makes things much easier with one contact. Although some would argue you should be getting them in a V, get your ducks in a row!
6. Communicate Regularly
If you read the last item carefully, you’ll dedicate resources to your own project management. Task that person with “rapid response”, collecting information needed on your side, from content to opinions to requirements, and then sharing it with the digital agency.
Sometimes it’s a good idea to have regular check-in calls. We’ve worked on some big projects where we had a ‘scrum’ call first thing each morning. We’ve also worked on many smaller projects where a simple status email every week was entirely sufficient. Just ensure there is regular communication about how things are going. Are there open questions? Did we deliver the requested content? What are you working on next? Are we on schedule? Are there any problems looming?
Essential Steps When Hiring a Digital Agency
Working with an outside vendor such as a digital agency has challenges. But if you are aware of the potential issues before you hire them, you can plan to overcome them. Hiring a digital agency can be extremely beneficial – they bring collective experience from working with many clients across industries, channels and requirements. The key for you is to engage them properly and leverage all the expertise in a cost-effective, (hopefully) mutually-beneficial relationship.