Choosing a digital agency is a lot like hiring a new staff member. The successful candidate not only needs to have the right skills and experience, they also need to be a good cultural fit. In many cases your agency will be dealing with things that are outside of your organisation’s core skillset (that’s why you’re outsourcing in the first place, right?), so you’ll also need to feel like you can trust them.
That’s a lot of boxes to tick, which is why it’s important to have a clear idea of your agency selection criteria. But before you even start to consider a list of potentials, you’ll need to get all of your internal stakeholders to agree on what you want from your digital agency. Once you’ve determined the scope of your project/engagement, you’ll need to develop a brief. A solid brief will ensure clarity for both client and agency, and will provide a good foundation for deciding which agency best fits the bill.
Arriving at ‘the chosen ones'
The agency selection process should always start with research. Ask your colleagues, friends and contacts for recommendations. Look at websites or apps you like and try to find out who did them. Once you have a few names, do a bit of Google-vestigation. Is the agency writing about the problems you need to solve? Do they seem to be on your wavelength? Do they specialise in the areas you need help with?
Through your initial research, you should be able to narrow the search down to somewhere between three and six agencies. At this point it’s worth picking up the phone and speaking with them directly. The point of this exercise is to get a sense of what the agency is like and whether they have the availability and willingness to take on the engagement. Ask some broad questions that will determine whether it’s worth pursuing things further:
- Where are they located?
- Do they have any experience in your industry (or similar)?
- Do they have the resources to manage your project?
- Do they have expertise in your preferred platform/s?
- What is the background of the company - how long have they been around?
Fundamentally, you also want to gauge their interest level in your project/organisation. This is why conducting this part of the process over the phone (or video conference) is better than email – you’ll be able get a better feel for whether they’re keen.
At the end of this stage, you should be able to get the list down to two or three agencies. It’s now time to ramp things up and arrange in-person meetings. Before you meet with an agency, make sure you at least provide them with a high level brief so they can come into the meeting with some understanding of what you’re looking for. If you can, try to organise the meeting at their offices. This way, you’ll be able to see the agency in action and see how they work.
Getting down to business
The face-to-face meeting is your chance to really get to know the agency and determine whether they’re partnership material. Treat it as an opportunity to probe beyond their glossy capability docs and really put their credentials to the test.
Here are eight key factors you should explore in this initial meeting:
Expertise belongs to an agency as well as to the individuals within it, and it’s important to look at both. At the agency level, what are their core competencies? Do they have any particular points of difference? Do they partner with any other service providers? How do they manage these sorts of partnerships? Regarding individuals, ask who are the people within the agency who have the relevant expertise. Will they be working on your account? How long have they been with the agency? Find out who the key personnel on your project will be, and don’t be afraid to ask to meet them.
Is the agency a good fit with yours in terms of size? The agency should be big enough to have an appropriate degree of role specialisation, but small enough that you still have access to senior people when necessary. You also want to make sure you will have a central point of contact while still being able to speak directly with developers and other team members. The size of the agency’s other clients can be another determinant of the priority level that your account will receive. Asking who the agency’s key clients are should give you a pretty good clue as to where you would stand in the pecking order.
3. Case studies
Don’t accept case studies at face value. An agency may shout from the rooftops about a project but there may be no one left in the team that was involved in it. Ask if the people who worked on particular projects are still there, and will they be working on your project? Also, look beyond pretty design elements and ask what results a project delivered. Impressive awards and testimonials are certainly good quality indicators, but having a measurable impact on a client’s business should be a key focus for the agency.
4. Client lists
If you’re provided with a client list, make sure it’s current. Similarly, don’t be blinded by logos. Just because an agency has worked with a big name doesn’t mean the work they did was necessarily significant. Find out exactly what they did for the client and who was involved in doing the work. One way to do this might be to ask the agency what a particular client would say about them and their work if you were to pick up the phone and speak to them directly. Also, ask the agency if they’ve lost clients recently, and if so why? It’s also worth asking if you can speak to some of their current clients.
5. Process and methodology
An agency that can’t articulate its processes around things like project management, quality assurance, deployment and security, probably doesn’t have a very good idea of what it’s doing. You don’t need a fancy diagram or a 10-page PowerPoint presentation, but they should be able to talk you through their processes in general terms. Ask about the various systems or software used by the agency for managing the project and testing feedback.
Ask what pricing model the agency is prepared to offer. Do they prefer a retainer-based model, fixed rate/project model, or hourly rates? And what safeguards can they provide to ensure both parties are aligned in their incentives? For example if you’re going to be on a retainer you need to be confident there will be complete transparency about the work being performed and they’re not going to go on a random billing rampage. On the flipside, with fixed price engagements there may be an incentive for the agency to cut corners. This is why you need to make sure there is crystal clear agreement around the scope of work.
What do their service agreements look like? If they look at you blankly when you ask about MSAs or SOWs, run for the hills. Review every clause of your contract and, in particular, look out for things like who owns the intellectual property (this should be you, as the client), and the requirements for termination of the agreement.
8. Cultural fit
Ultimately, one of the most critical considerations in selecting a digital agency is just ‘the vibe’. Do they feel like a bunch of teenage hipsters? Too corporate or conservative? Do their values align with your brand? Do they listen and take your views on board? Have they suggested innovative ideas that resonated with you? How well do you get on with them? How well do they get on with each other? And what are their staff and client retention rates? Do they seem to have passion for what they do? People who genuinely love their jobs are a whole lot easier to work with than those who don’t - and they’re also more likely to go the extra mile for you.
Even though it can be difficult to objectively pin down, having good chemistry in the relationship between client and agency can mean the difference between an explosive experiment and a winning formula. Check out our dynamic Digital Agency Selection Scorecard to increase your chances of nailing that formula!
This article is the second in a series on the digital agency/client relationship
Part One: How to brief a digital agency (and actually get what you want)
Part Three: 10 steps to Nirvana in the digital agency-client relationship