To agency or not to agency
Agencies are not used car lots. In fact, used car lots are not all typical “used car lots”. After all, not everyone is dishonest. There are honest used car salesmen and there are honest agencies. The difference lies partly in the agency and partly in the client engagement strategy.
As for the agencies, there are some unscrupulous firms out there. You’ve read the horror stories or have been part of one. They were selected either because they had the best salesman or best price or presented the most polished image. They started off strong with a great appearance. They had polished answers to questions even when deadlines started to slip. Ultimately, the charade couldn’t be maintained forever but the client was too far invested to start over, and the shortest path was forward. The project launched, though with limited success. The client cut ties with the dishonest firm and aimed to bring development in-house.
For the client’s part, they hired what they thought to be the best agency to deliver a new website on a platform they had neither the expertise nor bandwidth to deliver in-house. They expected the agency to deliver as promised and the launch to be celebrated all the way to the project sponsor being named as Time Magazine’s Person of the Year! Post launch, the site would virtually maintain itself and internal developers would be fully able and excited to support it. This would be the happy path.
The reality is that two key pieces of this common approach are flawed. Modifying these two elements of your approach can lead to much better outcomes.
Terms of Engagement
First, the engagement has to be addressed. This is where the client’s power exists. You, the client, determine the engagement. You determine the deliverables. In most scenarios, the client chooses the website to be the deliverable. That assumes the agency is fully capable and honest. The problem is, even if the agency is beyond reproach and the project never hits a single snag, the best case scenario is a delivered website no one internally can actually support.
Therefore, rather than engage an agency to deliver a website, you should engage an agency to deliver knowledge. Your engagement should be such that the agency partners with you to carry the bulk, though not all, of the load, with your people being deeply involved from the start. As the project continues, the agency should gradually carry less and less of the load with internal developers carrying more and more. This model ensures that even if an agency fails miserably, your internal developers have gained knowledge and your expense is not a total loss.
Second, the agency selection process must be revamped. It’s easy and comfortable to pick the mega-agency. You have no explaining to do to your superiors if things go wrong because you picked the biggest firm available right? If you follow that logic however, you would expect to get the best steak of your life at the mega-fast-food establishment.
Instead, you should focus on the skill set of the agency. The larger agencies are large for a reason. They have great sales and marketing staffs with large budgets. They do not always have the best talent or the specific focus required for your project. Instead, consider a firm with a more specialized skill set for your needs. If you need best practice experts, find a best practice firm. If you need design experts, find a design firm. If you need largest possible manpower then pick a firm that can put the largest number of bodies in seats for you.
In addition, it makes sense to select an agency with a culture that meshes well with yours. Keep in mind, you will likely be working with these people for at least a few months. Making sure you feel you can trust them and work happily with them will greatly reduce those sleepless nights in the months ahead.
The Bottom Line
When you don't have sufficient in-house expertise for your required project, it makes sense to bring in experts. However, you want those experts to work themselves out of a job and leave your internal staff with the skills they need to move forward. Whatever the specific requirements of your project may be, optimizing the terms of the engagement and taking more care in selecting a best fit agency will almost always yield substantially better results.