So, You’re Thinking of Hiring a Digital Agency

There are lots of reasons that an organization may need to bring on an agency: you have a large project you don’t have resources for, your internal team needs more creative oomph, you haven’t been able to recruit the right talent, or maybe your current agency isn’t cutting it.

Before you start sending out RFPs and scheduling pitch presentations, make sure you know what type of agency will be a good fit for you and what is expected of you during this process.

Use the jump links below to skip to any section within this piece, or skip the jump links and read the full piece.

What Agencies Aren’t

To start, it’s important to acknowledge that no matter what agency you bring on, they aren’t going to be experts on your business (no matter what they tell you in a pitch). Even if an agency has worked with dozens of companies within your industry, they haven’t reported to your boss, sat in on your department meetings, heard your customer complaints, or attended your holiday party where Chad from Accounting did that weird dance that no one will stop talking about anytime soon. That outsiders’ perspective will actually be helpful in identifying your blind spots and challenging your assumptions, but know that agencies won’t know everything about you from the outset- getting them the information they need to understand your organization will be part of your job in any engagement (more on that later).

Agencies also aren’t wizards who can fix all of your internal problems. If you hire a digital agency to build you a new ecommerce website but you have an inherently flawed business model, everyone is going to have a bad time. 

Similarly, an agency can’t magically make your internal team go from dysfunctional chaos to being in lock-step alignment like the Rockettes. Obviously, some internal disagreements are healthy, but if your internal team can’t agree on what they want an agency to focus on during the engagement or how success will be measured, you are setting yourself up for frustration, wasted time, and probably lots of change orders.

What Agencies Are

So if agencies aren’t magicians who can fix all your internal problems or experts on your company, what good are they, anyway? 

Agencies are full of craftspeople who have learned specific skills based on honed techniques that are used for a functional purpose. There is beauty in what is produced, but their work must serve a real need. Think of an architect, mason, or guitar maker. Their outputs serve a specific purpose, and someone who has spent years honing their craft and working on multiple projects with different constraints and goals is generally better equipped to avoid mistakes and create something tailored to your needs. That experience tends to create a higher quality of work, which leads to higher expectations of what is possible. Customers tend to want to work with these experts. And learn from them. When a number of these experts group together, they’re able to push each other and elevate what’s possible within the craft.

Historically, these groups of craftsmen were called guilds. Guilds are responsible for the cathedrals, bridges, and castles that have lasted for hundreds of years and draw millions of people to appreciate their handiwork.

In the same way, good agencies are experts at building a process that leads you to success. We don’t know all the answers. We don’t know your business (at least at the beginning). But we know how to learn quickly, collaborate, and communicate in a shared language that gets things done. 

This process allows agencies to design solutions to your problems. And by designing solutions, I don’t mean we make them look pretty. We design solutions by understanding what your audience wants to do, knowing your business model, and bringing those two parties together as harmoniously as possible.

Types of Agencies

Graphic design showing someone scrolling on a smartphone and someone else working on a laptop; the background is a hazy purple collage of different brand logos.

Just like guilds, there are agencies that specialize in certain skill sets. Before committing to an agency, you should know what their specialties are. Plenty of agencies will tell you they’re experts in everything. They’re lying – or, worse, they aren’t self-aware enough to know better.

You can find agencies that specialize in almost any industry, service, process, or philosophical approach. But if you allow me a bit of over-simplification, you could categorize agencies into a few buckets:

  • Design: A design agency can certainly make beautiful designs. But really, their focus is on designing solutions that can be implemented. They may also have technical production teams, but their focus will be on defining what the team should build.
  • Technology: They may call themselves “IT consultants” or “Development shops”, but, unsurprisingly, these agencies will focus on custom software and web development or technical systems integrations.
  • Brand: Brand agencies focus on how organizations present themselves to the world, defining their names, logos, color palettes, value propositions, and overall story.
  • Marketing: Marketing agencies focus on promoting your products and services to your target audiences. They may focus on expanding your message into new markets or trying to retain existing customers.
  • Strategy Consultancies: These companies focus on helping clients define what they’re selling, the pricing models, target audiences, and how to introduce it into the market. Remember when we were talking about the company with an inherently flawed business model? Yeah, this is who they should call.

Obviously, there can be a significant amount of overlap between all of these. It’s pretty standard for Branding Agencies to offer Marketing services, while Design Shops will offer some level of in-house technology support. But most agencies will have an internal culture that leans a bit toward one of these. That doesn’t mean a marketing-focused agency can’t help you with your brand. But if you’re hiring an agency to build a custom software application that requires integrating multiple technologies and being able to comb through APIs, don’t hire the agency whose portfolio consists of email marketing case studies and has a single freelance WordPress developer.

The key is to know the problem you’re trying to solve and hire an agency that is best suited to find a solution with you.

Looking for a New Agency

An old Yellow Pages book opened to show listings of various businesses.

So now that you know what type of agency you are looking for, you’re ready to schedule those interviews, right? Well, let me save you a bit of back and forth by helping you not only prepare for those initial meetings, but help everyone know if this is a good match or not.

Things To Ask Yourself Before Meeting With A Potential Agency Partner:

What kind of experience do I want?

Be honest with yourself (and your potential agency partners). Are you looking for a true partner committed to your long-term goals? Or do you just want someone to build you some landing pages and never email you again? Do you want an agency that will challenge your assumptions or someone who will just complete the tasks you assign? There are situations for both and agencies that will gladly fit those needs. But don’t waste the time of someone who will be a bad fit.

What’s the problem I need to solve?

Businesses don’t need a new website. But they do need their customers to find the information that will answer their questions so they aren’t forced to call Customer Support teams to find the information they need. Because Customer Support teams are expensive. And webpages? Less so. And the likelihood is that most people won’t bother to call Customer Support anyway, they’ll just look for that same information from a competitor.

Similarly, know the business problems you actually want to solve and not just the tactic you think will get you there. That will help agencies better understand the context of your goals and come up with more targeted solutions.

How will you measure the success of the engagement?

Are you being judged on your ability to reduce Customer Support team expenses? Or an increase in online sales conversions? Or maybe you just need to launch something on time and under budget. Either way, don’t keep it a secret! Your agency will want to make you look good.

What is my available budget? 

This one can raise some eyebrows, but communicating your budget at the outset is really important information to share with your potential partners. An ideal solution is only ideal if it works within the set of constraints you’re given. Budget, timeline, and team are going to be the three most important constraints that anyone will need to know in order to come up with a solution that will meet your needs.

“But if I tell you my budget, won’t you just make that your price?” No, I’ll tell you what you can get for that price. An agency should provide transparency on pricing so you understand how they arrived there and what happens if you add, remove, or swap specific items.

It can be awkward, but if you plan on paying your potential future agency in money (I highly recommend this), questions about money will arise. It’s best to address these directly. And if you don’t know what your budget is, you may not be ready to hire a partner yet after all.

OK! You are now mentally, emotionally, financially, and spiritually (I may be overselling this a bit) prepared to start talking with potential agency partners. They will undoubtedly dazzle you with pitch decks featuring capabilities, case studies, marketing funnels, and fly-wheels. When they get to the end of their performance, they’ll ask you if you have any questions. Here’s a good list to start with:

Things To Ask A Potential Agency Partner:

Who will be my day-to-day contact?

Many agencies have pitch teams. That means you’ll be talking with the smartest, most charming, best looking team members, whose job it is to get you excited about all the great things you’ll do together. And then once you sign the contract, they ride off into the sunset and you’ll be introduced to the person you’ll really be working with. So just ask if the people in the pitch will still remember your name once the project kicks off.

What’s your project management system?

If you have a budget or a deadline, you’ll want to know how those are being tracked and communicated. Also, how are you able to see progress in between meetings? If you’re working on a complex campaign with lots of moving parts and relying on emails to track everything, you’re in for a bumpy ride. 

Agencies should have an enterprise project management system that allows everyone full transparency into each step of the process, what’s been completed and approved, what’s remaining, and where things stand on the timeline., Basecamp, Trello, Asana, MS Project… there are plenty of good options. But not having one is the wrong answer.

What constitutes a change order?

It happens. Someone has a brilliant idea halfway through a project. Or an executive wakes up grumpy and unapproves a design that everyone loved a few weeks before. Whatever the reason, understand when an agency will submit a change order and what that means. Does a change order always mean paying more money? It doesn’t necessarily have to, but it’s good to know that ahead of time.

Why did you do it that way?

Perhaps most importantly, when agencies are walking through their case studies, ask for the rationale of why they designed their portfolio work the way they did. Most agencies can make something pretty. But understanding the business rationale behind why they did it in this specific way will let you know if they’ll be able to translate your business goals into something that will push your business forward. After all, a good agency should make you money!

Still Reading?

Are you still reading? This was a lot. If I haven’t scared you away yet and you’re still ready to hire an agency, I wish you the best of luck. There are lots of talented people out there, including at Electric Kite, if I dare to be so immodest. If you think we may be a fit for your organization, I’d encourage you to get in touch

If you’re more of an RFP person, I have more thoughts on how to write a website redesign RFP that will make an agency want to work with you.