How to hire an agency.

I work in an agency, and I’m here to talk about in-house vs me. But don’t think I’m here touting for work, I’m actually very lazy and try to avoid it where I can.

For many years companies have organised specialist delivery capacity according to a rhythm that started beating when the world was young and mysterious. No matter who’s in charge, what they know or believe, what is going on in the outside world, or what is best for them, they swing from wanting to deliver projects on their own using in-house skills to spending a lot of money hiring people like me to do it for them like a monkey dangling between two bananas.

This cadence is roughly the same time it took you to deliver your last project.

There is no coincidence here!

I think that this happens because each project is a little bit painful, tends to creep over the original budget, slips over the optimistic timeline, and the end results never live up to the original grand vision of silicone slick grandeur in the heads of everyone involved when you signed up to deliver. Agency or not.

It’s not your fault. You’re not alone. And the answer to in house vs agency is this – that question is the wrong question.

You need to hire one or more agencies.

You don’t have the money, roadmap, or requirement to keep a large full time digital team. Even Google uses agencies.

The right question is how should you choose one or more agencies to work with on a project? And how should you work with agencies to deliver impactful, wonderful, fun stuff that your audiences marvel at whilst you avoid cardiac arrest, stress induced aneurysms, and hair loss?

Here are some pointers, I hope this is useful.

When hiring an agency.

One: do your homework.

Know your companies vision and your strategies to achieve it. Where does this project fit into those strategies, what does it need to achieve?

Two: do not ask the agency to show you designs or concepts in the proposal or pitch.

You should not judge an agency’s design skills on their ability to read minds. Design without research is not design, it’s us pulling a painting out of our arse and hoping that you like it. And guess what, design is also nothing to do with making something you like. It’s about solving problems. So you lose even when you thought you won. And you wonder why shit goes bad!

Three: demand that you meet the production team during the sales process.

Most agencies have a sales team, or at least a sales person. Even if they don’t all agencies are experts are making you want them. We can read between the lines, we know what your problem is and we know how to sell you a solution.

Everything we are selling you is fiction.

In truth during the sales process all we know about you is what we can find and all we know about your problem is what we’ve been told. And we always redefine the problem during the project, so even that’s a lie. The sales people are nice, they are smart, and they will take you to lunch. But always ask to meet the people who you’ll be working with. Hell, be really brave and demand the entire sales process for your project be run by the team you’ll be working with, end of.

Get your entire project team in a room for a day with the agency team, the one you’ll be working with, and just talk. See how you get along. You’ll have to pay for that day, but it’ll save you £50k up the road.

Four: don’t behave like a startup or entrepreneur.

You know why so many successful agencies wont work for startups? Because the people who run the startup gave up a solid job, and risked their mortgage and reputation, for an idea. Idea’s a fragile little things. You think they’ll be happy when we tell them that their business strategy is not going to work? No. They protect it, they are too heavily invested in it. It is everything to them. They become impossible to work with. Do not be that person.

Five: remember that WE are interviewing you just as much as YOU are interviewing us.

We will not take any available job just to pay the rent. We take jobs that meet our own strategic goals, make the people that work for us excited, and give us the opportunity to have a great working relationship with the client to deliver a fantastic end product. Life is short, nobody wants to spend it doing shit work.

Six: tell us how much money you have.

We don’t want to know your budget so that we can screw you. We want to know your budget so that we can propose a design solution that fits it. If we write a proposal for a £200k design solution but you want to spend £30k you’ve wasted both your time and mine.

Seven: don’t play games.

No serious agency will work with people that do. If after endless bullshit (do a design for free to help us choose, come meet us for free again, sorry we changed the scope, and the budget, we originally spoke to 5 agencies but now need to start over so we need another proposal for free, give us all your ideas, help us now without us having to give you any money…) an agency is still prepared to work with you it’s because they are bad. I hope you have a terrible time together.

Eight: use the tools available to you to replace the horrible RFP process with a simple referral.

The RFP process is painful and costly for everyone involved and most of the time does not work. Would you hire a doctor to perform open heart surgery on you from a Gumtree ad? No. So why put your organisation and your job at risk by doing it?

You, or people you trust, will know of somebody who just used an agency. Call them up, ask them how it went. Done.

Nine: keep things in proportion.

A 100 page brief is always a bad idea.

How to work with an agency.

OK, so you’ve found your agency and you are pumped! You are desperate to get moving. Cash is ready, contracts are all with somebody else, the kick-off is scheduled, and you cannot wait to walk into that room and make clear your vision for Wonderland. How do you make sure you don’t screw it all up by being a prat? Read on.

One: do not try to get the agency to change their process.

That agency you hired got good because of their process. If you hired through a referral the very reason you heard about them is their process. So why are you trying to make them change it? And don’t say things like “we’ve already done research so you don’t need to.” Research lets an agency understand WHY not just what. Without that we’ll produce a broken mess. We know this, it’s why we have do research. Don’t make us stop.

Two: don’t buy a dog and then go shit on your own lawn.

You be the experts in your organisation. Let the agency be the experts in whatever you hired them to do. If you don’t trust them to deliver you need to stop and have an account level conversation. You may find you are not letting them do their job.

Three: get over your fear.

A good agency understands that you are anxious about a lot of stuff. This is your project, your opportunity for a promotion. Some of our clients are at risk of being fired if their project fails. Any good agency will understand that and will do their best to get you a pay rise, not a line on the doll queue. So while we understand that you have fears, it’s time to let them go.

Your fear is turning you into a pain in the arse. If you do not trust the agency you’ll not let them do good work. Build the trust from the very start. Go out for drinks, take the entire team, get to know each other. I’m not talking about making friends, I’m talking about building understanding. You will never do great work if you don’t trust each other, and you’ll never trust each other if you are micro managing and pissing them off. That always, trust me on this, results in a bad outcome.

Four: NEVER start solving until you understand the problem.

So bad is this one it deserves some CAPITALS and some bold, and a Yoda type sentence. Hmmmmm, bad delivery in the future I do see.

Restricting your agency is stupid, if you are going to do that why did you hire them?

We need to do our research, we need to understand your brand. We need to understand your culture. We need to understand your missions and strategies better than you do. All of this is frustrating to you, we get it, but let us do our jobs. If you start solving the problem before we complete our research you’ll add to the issues, not improve things. The reason you hired an agency was because you need an external opinion, a new set of skills. We’ll talk to you, we’ll hear everything, and we’ll solve the problem.

But only if we are allowed to. Which brings me onto this, do not send us page comps. Do not tell us what colour you want the buttons. Remember you are the experts in your industry, we are the experts at design. If we aren’t producing design that works, tell us what isn’t working but never try to fix it. This is disrespectful and counter productive.

Five: don’t block our access to people.

If you have internal people who think they can do the job of the agency please do not block access to them. They may have great ideas, those ideas should not be locked in a drawer. We play nice with everyone (within reason) and we believe that a solid foundation of trust and collaboration will beat politics, paranoia, and castle building. So don’t block access because experience tells us those people will quickly move form possible advocates and helpers to cancerous snide story tellers who can derail a project beyond repair.

Hidden stakeholders are a bad thing. Do not create them.

Six: solve your internal political nonsense before you hire an agency.

If an agency walks into a project which is broken from the start because the marketing and IT teams can’t stop arguing the project is going to fail. We can’t build on top of shifting strategy or never ending changes. Go and talk to the other team, make a new friend. Get to see the problem from their perspective, be the adult. If you don’t do this you will end up with a compromised design solution, otherwise known as a carousel. And nobody wants this to happen.

Seven: be clear on who’s doing what.

If you hire a design agency and then three months into the project roll out James from your design team who’s come up with a few design routes you really like you’ve successfully managed to make everyone feel awkward.
Eight: pay grade does not equal idea quality.

The highest paid person in the room is not the always expert and therefore you are free to ignore every ridiculous idea they throw at you. If you need to you can let the agency tell them why their idea is bad and take the hit for you. We don’t have to work with them every day, you do.

Nine: give useful feedback.

Giving useful feedback, especially about something that is not your core skill, is hard but essential if you want the project to work. Feel free to go negative – if you don’t tell us you don’t like something we’ll keep showing it to you until your stuck with it. Stay in your area of expertise – does the design reflect your organisation’s brand? Is it presenting the correct tone for your project? Does it allow you enough freedom to live with it for X years? An agency doesn’t want or need to hear if you “like” it, but they do need to hear if it’s meeting the goals of the project.

To do this you need to remove your opinion about the colours and fonts from the argument and ask yourself if the design is ticking all of the boxes identified during the research phase. If it is and the designs test well your arguments over the colours are just making everyone in the room feel awkward. And we bill by the hour so they are also costing you money.

Ten: accept that everything can change.

Whatever this project is, it wont be right. It never is. Nothing is ever finished, you can always improve. And people are far more forgiving than you think.

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