How to Hire an Interactive Agency

I’ve spent much of my career working at well-regarded agencies – large and small, and I’ve worked with my share of brilliant people at each of them. At the same time, I’ve seen and worked on very few client engagements that I’d really consider successful. Even when the end result was satisfactory to everyone involved, it invariably came via a lot of bumps and birthing pains.

It was amazing how often we’d pitch a project and hear from the prospective client how dissatisfied they were with their previous agency. After we won the project and completed the work, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out they were saying the same thing about us to the next group. This is borne out by my friends who work on the “client side” and often complain about the agency teams they have to work with.

Agency failures and disappointments are expensive – often in the multi-millions, and sometimes I think people on both sides of the relationship delude themselves into thinking they’re satisfied with the results because the alternative is too painful to acknowledge – especially since the relationship is a temporary one.┬áThis state of affairs persists of course because companies only keep on staff the personnel it takes to keep them running. If they want to do something big or new, they need to seek outside help.

Given all this, there are few resources out there that compare agencies in any useful way. Perhaps the best is the Forrester Wave Report, but you’re supposed to drop $2,000 if you want to read it (or you can find the PDF on the Razorfish website for free).

The Wave Report is only as good as the crop of agencies it evaluates of course (I worked at a couple of the pack leaders – at least according to its conclusions), so hiring the “best” of the lot doesn’t guarantee a successful project. Case in point: of all the reference sites submitted by the agencies themselves to Forrester for the Q2 report, only one website got a passing grade based on Forrester’s website review methodology.

So, from an insider’s perspective, here are some things you should know about agencies the next time you’re looking for one to help you:

Every agency has a comfort zone – Some agencies excel at making killer microsites. Others design big, complicated internal systems. Still others are on the cutting edge of social media strategy. Most claim they can do it all. If you’re clear about what you need, then make sure the agency you hire has a strong track record of doing that thing. It sounds obvious, but this is a mistake I’ve seen companies make over and over again. And make sure it’s a recent track record – agencies are revolving doors for talent. If you’re not clear about what you need, then find an agency that has a strong track record of helping companies figure that out. Don’t commit to that agency for doing the rest of the work (be aware, though, that they will “figure out” that you need them). Finally, forget about the person you know at agency X who did such great work for you at agency Y. Agency X might be totally wrong for this new project.

Agencies have no bench – At agencies, it’s all about billable hours, so they don’t want people around who aren’t working on something for a client. The reality though, is that work comes in waves. This means the full-time employees are usually over-extended – especially the really good ones. The best staff are typically booked at full utilization on one project, supporting several other projects and helping the sales team pitch new work. When a wave of new work is signed, agencies scramble to hire contract help to fill the gaps – freelancers who have little context and little vested interest.

You aren’t likely to get the team that pitched you (no matter what they promise) – The agency brings its best and brightest into the important pitches. They want to put these people on your project, they really do, but even if they become your team on paper, you have to realize that that crack Art Director is still finishing up the last project (which is running a couple weeks beyond its original deadlines), and she’s being asked to do spec work for two new pitches that are suddenly more important than anything else in the whole office. No matter that the agency promised this would not happen.

You won’t work with the thought leaders – Every agency has these people. They appear on panels. They have blogs and lots of twitter followers. They write articles. Their job is to make the agency seem smart and cool and up on all the new trends. They are just celebrities though, and in reality, these folks are pretty irrelevant to what you’re trying to do. They will swoop in to pitch meetings and kickoff meetings and they’ll woo you with all kinds of buzz words about social media and stuff. I don’t mean to suggest they’re not smart and up on stuff, but they are not rubber-hitting-the-road kinds of people. They have some influence on the kinds of ideas the team brings to your project, but much less than they or the agency would like to believe.

They always know the answer (even when they don’t) – Clients ask all kinds of questions, expecting the smart agency dudes they’re paying to have answers. “Are people still doing podcasts? Should we be podcasting?” the client might ask, and the smart agency dude is not going to say, “That’s a good question. We should investigate that. There might be some opportunity there.” Nope. He’s going to give you his gut response. I don’t mean to suggest there isn’t value in a smart agency dude’s gut response. Just know what you’re getting.

They don’t know your industry – You, the client, are the subject matter expert. There might be a few people speckled around the agency that know your industry, but agencies don’t have a good way of identifying or finding these people. It goes something like: “I think Rob might have worked on some XBox stuff when he was with AKQA. Do you know if he did?” To pitch you, and to staff your project, good agency people will dive into some research, but it will be the first research those particular people have done with respect to your industry. So when it comes to knowledge, you have depth. The agency is the fresh pair of eyes.

They don’t know your organization – Your company is a big variable as far as the agency – and the success of the project – is concerned. Variables equate to risks. You and the agency will try to anticipate the risks, but you can never really know what form they will take. Agencies are used to moving faster than most client companies move. They want to get the work done and billed so they can move on to the next thing. You want to get maximum value out of the agency. These things are in natural opposition. There are new and strange deliverables and milestones that you and your bosses are seeing for the first time. There are milestones and deliverables you require that the agency has no experience with. There are personalities and politics. And then there are more mundane risks – like your IT organization refusing to give the agency VPN access to your company’s network, even though the project suddenly can’t move forward without it. Every project that involves an agency has a certain amount of this stuff, and it always causes pain.

That’s my insider scoop. I hope this information is useful the next time you’ve got the agency pitch guys coming your way.

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