How to Pick the Right Design Agency: Avoiding the Pitfalls

5 minute read
Stephen Fishman avatar

Last week, I wrote about the different types of agencies and consultancies out there and gave a few hints about how to discern between them and what some of their high-level strengths and weaknesses are. I specifically chose to avoid writing about the RFI/RFP process itself as I'm sure it's been covered before by people more qualified than I. This week I promised to help people understand some of the nuances around the actual selection process and how to avoid some of the biggest pitfalls that plague enterprises of all sizes, including startups.

Defining the Terms

Before I address the challenges posed with making a good selection, it seems there is a good amount of confusion around the concept of what an agency is. I had made an erroneous assumption that the readership would know that "agency" or "interactive agency" is a generic label typically applied to a professional services firm that specializes in some combination of research, strategy, design and implementation services across a variety of mediums from websites, to in store experiences, to mobile apps, to advertising campaigns.

There Cannot Be Only One

The biggest pitfall in selecting an agency is, paradoxically, selecting an agency. Before you wig out and jump down to comment on this ludicrous statement, wrap your brain around the idea that selecting one agency and only one agency is almost never a good thing.

Many startups, enterprise directors or mid-size company managers typically look to have their interactive needs on a project or even for the whole enterprise provided by a single firm (or an individual "one-man show," in the case of a small company or startup).This mindset arises from many false constraints, myopic ideas around risk mitigation and conservatism. I'll go through the typical ones and, for each, explain what doesn't work in the real world.

"I can't afford to hire more than one provider." The people who believe this are just not seeing the world clearly. They should instead be thinking, "I can't afford to not hire more than one provider." The poverty mindset typically comes from startups or budget-minded managers and directors.

What the startups don't realize, when they hire a small design and implementation specialist, is that they are getting someone with a narrow view of the business world. This narrow view coalesces in the building or an app or a site, rather than a business with a monetization model more mature than "we will sell advertising."

So many startups flush US$ 10,000 - 20,000 down a hole for lack of any research or strategy. The research and strategy disciplines enable you to take the blindfold off your designer and to give them both a map and a compass.

The ultimate deliverable from engaging a second consultant to work with your design and implementation shop should be a competitive audit that includes research findings and a strategy to keep your offering defensible against competitors (unless we are talking about am employee-facing solution, which is a whole other article). Both of these deliverables should ideally be based off of your conceptual offering.

Learning Opportunities

From aone-man show, this sort of engagement should cost anywhere from US$ 3,000 - 20,000 depending upon several variables specific to the needs of the startup and many good consultants will work for a hybrid of cash and equity.

This dual provider model holds for bigger companies on a budget as well. The extra investment provides mitigation against the risk that your investment will be wasted when nobody finds your offering compelling enough or usable enough to seriously engage.

In either setting, I'd rather find a way to increase my budget slightly than to waste everything I have on something that will end up going nowhere.

"I need one throat to choke." The one-provider model will help you achieve this aim as it leaves you one throat and it increases your likelihoodthat you will want to choke them. The idea that two providers will by definition bring finger-pointing is unsophisticated.

If something goes wrong with your single provider, they will be pointing the finger at you anyway (or at their subcontractors). What you should be searching for is a set of partners that will lift each other and you up through constructive dialogue rather than defensive bickering.You can best ensure this through actually checking at least 5 references and asking them how they will work with other providers you bring to the table.

Back to Basics

There is no way around the basic truth that cuts across industry and discipline. The best work is most often done by teams that:

  • Collaborate well together
  • Know how to avoid design by committee syndrome
  • Have clear and distinct roles and use those roles as a guidepost with an openness to constructive feedback
  • Have a mix of quantitatively oriented people and qualitatively oriented people to get a blend of both passionate craftsmanship and drive to timely delivery