It starts with inspiration. It starts with an idea of something new. Something that people -- users and executives alike -- will love.

Whether it is a new or improved online experience, it always starts with one or more inspired individuals. After inspiration coalesces into some communicable form, the agency selection process starts.

Agencies are not one size fits all. There are many different factors that come to bear when selecting an agency. If these factors are ignored, a once-promising vision could lead to wasted money, time and effort. When the selection process isn’t handled well, your best-case scenario is a highly painful delivery experience.

The Easy Part vs. The Hard Part

There are many articles and white papers out there that describe the RFI/RFP tango for formal selection. Unfortunately, these sorts of analyses fail to understand the nuance of compatibility.

Compatibility is the secret to all long-term relationships, including those between client and agency. The only path, other than luck, to determine compatibility is to understand yourself and your partner. Understanding enables you to make an informed choice that will result in a successful match.

One of the hardest things for people who have not worked for, or with, more than one agency is discerning between the overwhelming number of agencies in the market.

Some people claim that the agencies are all the same, but this view comes from not having an educated eye for the primary distinctions. In the first part of this two-part article, I’ll go over the types of partners out there and the factors that can help you discern between them.

In the second part, I’ll give you some tools to help you transcend and sometimes even bypass the common pitfalls that go along with the selection process.

The Big Boys

Major Agency -- These shops typically have the best creative people and they sell the idea that they are best suited to deliver unique and exciting experiences. These shops have several locations and some subsidiary specialist agencies. These shops also offer a full range of both technical and creative services.

The weak spot of these agencies is a lack of craftsmanship in their approach. Technical implementation focuses on whatever will work and the creative led approach to design leaves people who want more rationale in their design philosophy wanting.

Big Consulting Shop -- These firms most often have the best technology skills and they sell their services on the basis that they are the low-risk choice. They are well-positioned to do all the heavy lifting of major programs that require integration services. These shops have many locations including some overseas and often have a large offshore development footprint. This offshore development capability has given these firms the power to compete on price with the smaller firms.

This capability also highlights these firms’ weak point. These firms have grown so big that they have lost the capability to control the quality of their staff. These firms have true rock stars, but they can quite often be outnumbered by the masses of entry-level resources who are paying their dues on the road. The presence of mediocre talent gets even worse in the creative and UX disciplines as the creative resources who work for these shops are not typically driven by passion. Those few talented resources driven by passion can’t survive for long in a shop that prizes predictable delivery above great work.

The Little Guys

UX Boutique -- The good UX boutiques compete on a combination of better strategy and abstract expertise; they range in size and sometimes quite often have several offices unless they are one of the fewer UX specialty shops that focus on a singular UX discipline (e.g., research or content strategy).

The easiest way to discern the difference between a UX boutique and the other agencies out there is to investigate their research capabilities. Good UX boutiques will attempt to lead their projects with research and tend to eschew creative-driven programs.

This research bias leads to the ability to deliver a more grounded strategy and design than can the creative-led firms. The big downside to working with UX boutiques is that they can be rigid in their processes. This rigidity will often reveal itself in higher prices than their more flexible cousins.

Independent Agency -- These are the most populous of firms; they typically compete on offering a full range of creative services along with lower fees and sell a relatively simple delivery model with smaller teams. These shops typically only have one location and serve mostly local clients. While they can offer a wide range of creative services, they typically struggle in technology, standards compliance and integration with any existing systems. These firms are best suited for smaller micro-sites with limited interactive content and features.

One-man show -- So many of these operations exist that it is hard to tell the good from the bad. The best ones typically compete on their ability to demonstrate a deep level of industry expertise while the weaker ones typically sell their services through their relationships more than anything else. The good independent consultants have a crazy ability to be fantastic at several disciplines while the mediocre ones only seem to be good at several things, because what they tend to be good at is abstractly talking about almost any subject.

For the good ones, the multi-talented nature is what makes them both great and difficult to work with. They can be so smart and talented within several genres that it can be challenging for them to work with others not as fast as they are.

The Bottom of the Barrel

Two Guys in a Garage -- The sad truth is that this is what many small companies choose when they go shopping for firms with a priority on price and technology over design and quality. These people only sell on existing relationships and move from one-off to one-off, creating a cornucopia of sites that drown the Internet in poorly designed sites that make good designers wince in pain.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Next week I’ll go over a series of distinctions that will enable you to be able to match your needs with the agency, or agency pairing, best suited for you. I will also reveal an often missed but common pitfall: When you shouldn’t be selecting an agency at all.