Choosing an Interactive Agency: Thoughts From the Agency Side

Choosing the right interactive agency can be a daunting process. Having been on both sides of the table and in this business for close to 15 (yikes!) years, I’ve been through the process too many times to count. So, if I were in your shoes, here’s what I would do to find the perfect interactive agency.

Scoping Your Project

Any process needs to begin with some background work on your end. Give some serious thought to these items:

  • Business goals of this project – why are you doing it, what do you hope to get in return
  • Target markets and audience – who are you serving, what are their motivators and fears
  • Functional requirements – what do I need the site to do (content management, eCommerce, extranet)
  • Visual design and branding guidelines – desired look, feel and tone
  • Technical architecture – are there required languages, databases and systems integration
  • Pricing and milestones – what’s my budget, do I need it to be delivered in a certain time frame

What Kind of Skills Do I Need?

Once you have made a check list of your project requirements, prioritize which are most important. Typical skills you will need from an interactive agency for the initial web design and development project and on an ongoing basis include:

  • Interactive strategy
  • Web design and rich media
  • Web and application development
  • Systems integration
  • Business Analysis
  • Information architecture (UI and usability)
  • Search engine optimization
  • Digital marketing campaigns – email, viral, community building
  • Content Management System (CMS)
  • Web analytics

Where to Start When Choosing an Interactive Agency?

There are so many variations of what people look for in an interactive agency today – web and graphic design firms, web development and systems integration, packaged software vendors, advertising agencies, digital marketing shops and so on, can all fill aspects of your requirements. Certainly all of them will have strengths and weaknesses. So where to start?

If you are an enterprise-size company, you will have existing providers and preferred vendor programs, not to mention the likelihood of many firms actively knocking on your door. If you are searching in this scenario, I would hazard a guess that your existing firms are getting stale and you are looking for fresh ideas. Middle market and smaller companies typically have a harder time starting. Here are a few ideas:

  • Ask your colleagues – nothing beats a referral
  • Use your professional network – phone and email, as well as tools like LinkedIn
  • Google and other search engines – check organic and cost per click results
  • Directories – professional and trade organizations (including your own industry)
  • When all else fails – surf the web and look for sites you like (sometimes “View Page Source” will provide a site credit)

Narrowing the Field of Interactive Agencies

Now you have a big broad list of probably too many interactive agencies. Here are a few ideas to begin the narrowing process:

  • Budget – what can you afford? Expect to find pricing all over the map, driven primarily by size and skill of the interactive agency
  • Size – are you looking for a boutique, specialty firm or a large full-service agency
  • Experience – how long have they been in business, how many engagements & ongoing clients
  • Skills – which ones are most important to you – strategy, technical, design or marketing
  • Geography – this matters less and less these days, but certainly you want the ability to have some face time through the project
  • Industry – do you need the firm to have industry expertise (healthcare, big pharma, financial services are prime examples)
  • Niche – other niche players often focus around special services such as community web sites, technical platforms, Flash

What Value Will They Bring to the Table?

At Delphic Sage, we place a great emphasis on our ability to bring value to the process. Beware of interactive agencies that position themselves as experts and you as a necessary evil. Be equally concerned with firms that will get the deer in headlights look when the going gets tough. 

From the very beginning, your interactive agency should want to learn and understand your business – web site project aside. By doing so, at each stage of the game they will be able to provide tangible business value on an ongoing basis. When the relationship is considered by both parties to be a partnership rather than vendor, both sides will benefit.

Process

So, how do you go about the selection process? It depends on how well you know the candidate firms, as well as how experienced you are in choosing an interactive agency.

  • Request for Information (RFI) – if you still have a lot of firms, this typical exploratory approach gives you a chance to ask questions and narrow the field to a select few
  • Request for Proposal (RFP) – getting down to brass tacks, this structured approach allows you to compare apples to apples (not usually an easy thing to do)
  • Free Form Proposals – allow the interactive agency to provide a proposal in their format

Keep in mind that RFP’s, especially when they come out of the blue and there is no chance for the agency to even meet you, will typically be met with a level of skepticism. Especially if you make it overly onerous. So, make sure you spend some time in considering your requirements. It’s amazing how many are poorly crafted.

Assessing the Proposal

Now you have a series of proposals to review. What are the key elements to look for in the review?

  • Scope – do they understand what you are trying to accomplish with this project
  • Process – is the framework solid, but flexible enough to meet your requirements
  • Skill – do they have the right skill sets for your project
  • Price – are the costs clearly outlined, including scope change order process
  • Timeline – how long will it take to deliver (beware the overly aggressive timelines)
  • Personnel – who will work on the project
  • Trust – make sure to get at least three referrals

Be sure that your team has agreed on the criteria for decision making. This can be a formal worksheet or an informal bulleted list with weights.

Personal Connection & Trust

At the end of the day, when buying professional services, you are buying people. Do NOT short change this aspect of the decision. If you are uncomfortable with the people from the beginning, it’s only going to get worse. Choose people with whom you feel you can have a comfortable, professional relationship. You do not want a new best friend, but chemistry is critical.

So, be sure to spend some quality time with the prospective candidate firms. This includes not only preliminary sales meetings,
but also a visit to their office. This will give you a chance to meet the extended team (especially the Project and/or Account Managers), as well as get a feel for their culture. Does it fit with your team and company culture? Do they need to interact with an extended team, such as your CMS software vendor or your advertising agency? Keep all these items in mind.

Other Resources to Help in Choosing an Interactive Agency

*Note: Original content from Hanson Inc. no longer exists. Check out a similar resource recommended by Hanson.

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