The Importance of Process When Choosing a Digital Agency

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4 benefits of process that help to ensure success with an agency partner.

4 benefits of process that help to ensure success with an agency partner.
4 benefits of process that help to ensure success with an agency partner.

Digital agencies are becoming increasingly similar, with most claiming expertise in common practice areas. In fact, digital is now considered table stakes for all entrants, though areas of differentiation still exist in creative innovation and technical specialization. With most everyone claiming to do everything well, how can you, as a marketer, tell when you're heading down a precarious path with an agency with lofty claims? What's a reliable differentiating factor?

Having seen my fair share of distressed digital projects, I've noticed a recurring theme is a lack of (or lack of adherence to) a process, whether that's a buyer/vendor mutual qualification process, a program or project management process, a change management process, and so on. No matter how you look at it, a process is necessary for repeatable success. Otherwise, success comes by pure chance. A well-conceived, adopted, and practiced process delivers on the promise of:

  • Accountability
  • Transparency
  • Predictability
  • Organizational maturity

Accountability

So how does this relate to you as you evaluate agencies for your next project? I believe you can tell a lot about an agency early in the sales process. How well does the sales rep understand your business or articulate a solution to your problem? In budget conversations, is the controlling factor informed by a discussion of value? If you don't discuss defining and prioritizing scope based on measurable business value, there's a good chance you're in for a surprise when the project is delivered but fails to impact your bottom line.

As sales transitions to delivery, be conscious of communication risks during the handoff. How is the sales organization accountable to delivery? How do you ensure they don't sell something the project team can't execute? How transparent is the agency about their mix of on-shore versus off-shore resources? If you can't get a straight answer about this, they're probably hiding something and you'll find out in the most inconvenient way possible.

Transparency

If you engage with the agency in question, what level of transparency can you expect in day-to-day interactions? The tools a vendor uses are reflective of its culture. Overreliance on Microsoft Office documents shared via email is a sure sign that an unpleasant surprise will pop up at some point during your project. Modern, collaborative workspaces that are accessible across devices are an indicator that the agency believes in the value of investing in the right tools. 

Predictability

Ask the agency about its quality management philosophy. If project plans don't reflect early and consistent involvement from QA, there's a good chance you're uncovering a reactive and low-value testing mind-set. An emphasis on quality helps ensure that the team isn't just building things right, but that they're building the right thing. Done well, quality management exposes flaws and transparently communicates risks, but passes no value judgment on the product, and leaves the release decision to business stakeholders. 

If there's one constant in any project, it's change. Inevitably, the vision on day 1 will differ from the reality on day 365. Market conditions, customer habits, and technology all change. The impact of change is determined by how you and your agency partners manage this process. How does your agency react to change requests? Is the first instinct to issue a change order, or do they engage you in a conversation about trade-offs and feature prioritization by business value? Are you a partner with a shared vision, or an adversary with deep pockets?

Organizational maturity

As you evaluate agencies, it's also important to consider how they measure their own success.  Do they have incentives for exceeding KPIs? What control structures are in place to give senior executives visibility into projects, and what level of access do you have to executives? Is there a cultural fit between your organizations? Don't assume that mutual alignment on a product or specific technology is an indicator for success. Personalities matter. It's also important to consider your own organizational maturity and any instability you may be bringing to the table. No matter how good a vendor's processes are and how closely they're adhered to, responsibility for your project's success goes both ways.

As the fine print on any prospectus states, past performance is not a guaranteed indicator of future results, and the same applies to evaluating digital agencies competing for your business. However, basic due diligence, including asking for references, is critical in making an informed decision. It's safe to assume that you'll be granted access to carefully vetted references who are likely to give positive feedback. Ask tough questions about failed projects, and understand even the best-managed agencies falter sometimes. What's important to uncover is what lessons were learned and what practices and processes were instituted as a result to reduce the risk of similar failures in the future.

 

Daryoush Mansouri is VP, Quality & Risk Management for Siteworx

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