It pays to be picky when picking an agency partner

I have participated in several hundred agency reviews (no exaggeration). I’ve been on the client side, the agency side, and hired as a consultant to both sides. I’ve helped select advertising agencies, PR firms, web designers and agencies, commercial production companies and directors, direct marketing agencies and media planning and buying firms. I’ve selected agencies in over 30 different countries.

But until recently, I had never hired an agency for myself.

Sure I have worked with firms, agencies and designers who have done work for me, but it has always been in trade or as a professional courtesy.

I never once plucked down my own cash for agency services.

That is until I started an agency review to redesign my logo, brand and websites for 5 Meetings Before Lunch, and 5 Blogs Before Lunch.

The last logo and website was created by the amazing team of Wendy Owen and Nadav Savio as Giant Ant in 2005. The design worked wonderfully for over 6 years. They deserve a lot of credit for that! Wendy has since moved on to Hot Studio, and Nadav to Google.

So now it was time to go out on my own, and pay a professional team for design and web development services. I consciously chose a group of agencies I had never worked with before—all were boutique agencies with great portfolios. They all came through personal referral and background-checked ex-clients.

I thought it would be harder to make the final decision, as it was my own money—it wasn’t. I thought I’d be tougher in managing the agency—quite the opposite. In fact, the agency process turned out to be pretty much what I expected. We ended up hiring a great team who call themselves Butchershop Creative. You can reach them at 415-552-MEAT (no joke). While not classically trained designers and programmers with big-agency experience, they had a certain vibe that we liked, and design-style we felt comfortable with—and they fit within our budget. We expected to see their design aesthetic in the work, and to demonstrate some out of the box thinking because of their youth, lack of big agency experience, and case study stories.

You’ll see the results of their work in the next couple of weeks, as we roll-out the new blog, consulting website, and new business cards.

But in the meantime, I’d like to share with you some lessons and observations from the process of hiring a web design agency—from a client’s perspective.

Budget

First off, a website can cost $2,000 or $100,000+ And, you get what you pay for. On the low end, you’ll get basic functionality, and a pleasing design. As you move up the cost latter, you should expect design brilliance and innovative design and function. There is no question—you get what you pay for. Do not ask high-end designers for cheap work, and do not ask a low-end designer to deliver greatness.

Portfolio Review

Take a close look at their portfolio. With smaller boutiques, you will often get a designer’s personal taste litter throughout his portfolio. If you see a certain style across projects, don’t expect they’ll be able to vary to far from that aesthetic. For midsize agencies, be careful to know which teams worked on case study projects, and whether they’re still at the agency and will be working on your project. For larger agencies, you typically don’t see any one design style.

Expect a wide range

Select an agency based on your needs and budget. We selected four agencies to bid on the project—all were small boutiques with little overhead. I had created a pretty tight RFP, and all agencies asked good questions, and delivered similar proposals. Design and experience levels varied, but all were qualified. And even then, our bids ranged from $9,000 to $65,000 for the same specifications.

Go with the agency who asks questions

An agency who goes back to a client with questions during the proposal development process is typically a good candidate. It signals that they are interested in the project, and trying to make sure client/agency expectations are well-matched.

Which brings me to the RFP. The more thorough you are the better off you are. Even though I thought I knew exactly what I wanted from a specifications perspective, things evolved during the process, so the scope shifted mid-stream.

A good first date singles a happy marriage

Which leads me to the final point. Pick someone you like. No matter how hard you try, there are going to be testy, tricky, and tough times during the process. The more you like your partners-in-crime, the smoother these edges will be. Think of it like dating. If you’re bothered by some quirk or affectation during the first date—your dislike of those traits are likely to fester and get amplified—especially during that nasty divorce. We met one designer who we loved, then met the web developer who could best be described (no exaggeration) as an arrogant prick. People can turn into arrogant pricks during heated conversations over deadlines or deliverables—but they shouldn’t show that side during a pitch.

At the end of the day, we ended up choosing between two relatively equally matched agencies. Both were fully capable of executing on the project, and we liked both teams quite a bit. One agency had impeccable credentials, and an amazing design book and reputation. The other seemed a little more on the rebellious side, and willing to take risks.

We took a risk, and hired the rebels. We knew they’d be a bit harder to manage, but our expectations were set, and we were ready for a bucking bronco of a ride with the hopes that they would take us out of our comfort zone to achieve something we would not have dreamed of ourselves. We were not disappointed (all the way around).

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