Sunday, February 20, 2011
The Worst Way to Choose a Digital Agency
There are many ways to choose the wrong digital agency, but some are better than others.
The Good Old RFP
First among the list is the infamous Request For Proposal (RFP) where a large number of agencies are invited to read dry documents about the "scope of work" and "deliverables" before responding in written form. This way of doing things comes from the purchasing department and is mostly found in very large corporations and governmental entities where the buyers are more interrested in covering their asses than delivering results. It comes from an era where the only things you bought were tangible, standardized products, not complex services. Generally, great digital agencies don't even participate as they know that the RFP process will put them at a disadvantage and generally prevent them from doing great work.
A good old fashioned RFP is usually won by mediocre or average agencies specializing in paperwork, politics and in dealing with large entities. Typically, a good deal of their staff is dedicated to answering RFPs, not producing great digital work. They know how to win by saying exactly what the buyers want to hear and by bidding very low. Later in the process, they will find ways to stretch the timeline and raise the price by invoking loopholes in the contract. The words "not included" are generally used. RFP usually make for below average results with skyrocketing costs and postponed deadlines. Ever heard of a government project that went as planned? Everything goes wrong, but no one is to blame. That's an RFP process.
And after the bitter lesson, you know what buyers do? They start working on a better, stricter and improved RFP process...
The Creative Pitch
Straight from the advertising world of the '70's, the creative pitch's purpose is to flatter the buyer's ego as well as to allow the agencies to demonstrate how creative they are. It is a shallow process focusing on catchy words, fancy concepts and beautiful images, but without any depth because all the work is done before the client and the agency really start collaborating. It might have been useful in the old days of limited media channels and push advertising, but in today's complex, interconnected and ever changing digital world, the only way to produce great work is for the agency to really partner with the client and delve deep into his business process. And that requires a lot of time - that's why it is done only after the agency has been selected. Furthermore, creativity is not enough. Intelligence, strategy and technical know-how are also required.
The creative pitch is usually won by old school advertising agencies whose best talents are working on pitches, not doing actual work for clients. As the president of one of Toronto's most creative agencies once told me: "When a client calls a pitch, he's sure of paying more for lesser quality work. Because the agency that will win the pitch will soon have its best talent (A-Team) work on the next pitch while the rest of the staff (B-Team) works on projects for existing clients. And because no matter how great you are, you lose more pitches than you win, the winning client has to pick the tab for all the pitches you lost."
Maybe it's just me, but I think it is pretty easy to get an idea of how talented an agency is by looking at their portfolio and calling a few existing customers. If you take aside the client's ego trip, the creative pitch really is a waste of time.
While we're at it, here are 13 other dumb ideas to make sure you choose the wrong agency:
1. Keep your budget secret
That way, you'll be sure of receiving really differing and hard to compare offers. The Web is scalable and there are more than one way to answer the brief, depending on the amount of money the agency has to work with. And if you won't necessarily choose the lowest bidder, then why not give your budget?
2. Do not let anyone know which agencies you invited
I never understood the logic of this one. What are you afraid of? Price collusion? Anyways, it's a small (and interconnected) world and the invited agencies will end up knowing who's competing anyways. In the meantime, a couple of great agencies will have refused to participate because they won't want to end up competing against smaller firms or desperate agencies practicing price dumping.
3. Invite a dozen agencies, preferably a mix of small, medium and large ones
It is a sure way to let everyone know that you didn't do your homework by pre-selecting agencies and that you have absolutely no idea of where you're going. As a bonus, you will receive an array of offers so different they'll be impossible to compare intelligently.
4. Do not validate technical proficiency
This will make for interesting surprises along the way. From bugs, to crashing servers and escalating development costs.
5. Do not call previous clients
Go ahead, trust your instincts and what the agency says during the pitch. Making a few phone calls and e-mails takes so much time and effort relative to the importance of the project that you may dispense with it.
6. Do not use LinkedIn to do some background check on the agency (including turnover rate)
It is easier to trust what the agency is telling you. Besides, the fact that all their best employees are leaving the boat doesn't mean it's a bad agency.
7. Make the brief as confusing as possible with gaping holes for interpretation
That way, you can get all the agencies confused. The smart ones will irritate you by asking a thousand questions and the dumb ones will interpret the brief in the way that is most advantageous to them. In the end, it doesn't matter because you'll chose the lowest bidder and he won't even have read the brief.
8. Have an impossibly tight deadline
This will tell all the smart agencies that you have unrealistic expectations and don't have the faintest idea of the level of effort required to complete the project. Starving agencies swimming in red ink and with a lot of idle hands will jump on the occasion to promise you the moon.
9. Involve as many providers as possible (strategy, design, content, integration, hosting)
Ideally, they should have incompatible values and overlapping business offers in order to compete against each other. You will have the impression that by playing them one against the other you'll be able to squeeze more work for less dollars. In the end, the good ones will just leave and let the sharks eat each other. In that zero collaboration, flying knives atmosphere, your project will bleed.
10. Choose your agency without meeting the team that will work on your project
It is much simpler to read the proposals and compare specs, features and price. Everything is there, isn't it? Can the human side of things be that important?
11. Go for the lowest price
After all, it's just a Website. How complex can it be? Even your brother-in-law can program one.
12. Chose the agency that said what you wanted to hear
A yes-agency is great for your ego and easier to present to your boss and colleagues. And since you're always right, smart people usually share your opinions anyways.
13. Once you choose the agency, try to negotiate the price
If you can lower the price in a significant way, it means one of two things: (1) The agency tried to screw you the first time around. (2) It is in dire financial health and desperate for any dollars it can get. In both cases, good luck.