How To Be An Awesome Agency

Posted By Debbie on July 16, 2013

Categories: Business

Tags: agency

I have my own mini-agency. We’ve been doing web and print work mostly for small businesses and eBay sellers since 1995. I’ve also had the varied pleasure 🙂 of working for some agencies. I’ve seen the extremely awesome and the really really sad. I’ve worked for agencies on my resume and agencies not on my resume, so you won’t know who I mean unless I’m naming names…

Here are some tips on how to be an awesome agency. Since this is a really long post, I will show all my tips in bullet form, and then expand on all of them.

  • Quality of Work Product
  • Who Are Your Weakest Workers (contractors or FTE)?
  • What Is Your Expertise?
  • Are You Future-proofing?
  • Do You Walk The Walk?
  • Charge Competitive Rates
  • Take Another Look At Your Proposals
  • Do Zero or Nearly Zero Work On Spec
  • Staffing And Resources
  • Are You A Pair of Hands or a Strategic Partner?
  • Don’t Chase Awards
  • Inspiring Leadership
  • An Agency Doing UX Work Without a Director of UX

Quality of Work Product

I have to say that first because I’ve been beyond flabbergasted at some of the work I’ve seen come out of agencies where I’ve worked. I’ve seen incredibly unique and creative work. And I’ve seen a lot of really bad work. I’ve seen bad art. I’ve seen HORRENDOUS UX. I mean embarrassing UX. I mean, “Why is there nobody in place to make sure the client never saw this” bad UX work… that in some cases I was inheriting.

If you want to be an awesome agency, you should be getting awesome work product out there. Which relates directly to…

Who Are Your Weakest Workers (contractors or FTE)?

You are as good as the weakest person you have. If you are using junior, less experienced or less talented people, or cheap people, your work will show it. Period. There is no way to hide that. Don’t put a person with no mobile experience on a mobile project. Dump somebody who gives you wireframes that are cluttered with 5 lines of navigation links. Don’t show it to the client! Have standards!

When an agency client is telling me he’s sure his work was done by a junior person, you’re in trouble. He can pay a LOT less than he’s paying you to get his own crappy, low-experience person. You’re supposed to be selling experience and unique excellence, which brings me to…

What Is Your Expertise?

If you don’t have great UX staff or consultants, don’t take UX projects.

If your artists don’t truly blow your mind, they’re not good enough. And your clients will agree.

What’s your niche? What do you do better than anybody else?

Are You Future-proofing?

If you’re a digital agency, do you handle what’s now and what’s likely to be next? How well do you (and the people you’ve hired) know mobile? What can you provide to clients? Do you understand mobile commerce and mobile advertising?

Get your agency ready to offer the next hot (and effective) “thing.” Don’t wait for a client to ask what you do for mobile. They might already be asking another agency that.

Do You Walk The Walk?

Traction is awesome with social media. How awesome? I was there around SXSW 2013, and I watched the CEO create his own meme and make it go viral. Within about an hour of it hitting their Facebook page, friends of mine in NY who had no idea who Traction was were sharing the meme.

Don’t just SAY you do social. Walk the walk. Use your Facebook page. Tweet. Do something that shows me to you eat your own dog food. Use your company’s amazing expertise to explode on the social media scene IF you claim that’s your strength.

Not your strength? That’s fine. Find what is, and makes sure you not only walk the walk but you eat your own dog food.

Charge Competitive Rates

Are you the cheap or discount agency? Why? Is that what you’re worth? Maybe it is.

Or are you bad at estimating how many billable hours things take? Get better project managers or producers. You don’t have to be making mistakes, especially ones that affect your profitability. Which brings me to…

Take Another Look At Your Proposals

I’ve seen LOTS of agency proposals, and I can see why agencies win or lose projects. I can also see the early foundation for whether or not this agency will be a “pair of hands” and a doormat the client will bulldoze OR if the agency is going to be strong and stand up for how they think things should be done. I can see if there will be frustration, confusing, and disappointment later because they client “thought that was included,” but you thought it was out of scope.

Stand behind your pricing. The client will ALWAYS want it cheaper. If you make it cheaper every time they ask, you’ve just taught them that your price is never the first amount you quote. It’s always negotiable. Negotiations take time AND chip away at your profit. Teach them it only gets cheaper if they decrease the scope. Otherwise, this is what this costs.

Also, I have noticed in my 18+ years of running my mini agency that the people who push the hardest for the lower price are ALWAYS the people who are the highest maintenance. There is some odd relationship between how much time and attention they will need and how little they want to pay. It’s like they have to squeeze their money’s worth out of you… or that they don’t really respect your time and what it’s worth. I’ve found that to be another good reason to NOT negotiate and lower prices. This is my price, take me or leave me.

Do Zero or Nearly Zero Work On Spec

Don’t assume ANYTHING. Clients change agencies constantly. The client who is making it sound like they want more work and the potential client considering you should not need (tens of) thousands of dollars of work done on spec. If they don’t respect your time or what you do, then guess what that relationship will be like. You might even be sorry you worked with them.

And what will you do when the client strings you along and then dumps the project or hires someone else? How do you recover from that deficit? More importantly, how do you recover from teaching the client that you will get on planes and get your staff working without anything signed or any payment made?

I’ve had down times with my mini agency where I thought about taking anything I could that paid, and I was often sorry I did. We ended up with clients who were such jerks (that we should have turned down) that I nearly lost good staff over it. Eyes on the prize.

If a (potential) client needs you to mock some ideas up or have a meeting or do X amount of work before they’ll sign on, treat that like a mini project. Get that signed off on and paid for. This is a great time to see what this client will be like. They should be paying for your time and excellence. Make sure they do, or find the client that will. Otherwise, you’re a doormat.

Be careful of showing potential clients ideas without getting paid for them. For all you know, they’ll take those ideas to some other team or agency, and you’ll never get the job. Get paid for everything, and stick to your guns.

Doing work on spec is a gamble. If you’re going to do it, decide how much you’re willing to gamble. $500 of work? $5000? $25K? How much could your company stand to lose if you didn’t win this project? That’s how much work you do on spec.

Staffing and Resources

Some agencies have been awesome about knowing how much work they need from me and when. More than once has an agency hired me swearing they had a giant mountain of full time work, and would need me endlessly for at least a few months. They turned out to have nearly no work for me.

How does that happen? Did they lie to me? Are they so disorganised that they don’t know how much work they have? Did they assume a project was starting, hire me, and then the project died or got delayed?

Remember that when you hire me, I am turning down between 2 and 5 other irons in the fire. When you hire me, I tell 34 recruiters (literally) that I have a job. They now don’t make commission on me. I look like an IDIOT if I call them back 2 weeks later and go um, I picked a company that lied to me/didn’t seem to know how much work they had… ummm can you find me something else? I look like I can’t hold a job OR I don’t pick them very well. And I may have turned down something cool because the cool job was potential (I might get it, I might not) and yours was REAL and on the table.

But it wasn’t. Respect your full timers and contractors, especially really good ones. Don’t burn bridges. It’s a small world after all. And there are only so many truly talented people out there… Who are available… And might want to work for you.

Are You A Pair of Hands or a Strategic Partner?

I once saw an agency CEO complain that clients see them as a “pair of hands” rather than a strategic partner. If you want to know why you are a pair of hands, read all what’s above and below this point on this page. If your staff aren’t great… if your work is mediocre… then you are one step above foreign dudes they could have grabbed off Elance.

It might also be your revolving door of consultants. The client may not have said anything the third time you brought a different UX person or when you switched artists on the project, but they notice.

If you feel like you are a pair of hired hands, it’s because you taught your client to think of you that way.

Don’t Chase Awards

I once saw an agency CEO (who wasn’t winning any awards) tell his team that his goal was getting a “best agency” award 2 years from now. The award is not the prize. If you have awesome work being done by fantastic people, and your clients are freaking thrilled, the award won’t matter. You will get biz and you will grow because you are GREAT. Forget the award. People are rarely hired because they won the award. Sure, some press coverage is good, but ultimately, so much more goes into why a client picks an agency.

Inspiring Leadership

Who are the leaders? Are people inspired by them? Can we learn from them? Does the CEO light up a room? This is marketing. If the CEO isn’t a marketing genius that turns heads when he enters a room, then what the heck.

An Agency Doing UX Work Without a Director of UX

It’s no secret. I want to be a UX Director. I’m ready. 🙂

And I’m amazed that agencies don’t have directors of UX. Some have told me that they didn’t need one… they don’t get UX work that much, they bring on contractors, they get by. The work is inconsistent. The software they use is inconsistent. The work product is inconsistent. I guess some agencies feels that works well enough “for now.”

And worse than that, given how the timing of projects tends to collide with the availability of consultants, you might end up losing the interaction designer who started the job. I’ve had UX projects where I was the third UX person on it, and probably won’t be the last since the agency didn’t keep me (due to light workload). We each did totally different things in totally different pieces of software.

Why you need a director of UX needs its own blog post, but remember this, agencies-that-don’t-have-a-steady-stream-of-UX-work. You can’t claim to have an awesome UX offering if your UX offering isn’t awesome or it’s an unknown, variable revolving door of mystery.

Keep ONE person on staff and if he/she deserves it, make him/her the director. For starters, you have someone who can write the UX aspect of proposals and be in meetings and presentations. You have a consistent name for clients, someone they can get to know and love. You can build a world class UX team because you have someone doing that. You can manage resources better with a UX director helping to juggle UX consultants or full timers.

And if nothing else, you have an in-house person to field as much UX work as one person can (while also heading that department). Having someone in your pocket who is consistent and talented will go a long way towards making your agency more awesome.

Just a few tips to make your agency awesomer… from someone who’s worked on the inside of a few.