As Vice President, Business Development at ImageX I may be a little biased in my perspective, so I’ll confess this right off the bat. What I mean by this is if you asked 3 web agency why they should be your partner, you’ll get very similar responses. Typically you’ll hear something about their ‘deep expertise’ in creating digital experiences, or how their methodology is the right methodology. For the most part it’s all smart rhetoric, but it does little if nothing to help choose an agency partner.

A Different Perspective

In this article I’m to examine something I’ve written about before, the vendor procurement process, but from a slightly different point of view. In the past I examined the RFP processes and how an organization can manage effectively for the best results. In this article I’m going to look at the process from the agency perspective. I’m going to share some insights about what, and what not to do when looking for an agency partner.

The procurement process can be frustrating on both sides of the equation. From the vendor perspective I can’t tell you how many inquiries we get that go something like this:

“I have this project, and it has these variables, and I need a quote by end of week.”

I recently shared a request very similar this with one of our Sr. Solution Architects. He’s a renowned expert responsible for finding complex technical solutions. His reply was simple, and brilliant, “This is how you buy pens, not web solutions. Maybe not even pens.”

You can see where a request like this might be frustrating to someone with his expertise. Experience has taught him how complex even seemingly simple web projects can be. Effective scoping and estimating of any web project can’t be accomplished with this approach.

It’s Not Speed Dating

I get it, people are busy and selecting the right agency partner requires time. Ideally you have a starting point such as a referral, but if you’re starting from scratch you’ll do what everyone does - you start with a Google search. This in itself can be a little overwhelming and frustrating. You’ll have to make a selection from hundreds of search results, and they’ll all have relatively the same messaging.

Next you make a list of possible candidates and email them a simple, often generic message about your project. It likely hasn’t occurred to you, but these agencies you’re reaching out to are getting messages just like your’s everyday. Usually when I receive requests like this I decline giving any kind of estimate or quote and instead request a meeting. When it’s a simplistic type of site (really simplistic), I might ask a few questions and then give a large range with a healthy disclaimer that this number will likely change. In my experience this is rarely of any value.

If you’re getting quotes without elaborating on your project, or meeting the vendor, there’s a high degree of risk it will be accurate. My personal opinion is that I’d question the credibility of any agency that would put their reputation on the line by quoting without properly qualifying the project. In order to get a thoughtful, well-assessed quote, you’re going to need to spend some time with the potential agency partners.

An Alternative to Speed Dating

We need to get to know each other and to understand your project. The approach I’ve seen work effectively is to pick your top 3 potential agencies and schedule 1-hour meetings with each. Prepare a requirements or scope document, even if it's a rough draft that will change, and trust me your requirements will evolve. This helps you better frame your project and will make the meeting far more valuable for you.

With more than 300 web projects under our belts, we find that after a 1-hour meeting we typically have enough detail to, at the very least, provide a reasonable estimate and timeline range. In some cases we can even give you a proposed solution to meet your requirements. After you meet with your top 3 potential agencies, you can take the budget ranges and have the internal conversations you need to in order to secure a budget and get the green light on the initiative.

Be Transparent & Collaborative

Be transparent about the project. Tell the potential agencies what your internal process is like, who the stakeholders are, and of course what your budget is. One of the things I often hear when it comes to budget is, “I want the market to dictate the price.” This is a reasonable response because most people don’t have any idea a website could, or should cost. The trouble with this approach is that there’s a flaw in the logic and here’s why.

At least 95% of the time a web project has more scope than budget. The ideal agency partner is going to help you maximize the budget you have, and this means prioritizing scope and the solution so you get the most bang for your budget. When someone says, “We have $75,000 and not a penny more,” we can go to work finding the optimal solution. Are there ways to reduce the project administration? Are there ways to minimize custom programming? Are there tasks that your internal resources could handle? Maybe we can’t fit everything you want into your budget, but we will bend over backwards to make sure it’s the best solution you can possibly get.

Collaboration in many cases determines, or strongly contributes to project success or failure. A collaborative project team communicates, problem solves and dare I say, has fun together. I’m always surprised when vendor selection doesn’t allow for some form of collaboration, not only to get to know the partner team but also to get a better proposed solution.

What to Do & What Not to Do

Scenario #1 is an organization that doesn’t invest any time in the procurement process and simply solicits 30 vendors. They don’t have the time to meet with each and collaborate on a solution to meet their requirements. They simply state what they want/need and limit interaction with the 30 vendors. The potential vendor has two options:

  • Respond to meet the stated requirements exactly.
  • Respond with a solution that will be more valuable and future-proof.

The second options seems like the winner right? The risk is that the vendor could be eliminated because the proposed solution doesn’t match the stated requirements, even though it could be a better solution. Most vendors simply respond to the requirements and a solution is chosen largely based on cost.

Scenario #2 is an organization selects between 3-8 vendors. They take the time to meet and discuss their requirements and goals with each vendor. Along the way the organization gains new insights and perspective with each additional meeting. This organization will short-list potential agency partners and then meet with each to review and learn the logic behind the solution proposed.

In this scenario the organization selects the best solution for their needs, and they get to know the project team they’ll be working with. The added bonus in this approach is the additional insights and ideas that can still be applied to the project even if they don’t select a particular vendor. Everyone loves free consulting.

Don't Skip These Steps

Here are the 2 steps must-take steps when looking for an agency to partner with.

  • Take the time to map out your requirements for the project. These requirements can be rough, and they will get refined. This step will help you get a deeper understanding of your project and will go along way in helping you choose the right agency.
  • Take the time to meet with the agencies. Select at least 3 agencies and meet with them to discuss your project. There isn’t any other way to get a realistic project estimate that you can stake your career on.

When I think about my most successful clients and their projects, there is a strong correlation between how they approached the vendor selection process and the outcome of the project. In almost all cases the procurement process was collaborative and transparent, and that carried over to the actual project. It was collaborative. It was transparent. It worked.

If you’re in the early stages of defining a web project and want some tips, drop me an email and we can chat.

Brent Wilker
Brent Wilker

Executive Vice President, Business Development