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Best practices for engaging a digital agency

26 April, 2021
Carl Smith
Carl Smith
Bureau of Digital

Wisdom from Bureau of Digital principal and agency guru Carl Smith

Forming a successful relationship with a digital agency partner really isn’t any different than establishing any other healthy interpersonal relationship. Build on a foundation of open communication, trust, and transparency, and your digital agency partnership can thrive. Without those components, you may encounter bumpy ground ahead. Here are some of the actions Carl Smith, Bureau of Digital principal, recommends you take to help ensure positive agency outcomes.

Understanding the agency landscape

Before you leap into hiring a digital agency for any project, I think it might be helpful to get a 30,000-foot view of what those shops experienced in 2020 and their expectations for 2021. To do that, I’ll share some data from a brand new study the Bureau team worked on with Promethean Research.

  • Digital agencies wrapped up a tumultuous 2020 with solid revenue growth and margins.
  • Average revenue growth of 10 percent YoY was led by small shops as well as large shops with expanded project sizes.
  • Revenue per employee was up in 2020 vs 2019, indicating shops were financially healthier than many had expected.
  • Agencies specializing in verticals/industries grew significantly faster than generalists.
  • Pricing approaches remained essentially unchanged from 2019, with time and materials, fixed bid, and retainer serving as the primary methods.

The big story? Agency owners are optimistic for a strong 2021. The bulk of this optimism likely stems from stronger pipelines, driven by the overall push for faster digital transformation. If you’re the person responsible for orchestrating that transformation—and are looking for a digital agency to help you do it—I hope this checklist will help you save time and shape a positive, successful agency experience.

Before your project gets underway

Before you undertake any agency collaboration, be clear about your short- and long-term needs.

  • Are you building something new? Or updating something that already exists?
  • Do you have any constraints? What are they?
    • Time
    • Money
    • Awareness
    • Legal
    • Approval process
    • Internal support
  • Will this project be your primary focus? Or will you need the agency to take the lead in managing the project?
  • If you’re going to be involved:
    • How knowledgeable are you about the overall process and the skills/tools required for success?
    • How do you like to work?
    • Will you be available daily or only once a month?
    • Do you understand the agency’s process and does it align with your reality?


Look for a reputable agency whose values align with your organization’s. And that loves your brand and product as much as you do.

Hire an agency whose people you like.

If you have a good grip and know what to do, don’t hire a big consultancy firm known for creating solutions. Instead, hire a small, boutique studio looking to take direction and produce a known result.

In 2020, many digital agencies with a specific industry focus (e.g., those in ecommerce, healthcare, higher ed) did well. Mergers and acquisitions have been commonplace. And those agencies are cashing out. If you have a project that’s 6 – 12 months in length, ask hard questions about how long the agency expects to remain as they are today (i.e., are they in conversations about an acquisition).

RFPs eliminate 50% of the best shops because they’re busy and have a healthy pipeline. RFPs can take 30 – 40 hours to complete, often aren’t a good reflection of what’s needed, and send the message that cost is a primary factor.

Review projects a prospective agency has completed, and ask to speak with the client for whom the work was done.

If you request an NDA, realize you may have lowered the value for an agency dramatically. Keep in mind that under NDAs, agencies aren’t able to share the great work they’ve done. While there will be a clear monetary benefit, showcasing work to help land new business may not be possible.

Ask the ex question: tell me about the last client you let go. What went wrong?

Look for a reputable agency whose values align with your organization’s. And that loves your brand and product as much as you do.


Once you’ve selected an agency, you can help ensure that both you and the agency approach the project with a clean slate by being open and honest about everything.

Realize at the beginning of any project you’re at the point of maximum ignorance, i.e., you’ll know less about the project’s outcome than you do at any other time. Original estimates were based on best guesses. Don’t punish the agency for things no one could have known in advance. Like any project, new ideas and requirements will be discovered once you get started.

Create a glossary of terms to make sure everyone is speaking the same language.

Recognize that straightforward, timely communication will make the project and relationship; expect breakage without it.

Share your KPIs—and who you need to impress—with your agency partner. They’ll help you shine, and you can become a champion for them.

Project kick-off

  • Make sure every decision-maker is present; when someone has authority, but the agency hasn’t met him/her, that’s a red flag.
  • Lean into the agency’s process, but express your special needs and concerns.
  • Talk about the approval process and any challenges you anticipate.
  • Prepare for conflict as these projects aren’t easy, and everyone wants a great result.
  • Be firm, but fair; if something goes wrong on your side, own it, and expect the same from the agency.
  • Respect the communication chain, and don’t go around your contact. It will create problems, and the project will suffer.

Once the project is underway

Request progressives. These are like a retrospective/post-mortem, but take place before the project concludes, so there’s still time to make adjustments and improvements.

Remember that agencies make a living by selling people’s time. Pay based on the timeline you’ve agreed to in your contract, or the agency will have to shift focus to another project to pay the bills.

Letting an agency go

Sometimes partnerships don’t work out. It happens. If you’re going to release the agency, tell them as soon as you can, and give them time to recover. Don’t leave in a huff or ghost them. Instead, taper business off, and say, Let’s talk/touch bases in three months.

If you’re looking for a digital agency partner, consider exploring the Platform.sh Partner Locator.

A theater major who decided to act like he understood business, Carl Smith spent 14 years in advertising before launching his digital agency, nGen Works, in 2003. nGen ran for 12 years, constantly experimenting with different models of management and team structure, including the Jellyfish Model, which was flat before flat was cool.

Towards the end of nGen’s run, Carl attended the very first Bureau event and fell madly in love with the concept of building community in the web industry. So much so that, a few years later, he closed nGen to take over the Bureau in 2016. Now Carl spends every day connecting digital professionals to give them the support they need.

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