Graphic illustration of ping pong bats

Looking for a new digital agency is a stressful time.

Get it right, and you will enjoy the whole process of discovery, design, content strategy and eventual launch. Your colleagues will thank you for making the right choices early on, keeping the project on track and delivering on time.

Get it wrong, though, and you could be in for a rough ride, with the agency you choose and with your colleagues. Any significant gap between the expectations at the start of the project and the subsequent experience will (rightly or wrongly) be on your shoulders. So how do you avoid such a costly early mistake?

Unfortunately, there’s no substitute for research. You’re going to have to investigate a number of agencies to see how they measure up against each other. To help, we’ve put together the following list of what we think are 9 important things you should look for in a digital agency.

1. Long-term clients

A big indicator that a digital agency is worth its salt is long-term clients, which is why this is #1 on our list. Agency/client relationships take a lot of trust to build. Satisfaction on both sides of the equation is needed to maintain them in the long-term. This doesn’t mean that you have to commit to an agency for the next decade. Nor should an agency try to tie you into long-term services you might not need. It just means that evidence of other companies committing to an agency for several years is a sign that both parties are getting value from their collaboration.

It can be hard to tell from an agency website which clients are long-term and which are one-off. You might be able to find out by reading their case studies or testimonials. The simplest thing to do would be to ask — “Who are your long-term clients and how do you measure success over time?”. If their answers align with your own long term goals, you might well have found the right digital agency to work with.

2. Prior success in a specific area

Without doubt, the biggest indicator of future success is prior success. The more specific, the better. If your goal is to implement a complicated CRM (customer relationship management) integration so your website can reduce staff admin, you need to find an agency that has already done that, at least once.

If you’re struggling to find agencies with specific experience, look for transferable experience. Will the team be working with a large board of directors and managing competing personalities? Designing and developing to very high accessibility standards? Delivering a bold website that’s going to shake up the expectations in your industry? Remember that it’s always easier repeating a past success than it is trying to hit it out of the ballpark on your first attempt, so this should be very high in your list of what to look for in a digital agency.

3. Sector specialism

This is related to #2 on our list, for sure, but it’s definitely worth looking for evidence that a digital agency is a specialist in your sector. A sector specialist will have lots of clients similar to you and will understand industry concepts and your market position. They should be able to advise the best way to communicate your difference because they know how your competition does it.

This point comes with a word of warning: if one of your priorities is to make a statement in your industry and stand out against a tired digital landscape, a sector specialist might actually hinder your goal. There’s a balance between being in safe hands and breaking new ground. Bold moves always carry some risk, and a specialist with lots of experience might be more risk-averse than a sector newbie with lots to prove.

An agency that is excited by each new digital brief, and knows the landscape, can be well placed to deliver something new and provocative

That’s not saying sector-specialists can’t create interesting and exciting work. In fact, an agency that is excited by each new digital brief, and knows the landscape, can be well placed to deliver something new and provocative. The thing to consider, perhaps, is how you want the digital agency to use its knowledge of your sector. If you want to conform to some industry norms, follow established patterns and not break too many rules (which can be beneficial to your audience) then experience counts for a lot.

4. A talented team (not necessarily a big one) that is able to identify and mitigate its weaknesses

We’ve written before about how small teams can be better for you than big teams, but whatever the size, talent is the most defining factor. Delivering any project successfully requires everyone in the team to work efficiently together, drawing on their experience and ingenuity to create something new.

With web design (our core specialism) you need several key skills to come together; strategic thinking, technical know-how, user-focused design and good project-management are all essential. That means each project has to be driven by a strong team, and not just one or two talented individuals.

Each project is different, though, so the best teams will also be able to identify where they fall short and mitigate those shortcomings, either by outsourcing or investing in training or research. A good digital team should also be upfront about its strengths and weaknesses so that you can make an informed decision about who to hire.

5. Realistic claims

A good digital agency will understand that the results of even its best work will be limited by factors outside of its control, and be honest about the fact. For example, promises of lightning-bolt results on SEO (a famously slow-burn effort) without significant input from you on content strategy and production should be treated with a fair degree or scepticism.

While it might be tempting to go with the agency that says it can deliver x, y and z without any downsides, consider whether the other agency — the one that talks about unavoidable trade-offs, long-term effort and realistic expectations — is offering you a more truthful appraisal of what’s possible with your budget, timescale and other resources.

6. Questions, questions, questions

Even if an agency is a sector specialist with lots of knowledge from prior work, you should expect tons of questions. If an agency isn’t asking questions, they’re making assumptions. And assumptions “are dangerous things to make”...

Assumptions are dangerous things to make, and like all dangerous things to make — bombs, for instance, or strawberry shortcake — if you make even the tiniest mistake you can find yourself in terrible trouble.

Lemony Snicket, The Austere Academy

The more an agency understands your operation, market position, internal politics, competition, working practices, pain points and so on, the more it can help you. Maybe they will have a ready-to-go solution for a problem you didn’t even know you could fix. Some of the information will be incidental and you might wonder why on earth a digital agency would ask about it, but you never know what little seeds of knowledge can grow into.

7. Fees that match your budget

This is a tricky one because sometimes there isn’t a budget set in stone at the start of a project. And on the other side, agency fees can be opaque and estimates vague. The best way to know how much an agency can give you for your budget is to be upfront about it. Plenty of organisations have a budget but keep it under wraps in the hope that agencies will compete on costs, saving you money. But that doesn’t make a lot of sense to us.

The first problem is that an agency might approach the brief as a best-case scenario, saying “Here’s what we could do if you; it would cost £60,000”. You might love the proposal but if you only have £40,000 in your budget something has to give. And if you only have £10,000 you’ve wasted a whole lot of time.

The second problem is that an agency might low-ball the proposal to win the work and cut corners later. This makes the proposal look great, but in the long run you’re being short-changed (or the agency will resent being held to their baseless promises and the service level will fall).

Better to say what you have in the budget and ask for an honest assessment of what can be completed under it. That way you remove a huge variable in the process and are able to assess the responses from various agencies much more rigorously.

8. Great communication

Communication is the bedrock of any meaningful relationship. Agencies need to communicate well internally so that teams work efficiently together; and externally, so that you are kept up to date on progress, know when your input is required, and aren’t caught out by unexpected deadlines or any other unwelcome surprises.

Agencies will likely have a preferred internal comms platform (other than email) but should be able to jump on anything you use regularly if required. A recent project of ours involved returning to Basecamp, several years after we dropped if for Slack. It worked well (not least because of a great project manager on the client side keeping a large-ish team focussed and well-informed). A good sign that an agency will communicate well could be regular progress meetings detailed at the proposal stage — it shows they know how important it is.

9. Culture and values

We all know that company culture is important; we get on better when we understand each other and share values. When a good culture is established, a diverse workforce with different perspectives can coalesce towards common goals. It is rewarding to work with people whose culture you admire.

For us, working with Goppion —an Italian company that produces the world’s best museum display cases— was a revelation. We are inspired by their attention to detail, commitment to collaboration, experimentation and R&D and desire to outclass their competition — all wrapped up in Italian warmth and hospitality. Sharing similar values with a digital agency will mean you all know what to expect from each other, and should work better together. Decision-making, communication, project processes and the thing — whatever it is — that you are all working towards will benefit.

We’re honest enough with ourselves to know we’re not 100% right for every project.

It should be clear by now that many factors come together in the best digital agencies. Experience, talent, teamwork, communication and culture all play a part. Not forgetting the fees, which can make or break a great working relationship.

We’re honest enough with ourselves to know we’re not 100% right for every project. We’re not the cheapest or the most expensive (we have lost out to lower and higher bids multiple times) and we’re not going to win every proposal we submit. Stiff competition keeps us on our toes, even in the sectors we have significant success in.

Hopefully this article will help you identify agencies you’d like to tender for your next big project. When you write that shortlist, we’d love to be on it.

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