This article was originally published on Adage.com as the first in a three-part series authored by AREA 17’s leadership team.
Is your interactive agency doing everything in its power to make your projects — and business — successful? How do you know? Whether you’ve just hired your interactive agency or have had a relationship for years, you may wonder if you’ve made the right choice. With digital budgets increasing year after year, it’s a question worth considering.
Here are five things to look for to make sure an agency is truly right for your organization.
1) The agency listens more than it speaks.
An agency is most often hired because of its expertise. However, expertise in a vacuum remains in the realm of theory and best practice. To be truly effective, an agency must immerse itself in the culture of the client and aim to understand exactly what that client’s needs are—beyond the project itself. What that means for you, the client, is that your agency must listen to you. Its goal is to reach a level of understanding where the agency is free to explore the possibilities within a framework defined by the client.
To achieve a true level of understanding, the agency must involve the right people from the start. In the best circumstances, every agency employee working on the project—both behind the scenes and with the client — will be involved in the conversation.
With digital projects spanning many disciplines—design, technology, branding—team involvement is imperative in order to capture all the nuanced details. The problem with limiting interactions to, let’s say an account manager, is that communication turns into a game of telephone—something invariably gets lost in translation, or more important, details are missed in the first place.
2) The agency questions everything.
A good agency will ask you questions before getting started on a project. A great agency will question everything throughout the project. Both client and agency must embrace these questions as a way to get on the same page. When agency employees don’t know the reasons behind decisions, it is nearly impossible to do effective work.
To understand what really needs to be accomplished, an agency must first understand why. The question why paves the path to intention. I often tell my staff to keep asking why until there are no questions left. Only then can you construct a solution that has the desired outcome: Who will benefit from a specific feature? What effect will this benefit have? What business value will be derived from this effect?
3) The agency works with a startup mentality.
All successful startups share some of the same qualities. Startup employees can do their own jobs as well as the jobs of the people they work with. This interdisciplinary approach is absolutely necessary to a startup’s success because it enables more effective cross-disciplinary collaboration. Established agencies, on the other hand, often tend to silo employees into departments, cultivating an “it’s not my job” mentality. Startups make success everyone’s job.
Startup employees are also hands-on, taking ownership of projects whether they succeed or fail. Everyone on the team—from the person at the front desk to the CEO—makes sure they know their customers well, and they aren’t afraid to take risks to give them what they want. They know how to communicate, checking in frequently with colleagues, business partners and clients. Bottom line, all employees are tapped into the pulse of the business—they thrive and are driven by it.
4) Making mistakes — and admitting to them — is part of the agency’s culture.
Iteration and failure are inherently part of the creative process. But there are countless agencies out there that pretend every idea generated in-house is a good one. Some will even argue the point once an idea has failed because they don’t want to admit they were wrong.
If an agency has the client’s best interest in mind, they will acknowledge failed attempts—even mistakes—throughout the project and in a post mortem, detailing what went right and what did not. For example, we put everything in writing and share it with our clients. We see this as a best practice. If we cannot put our signature to our failings, we surely cannot put it on our achievements.
It’s not easy, though. It means everyone has to take their egos out of the equation. In the end, this creates transparency, cultivates creativity, enhances communication and builds mutual trust and respect.
5) The agency tells you how important your business is.
I was recently at lunch with a potential client. At the end of our meeting I told him how we — the agency— felt about working with him. I let him know how excited we were about the opportunity to collaborate with him on the project and why it was important to us as an agency.
He looked surprised and then said something that surprised me: None of the six other agencies he had spoken with actually said they wanted to work with him. Nor did they tell him how the collaboration aligned with their agency’s business development strategy. While trying to prove that their agency was the right fit, it seems they overlooked a simple yet key element that clients are looking for: desire.
An agency must express its desire to work with you at the start and throughout the relationship. At the end of the day if an agency head or account manager doesn’t actually say their firm wants to be in a relationship with your organization and doesn’t profess to be happy working with you, you’re probably not getting their best work. And that’s when it’s time to make a decision: Do you stay with an agency that isn’t delivering its best work or look elsewhere? To me, that’s a question that’s easy to answer.