How to Select and Work With a Digital Agency

Selecting a competent, reliable digital agency for a web content management project can be both exciting and daunting. On the one hand, teaming up with an external partner can open up new possibilities, enable innovation and increase sales. On the other hand, if things go wrong and the relationship breaks down half way through the project, the resulting mess can be a very expensive mistake to fix.

In my career I have been involved in dozens of digital agency selections for website redesigns and web content management projects. Whilst some of these projects went over time and over budget, most of them still delivered great value and the decision to engage an external agency paid off. The very best outcomes emerged from partnerships with a strong focus on business goals and a high degree of flexibility with regards to approach.

In over 15 years of working in digital, I can remember only one web content management project involving a digital agency that happened to be an outright failure. This project had red flags all over it from day one, and the relationship with the agency broke down completely after a small 50-page pilot website was finally delivered after months of delays at a whopping cost of $5,000 per webpage. Legal action followed.

When I look back on all those numerous partnerships that worked well, and the very few that didn’t, I find that it helps to break down the experience of selecting and working with a digital agency into four key stages: discovery phase, selection process, project delivery and ongoing maintenance. Each of these stages requires attention and commitment to get it right.

1.      Discovery

Prior to communicating project goals to external agencies, it helps to clarify them internally. The purpose of the discovery phase is to capture the vision, strategy, and high-level requirements for the project. In addition to supporting the agency selection process, the discovery phase also ensures internal buy-in.

Discovery phase focuses on questions such as:

  • What is the overarching business strategy?
  • What problems does the project aim to solve?
  • What skills and insights are missing?
  • What role will the agency play?
  • What does success look like?

It is important to strike the right balance between exploring these questions at an appropriate depth, and not letting the discovery phase become so all-consuming that it stalls the project. That’s why it can be useful to have an agreed structure and timeline to all the meetings, such as the three-step process outlined below.

Step 1. Discovery workshop is an open discussion about the high level project goals and objectives. Disagreements, when they happen, can be acknowledged and noted, rather than resolved, at this early stage.

Step 2. Stakeholder interviews with up to 12 knowledgeable individuals whose insight, feedback, and buy-in are essential to the success of the project. Stakeholder interviews validate the vision, emphasize priorities, and help to build consensus about the direction and approach.

Step 3. Discovery findings meeting is designed to secure final validation and approval on a small number of core requirements (less than 20) that will be essential to delivering the project. These core requirements will become the integral part of the brief and will be used to identify the capabilities and competencies that the selected agency partner needs to bring to the table.

Selection process

Selecting a digital agency can be broken down into the following steps:

  • Shortlist
  • Agency presentations
  • RFP
  • Scoring
  • Decision-making
  • Respectful negotiation

Shortlisting is typically based on a mixture of information provided by industry analysts and customer references. If you can get hold of first-hand experiences of customers working with a particular agency in the recent past, that’s even better. Including 3 to 5 suitable agencies in your shortlist is about right. Having more than 7 is not recommended because it drastically reduces the chances of each agency to win the tender and will put off many competent but busy agencies from participating in the selection process.

It is useful to schedule meetings with each shortlisted agency prior to sending out requests for proposal (RFP). This way each agency will get an opportunity to understand the project and the requirements better, and will be well placed to provide a good quality response.

Once agency presentations are done, it’s time to write a Request for Proposal. This document includes information about the key aspects of the project, such as:

  • Background information about the company
  • Competitors overview
  • Proposed sitemap, navigation, Information Architecture
  • Design moodboards and preferences
  • Brand: imagery, tone of voice, primary message
  • Content strategy, copywriting, editorial calendar
  • Digital marketing requirements
  • Technical requirements
  • Key members of the team put forward
  • Budget
  • Timescales

You should also communicate selection criteria upfront. This could be, for example:

  • Feasibility of a long-term partnership
  • Understanding of the requirements
  • Previous experience of delivering similar projects
  • Proven ability to innovate
  • Cost

With clearly defined selection criteria, decision making shouldn’t be difficult. If at the end of the selection process you need to negotiate, try to do this based on negotiating defined packages of work that you can exclude from the project. Bluntly negotiating down the daily rate is unlikely to give you a reputation of a valued customer.

Before signing the contract, remember to take references. Discussions with past clients provide valuable insights into how the agency performs in the real world.

Project delivery

When planning a project, it’s useful to have a small-scale pilot stage in order to prove the viability of the proposed approach and to establish a trusting relationship with the agency with minimum risk. The pilot stage makes it possible to identify any issues before more substantial resources are committed.

Throughout the project, it helps if all parties are responsive, transparent and welcome an open debate. A good agency will challenge the way things are done and often for a good reason. Don’t be resistant to the new ideas and opportunities to learn.

Ongoing maintenance and support

A typical contract with a digital agency includes a warranty period of up to 3 months for bug-fixing and minor amends to the website. After that, the ongoing maintenance of the website can be either done by the agency under a separate maintenance contract, or it can be handed over to the in-house team. Consider who is best placed to perform the following maintenance tasks:

  • Server and system upgrades, security patches
  • Digital marketing
  • Analytics, reporting and analysis
  • Continuous improvements
  • Emergency fixes

When the website is well supported, it’s hardly noticeable – the website simply works as expected! It’s only when the maintenance is not in place that problems start to build up really quickly, undermining success of the project.


When selecting a digital agency, start with asking the right questions internally. A clear brief is critical to an effective selection process. Build a trusting relationship with the agency by setting clear expectations and being open to feedback and new ideas. Once the website is live, remember to have a maintenance plan in place that will make the project a long lasting success.