I have been thinking for some time about what the selection criteria should be for choosing a digital agency.
I should note that no digital agency currently meets all of the criteria I define below. [Most do not meet any.]
I know that there are way more than just 5 things to look out for, I could easily list a further 5, but these are my personal top 5.
[Put your own personal top 5 in the comments section.]
If I was out shopping for a Digital Agency these are my must-haves above an beyond all the other considerations…
1: They use flash sparingly on their portfolio home-page
I know I rail about flash, but it is not because I dislike flash.
However, due to the historical fact that Digital Agencies have traditionally produced large flash experience promotional pieces, and thus have a lot of staff with those abilities, almost all Digital Agency websites are freakin’ huge, slow loading, flash sites.
To really be taken seriously as a Digital Agency they should have a portfolio site that is a nice clean but rich experience that loads damn fast, i.e. is flash sparse.
A portfolio website should have a ton of flash, but only to show off videos and to exhibit specific flash experience for work they have done for existing/previous.
Which would allow them to easily do the following;
2: They have a mobile website with most of the same content as their portfolio home-page
Of course, any video of flash experiences that are on their normal site is off the list here.
But simple descriptive images of their portfolio, with some enticing copy, can easily be served to a mobile device.
As mobile devices are rapidly increasing in the mind share of the web, and becoming the browser experience of choice, it is getting more and more important to select a Digital Agency based upon their experience with the mobile web.
If a Digital Agency cannot be bothered to do a mobile experience to promote themselves, they probably do not have the chops to do it for a client.
Having a portfolio site is important to get a sense of the Digital Agency but it should never lead to;
3: They do not boast about any awards they have received on their site (even though they have many)
… or boast about how many people are following the company twitter account, or how many are friends of the company on their face-book page, etc.
I remember a quote from a senior software architect from my early days in software development,
No one who calls themselves a guru is actually a guru. Only people who get called a guru by the community as a whole can be considered gurus
This is a simple truism that applies to most fields in life.
People who boast a lot about their achievements are usually self-aggrandising pricks and not really worth talking to.
How often at parties have you been cornered by some guy that boasts about his high income, sexy wife, important job, amazing status, etc?
Do you think they are cool? Or arrogant pricks? [And maybe also a little insecure?]
All of the above are only false achievements when you are the one over-hyping them.
If a Digital Agency is really that good, then all a potential clients Brand Manager needs to do is hit up Google and get a return of all of the references and accolades that the Digital Agency has.
A Digital Agency using their site to promote all of their industry achievements, rather than telling you what they could do for you, basically tells you they want to totally control the conversation.
Just like that annoying guy at the party.
Which segues nicely to;
4: They allow for, and promote, a two-way conversation with the web
A Digital Agency should live the Cluetrain Manifesto!
If they do not have a company blog, or forum, with an open comments section, and identifiable genuine employees, who are actually the ones that create the posts, then they do not “get digital”.
User Generated Content, and the whole idea of an open, uncensored, bidirectional, communication channel, which includes ample opportunity for criticism, is the powerhouse behind such success stories as Amazon and flickr, to name just two.
The simple fact stands that when someone criticises a company on its own blog, or forum, all the fanbois and fangrrls quickly flock to the companies defence.
What is lost in control is more than made up for by an energised fan-base and the ability to gather real-time market research.
[Want to know what new features of your product you should focus development on... ask your online fan community what they value the most about your current product!]
If the Digital Agency is so paranoid about controlling the conversation and it’s image then they will not do well as a Digital Agency in the long-term and will not be able to deliver anything truly innovative for their clients.
All this will help them to;
5: They do not take themselves too seriously
This is arguably the most important and has to do with work culture.
The Digital Agency should have fun with itself.
The most innovative and creative places tend to have an openly self-deprecating, and sometimes even self-mocking, work culture.
Digital Agencies are about “creating and delivering a comprehensive digital vision through the application of a defined digital strategy”.
But to achieve that rather dry and lofty goal, they need to energise their staff to be exceptional.
If they do not have funny work related, but not client related, videos/photos/stories on their blog/fanpage that pokes fun at themselves then they are probably a little too dour to work in the digital world.
It will be highly unlikely that any of their staff that are exceptional will stay for that long before moving to a more open, and thus more innovative, work culture.