What Your Digital Agency Says vs. What They Actually Mean

A man in a blue shirt using a laptop on a white desk
A man in a blue shirt using a laptop on a white desk
A man in a blue shirt using a laptop on a white desk

With new digital agencies popping up all over the shop, we thought it was time that we impart some wisdom on navigating the schmoozing that’s common between agencies and clients, and how to identify bullshit when it’s right under your nose

In an industry worth over £3 billion, the digital sector is growing - and so is the vocabulary passed about between Chief Culture Officers, Strategy Dons and Hackers-In-Residence over the office ‘free fruit’ bowl. From innovative digital solutions to award-winning full-service strategies, digital agencies will say anything to get your signature on the dotted line.

Here are some of the most common things agencies say, and what they really mean 👀

When they say “yes” to everything…

If you find your agency agreeing to just about everything, all within your limited budget, then you better watch out. When you appoint a digital agency to help you to deliver a design or development project, you’re not just paying for the man-hours. You are investing in the expertise they’ve spent a year, or in came cases decades, building. With that comes a shrewd eye and useful foresight, including knowing how far your budget can go.

Your digital agency should set realistic expectations for budget, timeframe and delivery, even if that means pushing back and saying no from time to time. Choose an agency that asks the right questions from the outset, rather than simply nodding and smiling until the invoices are paid.

Nobody likes to hear ‘no’ but take it from us, in the long run, you’d rather hear it now than on the planned release day when your website or app is chock full of bugs and nowhere near ready for public eyes.

When they say “we’re award-winning”...

Quite honestly, so what? Sure, awards are a great ego boost but what do they really mean? Not all awards are created equal and, to be honest, some awards can be bought by whoever buys the biggest table at the ceremony.

That’s not to say that all awards are empty - there are many legitimate industry awards judged by experienced and respected industry professionals that truly celebrate quality work - but if your agency leads the conversation with their trophy cabinet, ask them what that actually means for you and your digital project.

If your agency has picked up an award in your field then great, but ask them to describe the client or project they were awarded for: how did they deliver something that made a real difference to the client at the time?

Often, you’ll find the award bears little-to-no relevance to your relationship with that agency or your unique challenges. So what if they are the best place to work in their town? How does that impact your project?

If in doubt, ask the question and carefully consider the answer - and the attitude with which it’s delivered.

When they say “we’re full-service”

See also: “we’re integrated”

No agency is truly full-service. The digital world is huge and, as a result, no agency could realistically offer every service to a high standard. Sure, your digital agency might build apps, web projects, delivering digital marketing and content strategy… but are they experts at handling and manipulating data? Can they build and manage affiliate campaigns? What about PPC or SEO?

A real-world full-service agency would have to competently deliver all of this and more, while also actively growing the team and skills in new and emerging areas of digital like AI and VR.

Even within the design and development sub-sectors, agencies will claim to be masters-of-all but the reality comes back to our first point - they will say yes now and worry about providing you with the full-service experience later. They might outsource elements of your project to other providers or make an under-qualified team member in charge of managing an aspect of your design or dev, neither of which you were aware of when you signed on the dotted line.

Transparency is key to a strong client/agency relationship. To avoid falling at the first hurdle, ask your agency for examples of how they have employed their skills, strategies and expertise to deliver digital products that solve similar problems to what you are facing. Look for real tangible results from your agency of choice.

When they say “innovative strategic solutions”...

Or any other unnecessarily long phrase that means nothing of real substance. Agencies lean on words like “innovation” and “solutions” to fill the gaps in their sales and marketing collateral. But what do they really mean?

If they provide solutions, ask them: what kind of problems do they solve? And what evidence do they have to back up these claims? Ideally, you want to work with an agency that can provide real-world examples of how they have helped organisations who are facing similar problems to you in the past.

Solutions are great, but if your agency doesn’t take the time to identify your problems then you’re starting on the back foot with nothing but hot air.

When they say “We can make the budget work”...

So, you’ve presented your problem to the agency and they have delivered a proposal that looks to solve your biggest issues, it’s time to talk about money. You may find that the agency’s pitch is higher than your budget, so something’s got to give. If your agency agrees to ‘make your budget work’ without a clear compromise in delivery, you can be sure that there will be problems later on.

The pitching and proposal stage is not just for the agency to state their price, it’s also a negotiation period. If your budget does not stretch to the full proposal, then sacrifices need to be made. That could mean anything from reducing the size of the final delivery or stretching out the project across multiple milestones to better manage a budget over time. In some cases, your budget simply won’t work for the end goal you want and this is a tough position to be in. But hey, better to be aware so you can find someone who can truly deliver.

Many digital agencies will take your money knowing fine well that the final product won’t meet your expectations, but the right agency will question your intentions and, therefore, bring any budget inconsistencies to your attention ahead of time.

Don’t be afraid to ask for answers: how will your agency accommodate a reduced budget? Can they deliver a solution to your problem and if there are cuts taking place, how will that affect your project?

Arm yourself with questions that provide tangible and evidence-based answers - any good agency will be happy to answer your queries as it’s in their best interest to deliver something they can be just as proud of as you are.

When they say “you are our number one client”

Agencies work on multiple client projects at once, it’s a simple truth. Some agencies will pay you lip service and claim you are their very best client but you can guarantee they’re bringing out the same spiel for every client.

What’s quickly becoming the running theme here, is that honesty and transparency are key to a positive and profitable agency/client relationship.

As a client, you’d rather hear the truth than have an account manager pie you off for another week. Just as “your call is important to us”, this level of boot-licking does no good in the long run when empty promises are met by busy phone lines and out-of-office replies.

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