Aug 02 2017

Digital Agency or Design Shop: Five Ways to Work with One or Both

A while back, I wrote about some of the difficulties of designing before you find a partner for development work. I have no interest in starting a war between digital and branding agencies, so here I’ve compiled the ways to work with one or both. Remember that we’re a digital agency (we offer data-driven design, development and an array of other services for online merchants), so you can take our advice with a grain of salt. However, despite the image above, I have actually done my best to paint as honest a picture as possible, even disclosing how one process works to our immediate benefit and not yours (I’ll cover that one first).

The Choices

So you have at least five choices. First, you can hire a digital agency to design and develop, and then rebrand. Two, you can go all in with a digital agency. Three, if you need a brand refresh that includes far more than a new web design, then you can hire a design agency to create new design assets and a style guide, and leave the ecommerce portion to professionals in that field. Four, you can hire a digital agency first and have them work with you during the design process so that things don’t get out of hand AKA over budget. Five, you can ignore me by designing first, then passing the design to a digital agency.

#1 Start With Digital Agency, then go to Rebrand

We come across this quite a bit. Let’s say your company was just bought and the new owners want to do a complete makeover. You’ve got an infusion of capital that is to be put toward a whole new wardrobe. If you go with a design and development agency to build your new site first and then go to a branding agency, the branding agency won’t be happy. They have research methods that drive their vision. If you handcuff them with a locked-in site design, they will take your money, but they will pester you about redesigning the very expensive website you just built to better match their findings. Or they will follow their own vision and ignore how it conflicts with the web design. They’re not jerks; they just find themselves in a frustrating situation where they can’t be totally effective. We can relate.

In this case, a digital agency would receive more of your business and they would get paid first. Given that a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow, that’s no small thing. Be wary of digital agencies that push you in this direction.

#2 All-in with a Digital Agency

Let’s talk some of the reasons to start with a full-service digital agency. (1) You’re focused on more efficient site management and improving the customer’s shopping experience (2) You think that the website should be the center of your brand (3) you don’t have the time or resources to deal with an explosion in communication overhead when going with multiple agencies (4) You like your current branding well enough to use it as the basis for a redesign (5) you want a shorter timeline.

The downside is that some digital agencies aren’t as good at conceiving innovative, award-winning designs as their design-focused counterparts. It’s mostly a perception, but it’s perpetuated by the competition. I remember receiving a back-handed compliment from a very hipsterific designer who told me Blue Acorn was his favorite “development shop.” I wanted to empty our trophy case on his head.

I personally believe that the agency that can work on a site from start to finish can do a better job. When the project manager, strategists, creative team and developers share a space and work together, they can better ensure that theming is on time and on budget. Designers and front-end developers work together to understand what’s custom and what’s native when considering core designs. It’s one project, one timeline, one team, one address, one place for requirements, and one singular vision.

#3 Rebrand, Then Partner with Digital Agency for ecommerce

We’re for this, but not always. Why so? A longer timeline. Development work requires a completed design (change orders cost time and money) and designs require a completed rebrand (or else your design will be inconsistent with the branding). Unless you don’t mind losing consistency and risking your brand credibility, you can’t launch a rebrand until the site is ready to go live. The individual parts can be done in parallel, but each part is best delivered in succession. If you want a full rebrand, and you want it to be consistent across all channels, you better be prepared to wait.

When Blue Acorn began work for Vermont Teddy Bear, we had to wait for a branding agency to complete their process, which made it hard to prep for a UX workshop and do the necessary brand immersion. We were forced to wait for a new logo, color palette, color association to products, and the brand voice. Because we didn’t have a clear picture of what data was already uncovered by their branding exercises, we had to hold off on UX research to prevent duplicate work. Also, the branding agency wished to be thought of as the project’s creative director, something our design team perceived as a major risk. The details of that process took time to work out, and ultimately were not even carried out.

If time is on your side, and you nail the process, this approach gives you the best out of everyone.  If you don’t believe me, you can check out Vermont Teddy Bear’s site for proof. Your branding agency can use an uncompromised approach, which is probably what attracted you to them in the first place. Then, your design and development partner can apply the agency’s style guide and messaging to the five ecommerce pages using their experience, tools, and site data to maximize business value. As a former president and an office manager would say, it’s a Win/Win/Win.

#4 Have your developer supervise the design agency

This one is a workable solution but it’s not my personal favorite for two reasons (FYI my CMO likes this approach best, but he’s not writing this article). First, creatives already don’t like the supervision they have. If you throw in another overlord, you’re increasing the chances of a creative meltdown halfway through the project.

Second, supervision increases communication overhead. At a certain point, I’ve heard it’s around eight people, a team spends more time communicating than they do delivering value.  Basically, when all you do is listen to concerns and explain your own, you don’t get much done.

So why move ahead with a such a solution? Cost. The digital agency can consult the designer on how the wireframe will affect scope. When we design a site, we build wireframes during a two-day workshop that involves all key stakeholders, creatives, and time from engineers. Should your branding agency follow a similar approach, it would be wise to invite technical members of the digital agency to attend. Nothing keeps costs under control like inviting a developer to the party. It’s like taking your accountant shopping. That said, it’s not as effective as having developers sitting next to your designer in the same office (shameless self-promotion #3?).

#5 Site design with a branding agency, then partner for development

This is the one where I start to get a little cranky. It’s the reason I started writing this article. Maybe when I’m done you’ll understand why. A branding agency with its hands in everything is unlikely to understand the complexities of an ecommerce user experience. Seriously. I wouldn’t ask the guy who does my logo to architect my warehouse or create my ecommerce site. You might as well ask them to file your taxes. Don’t believe me? Ask your branding agency if they know what a ___ is. How about a ___?

I’ll give you one last example. We were working with a recently acquired cosmetic company that had a brand design company complete the designs.  Then they need someone to theme the design, but since it’s already been paid for, the theming had to be “pixel perfect.”  They said that it was designed on the platforms most basic theme, but our team found a large amount of customization; in fact, our quote came in at more than double what they were told by their branding agency. Had they known the real cost, they might have spent less on look and feel, and more on improving their primary sales channels. Their options today? (1) Go to a cheap overseas dev shop and hack it together, (2) pull the money from another large expenditure or (3) wait until they get budget next year. In other words, they had to choose between angering their customers and site managers, another team and their CFO, or everyone who wanted a new site (which was pretty much everyone in this case).

BONUS: Going in-house with design

Say you choose to design or rebrand with internal resources and outsource to an agency for development. You’re still splitting up development and design, so many of the pros and cons of the aforementioned approaches would apply. However, by bringing the work in-house you can safely assume that you will have less communication overhead (as there are only two parties involved, not three), and less cost. However, you will also have lots of distractions, fewer resources and less experience in almost all the important categories. Personally, I’ve built two websites with an in-house team. It was “free” but my work always wound up on the back burner which pushed the timeline. I would seriously consider trading in-house talent for someone I can apply leverage to.

Your move

There is a huge lack of understanding about what it takes to build a truly enterprise ecommerce site. Unfortunately, some branding agencies perpetuate that misunderstanding, and in fact are often responsible for inflating the costs due to poor practices. If you do work with a branding agency, make sure they have experience collaborating with a digital agency. And make sure that their design portfolio includes a site with products and pricing as complicated as your own and experience with your platform of choice. Otherwise, find a digital agency first to act as your guide. In exchange for your business, most will spend the time to find the right solution for you.

If you’re interested in how design works at a digital agency like Blue Acorn, contact us or fill out this tiny form to get a case study with Kansas City Steaks:

Matthew Rickerby

Head of Marketing

Matt began his career in ecommerce at Blue Acorn over five years ago. His areas of expertise include persona development, account-based marketing, and content marketing. He has co-written speaking sessions for Bronto Summit, DIG South, GIANT, and Revolve, and received multiple awards for videography, blogging, and copywriting.

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