Most Web Design Agencies Suck | March 5, 2012

Over the years I’ve heard plenty of designers moan about their clients. I’ve also witnessed a recent outburst of complaints against authors and speakers on Twitter. However the group that rarely comes under fire in public, but probably should, are the mass of terrible agencies out there.

Through my travels I get to speak to lots of designers and developers, and am constantly amazed by how smart, knowledgeable and engaged these folks are. These people care passionately about doing the right thing, but are thwarted time and time again. It’s not clients getting in the way and it’s definitely not the bloggers and authors building their influence. It’s the companies they work for actively preventing them from doing good work.

Cutting corners

Good design takes time, but in the desire to win work, sales people, account managers and company owners continually force their staff to do more with less. The culture of winning work at all costs forces good designers and developers to do bad things, forcing them to compromise their work and act in ways that go against their better nature. They are fed a lie that “we just need you to cut corners this one time” but cutting corners is addictive and one you’ve done it once you’ll continue to do it again and again.

It is any wonder? The agency world is filled with middlemen preventing the makers from driving the projects. It’s full of sales people motivated and incentivised by winning business rather than producing quality work. It’s full of account handlers who are supposed to act as client champions but instead seem there to sell extra services while simultaneously making clients feel good about the money they are spending. And it’s full of company founders who knew how things were done 10 years ago, but are now woefully out of date and motivated more by profit than good design.

Hidden charges

I constantly see clients being sold inappropriate solutions by convincing sales people so they can meet their monthly targets. Once the project has been won it’s somebody else’s job to deal with the fall-out. Very often these sales people go in cheap to win projects and then make the money up through hidden charges and change requests. Recently we had a prospective client ask us to send them our charge sheet as they wanted to know how much we charged for faxes, photocopying and other sundries. It turned out that their previous agency charged one pound fifty per printout and they were left with a printing bill running into the thousands. It’s one thing to cover your costs but it’s another thing to make this a hidden revenue stream.

Resulting bad morale

I also keep coming up against designers who know they are designing or building a feature that nobody wants and could actually be detrimental to the product, simply because it was in the initial spec and nobody thought to push back. Either that or they were actively told not to push back as losing that feature would mean billing less.

In order to keep profitability high, companies try to maximise billing efficiency and end up burning their staff out at a rate of knots. They will fill this churn with hoards of juniors on relatively low salaries but painfully high day rates. This is appalling value for clients, but looks good on the end of year report.

Other ways of keeping costs down include forcing staff to work on redundant equipment and restricting access to training and conferences. In recent months I’ve met designers suffering through daily crashes because of their ancient machines, and having to fight over measly conference budgets that are dished out like rewards rather than training.

These agencies will undoubtedly have a few seniors spread throughout their ranks. However they will usually be reserved for important pitches and their most high profile clients. So despite being sold on the agencies expertise, unless you’re paying big money you’ll end up with a junior team, if you’re lucky.

Middle-men to freelancers

So many agencies win work first and then try to resource later. I’m constantly meeting freelancers that get brought into projects at the last minute and are forced to lie about their status as a freelancer. Many of these freelancers end up having to run the projects themselves with little or no support from their paymasters. So while clients buy into the seniority of the team, then end up getting none of the benefits. In many cases web design consultancies can be little more than employment agencies, hiring people in cheaply and simply slapping a margin on their day rate.

I was recently having a pint with a friend who informed that that out of the 200+ people in his design and development agency, just 10 were designers and 20 were developers. To that they had a 60 person sales team, 40 project managers, 20 account handlers, and then a load of admin people. People came to this NMA top 100 agency for their expertise, when the majority of their work was actually executed by freelancers, unbeknownst their clients of course. The agency was little more than an admin and sales front, being fed large amounts of money and excreting mediocre design.

I regularly receive emails from frustrated designers telling me about the appalling conditions they are forced to work in. The fact that they feel over worked, under valued and under resourced. One recent email correspondent explained that they worked for an agency with an “enviable reputation, with clients ranging from premier league football clubs and multinational companies, to start-ups” but “every minute is billable, so there is no time for learning or development.” This person went on to say that “there is no interaction or praise for work well done” and that “It appears that money and profit really are the most important factors.” I wish emails or conversations like this were unusual, but sadly they are the norm.

Don’t stand for it

I’m not sure what if anything can be done about these agencies. Except for designers leaving these battery farms to set up their own more ethical firms. However before making that next snarky comment about clients on Twitter, have a think about the terrible service most of them are getting from their agencies and then question whether their comments or concerns may in some way, be justified.

Posted at March 5, 2012 6:02 PM

Comments

Stephen Fairbanks said on March 5, 2012 6:22 PM

Really interesting post. I’ve experienced many of the irks mentioned above whilst working for various agencies in a full time capacity and was accused of ‘wishful thinking’ or ‘nativity’ when making suggestions on how to improve the daily slog and more the quality of the output. The bottom line is that most web design agencies are owned by people who care little for understanding the technical side of the industry and are quick to dismiss young designers and developers’ complaints or suggestions if it means potentially winning more business. Often these companies tread water in the digital world rather than driving themselves and their staff on to better things.

Sam Ladner said on March 5, 2012 6:24 PM

Hi Andy,

Thanks for posting this. Your comments about billability are definitely borne out in my research here in Canada. This link is now old, but the insight still stands:

http://agencytime.wordpress.com/

I wrote my PhD dissertation on this very topic, published a few articles, and have a few, very accessible blog posts about it, for your readers.
Thanks for opening the conversation.

Dave Cartledge said on March 5, 2012 7:08 PM

I too have experienced much of what you’ve mentioned here.

At my last permanent job, the account handlers would rarely challenge clients’ poor decisions - even if a better solution was obvious - they would much rather take a “customer is always right” attitude and deliver substandard work just to avoid rocking the boat.

I worked there for 3 and a half years and in that time I barely produced any work which I was 100% satisfied with, as each project was butchered in one way or another, despite my best attempts to teach the client and the rest of the team!

Abbas said on March 5, 2012 7:18 PM

I currently work a small agency and wouldn’t change it for the world - I’d like to think we don’t suck and I think it’s because we don’t cut corners, use shoddy equipment, under quote ourselves etc. It’s difficult to put forward a reasoned argument against the aim of your post having never really experienced the majority of the points you raise. For every good agency there’s a bad one. The one that grew too big too fast. And when the work dries up, with lots of mouths to feed that’s when the problems arise. I know too many people who’ve seen a lot of what you mention above.

B.Chung said on March 5, 2012 7:27 PM

great article. Sadly it is true, company is only focus on sales, and it is really similar to my situation.Sometimes sales team over promised what are they selling to, when quality didn’t come out what the client expecting, who the one get blame? the design team. I still worked as part time with only $9 per hour for more than 5months. I’m Jr. Graphic producer (which the title sound good, but in reality may not sound that pretty). They afford to pay more to salespeople in full time, and commissions. The total salespeople is about 15, two web developer, one web designer, one graphic designer, myself and two other copywriter. The more they only focusing on in sales, the more I’m question myself my position’s direction. We got creative web developers, designers and writers, and they did pretty good jobs. However, like what your article already said so. The imbalance work culture eventually is changing my mind continue to working here.

Emma Boulton said on March 5, 2012 8:26 PM

Great post Andy. Of course I knew that you and the Clearleft team have excellent company ethics but it’s great to read this. It’s why you have been voted .Net Mag’s agency of the year amongst other reasons! It’s a shame to hear that not all agencies are the same.

We operate in the same vein at Mark Boulton Design. We are small; our clients speak to the designers doing the work - not an account handler. We train our team and give everyone a budget for training and conferences. We’ve recently been trialling half day Fridays and allowing the team to work on personal projects on a Friday morning, to help them try out new things and experiment.

It’s about time more studios/agencies/companies treated their staff and clients with the respect they deserve. Thanks for raising this subject in the public domain.

James Chudley said on March 5, 2012 9:30 PM

A very nice (and accurate) summary of the reality of life in some digital agencies, thanks Andy.

A common frustration I hear regularly when I chat to customers is there experiences with agencies who don’t allow them to speak directly to the designers and developers who will be doing their work. Requirements, suggestions and amends get chinese whispered into nonsense via a convoluted chain of middlemen.

The job of a ‘middleman’ is no easy task. I have watched many crash and burn. Keep an employer happy or keep a client happy? Not a great situation to be in. The best let you get on with it, the worst withhold user research from clients that contradicts their idea for a design solution (yes that really happened to me!)

In many ways I applaud the designers and developers who manage to work in these environments. They will often sacrifice their own time, relationships, health and other commitments to deliver good work despite the pressures from employers to work more profitably.

I’m sure that if you looked within many agencies you would find the unsung heroes that deliver whatever the nonsense they are faced with. I think there is a story behind every design in terms of what it took to get it live that few will ever truly understand!

High employee churn and a lack of repeat business are classic signs of a bad agency that people could look out for. Its also so easy to Google names of people on a project that the pretend a freelancer is full time is surely a thing of the past.

I wonder what we can do to improve things? Do we provide clients with qualifying questions to ask agencies to help to avoid some of these pitfalls? Should the wrong-uns be named and shamed? Can businesses be taught more sustainable ways of making a living from web design? Can we support those agency workers somehow who are stuck in these places to help somehow? Should clients be more rigorous in their procurement processes?

I don’t think most web agencies suck. Agencies can be hard places to work but the pace and variety of work can be invigorating and this environment does produce great work as well as great workers. The thing that can suck is the way that these businesses are run that sucks big time.

Is it really true that given the choice of quality, speed and cost you can only ever have 2 of those? There must be a better way!!

Douglas Greenshields said on March 6, 2012 3:21 AM

Just wanted to say thanks for this post - I recognised every word, sadly, from experience (ditto for the comments). Of course, for every time I’ve thought about my position working in such a company and thinking that things can’t be so bad elsewhere, I hear stories from other developers and designers that are the same or even worse.

My experience has certainly been that the smaller the agency, the better that agency is able to deliver for clients - once middle management gets to the size where it can be rare for web designers/ developers to even be in meetings for reasons that are more than tokenism, you might as well call it a day and take up landscape gardening because you just aren’t going to deliver anything good - unless it’s a faster horse.

I consider myself extremely lucky that I have now recently come to be part of a very small developer-led agency where we can really nail client problems without succumbing to the dreaded Chinese whispers effect (I have used that analogy so many times). It’s much more fulfilling, and I believe our clients will be far happier. I think I remember reading once that it was frustrations with larger agencies that birthed Clearleft - and I would certainly encourage more designers and developers who find themselves within agencies who are not focussed on the correct goals to club together and start companies where you can do things right for clients and yourselves.

Lukasz Badowski said on March 6, 2012 12:11 PM

Andy,

Your post couldn’t have been more accurate. This is exactly what happens, I must presume, all over the world. I used to work in a couple of interactive agencies in Poland as an account and project manager. In each of these agencies I have noticed that most of my colleagues were junior staff, with little or sometimes no experience at all in digital projects (sic!). In some cases there was literally NOT ONE designer or developer employed, and all projects were pushed to freelancers.

This of course had great impications for clients. Just as you said, they almost never got the quality they had paid for. “Cutting corners” philosophy was omnipresent. This led me to one logical step I needed to take if I was to stay motivated to keep doing what I do. This step was launching my own business.

I got together with a few of former suppliers - developers and designers and we started business based on a simple principles, that may sound a bit naive, but we strongly belive are a right thing to do.

Firstly always listen to your clietns problems. Only when project background is fully understood come up with a solution. Such approach means, we are percieved as problem solvers rather than just another web agency that wants to win a budget.

Secondly work with the best. I have full faith in my team’s skills, and we constantly work on spreading the knowledge inside the company. We believe, that our most valued asset is knowledge, and that this is really what our clients are paying for.

Thirdly we price reasonably. Our expertese lets us to be honest with the client and explain all the numbers in our porposals. We also noticed, that sometimes the price is not the real problem - most of all the clients want to fully understand what they pay for and if what we offer would actually solve their problems.

We also like to keep everything lean. No time wasting, no resource waisting and most of all - no burning cash. This allows us to keep our margins decent and most of all be confident aobout the quality we deliver.

This is my advice for everyone frustrated by their daily routine - if you feel you can deliver better work take some courage and start your own business, based on your beliefs. Profit might not be instant, but the satisfaction will be.

Jamie Lemon said on March 6, 2012 1:04 PM

sigh, yep, I know that feeling,
“win work first and then try to resource later”
And this one,
“every minute is billable, so there is no time for learning or development”

Can’t we join a creatives union or something?

Amber Weinberg said on March 6, 2012 1:49 PM

This is unfortunately all too true and one of the reasons I left the agency world to set up my own business. The last place I worked for had 20+ employees, but only 3 were developers, no web designer (even though they were mainly a web design company) and one print designer. Either the print designer or me (the front-end developer) had to come up with the web design. And this agency charged exorbitant rates while paying under market. It was ridiculous.

Lee Casey said on March 6, 2012 2:06 PM

Interesting read, Andy. This is a very idealistic point of view though and one we’d all love to meet. Life would be easier. In reality, things are a lot more complicated then this. Not all the time, but sometimes. Its about finding a good balance between the ideal and being commercially minded.

Having been a designer in some of London’s biggest agencies I can appreciate what you’re saying, believe me. However, having started an agency I believe there has to be that balance.

You have to have priorities, and remember why you do what you do. If we thought our agency was turning into a production factory full of freelancers we’d sack it off very quickly.

It’s down to everyone in a company to protect it’s values, and to stand strong for the creativity and integrity of the work. We should expect people to want to work with us not because we may be cheaper, but because our work is worth their money. It can work. Even quick, JFDI jobs can be executed with quality in mind.

Tweeting your post now…

ben said on March 6, 2012 2:24 PM

Agency aren’t all bad… not ALL.

But most of them are yes giving the rest of us a bad name, I would love to work in a world where your talking to skilled knowledgeable designers/programmers about your project, not just sales or accounts people, mainly because they ARE people people. By no means is it suitable for most to talk to clients, but a flatter structural environment seems like agency bliss.

And only passionate people please!! If you’re designing / programming for the money, go and be a banker please, thanks

Cynan Clucas said on March 6, 2012 2:33 PM

For about two years we’ve been telling anyone who would listen exactly what you have written here, Andy.

Of course, you are right to point out that most digital / web agencies suck.

It may sound contentious, but few web designers / developers are qualified to discern or advise on a Client’s business. How many web designers do you know who could write a marketing plan and present it to the Board of a PLC?

What compounds this is that when it comes to matters digital, very few clients are competent enough to provide a rounded and comprehensive brief.

So you end up with weak briefs, weaker solutions, and a bad rep for digital agencies.

And maybe that’s the reason that predominantly, the big brands revert to advertising & PR agencies to deliver their digital solutions. It’s a security blanket.

But what most Clients don’t know is that they are letting their ‘old school’ agencies brief, direct and manage something they don’t understand. And these agencies then outsource to fulfil the brief without letting on, pretending that the competence is in-house.

Or maybe they do know it, but they just don’t give a shit because as long as the job gets done by a credible ‘name’ then no-one is going to check whether it was any good or not.

Box ticked. Job done. Move on.

Either way, it’s pretty shameful, but how we deal with this opportunity will define which of us are the wheat, and which are the chaff.

Cream rises to the top, and we believe that there is a small core of digital agencies who are beginning to make their presence felt and their voice heard where it matters.

It’s not elitist to say that, it’s fact.

Michael Wignall said on March 6, 2012 3:53 PM

Lovely piece Andy.

In my field of digital marketing it’s all equally true, only worse:

- many web design/marketing/advertising/pr agencies with no clue whatsoever hiring in freelancers whom they aren’t competetent to rate

- lots of very very poor (and very spammy) work which is quick and cheap to chuck out, and achieves short-term results that account managers and the like want

- sales people selling ‘social media marketing’ at high cost, which they know full well is a waste of money - basically not challenging the client or getting them any real value

- many agencies just outsourcing to India / China / Eastern Europe, with virtually no quality control, at a 500%+ markup to the client

and more oftren than not, the bigger the agency and their higher the day rate, the worse they are.

Michael

Jamie Stanton said on March 6, 2012 3:57 PM

This reminds me of my previous job, in which our Managing Director / “Salesman” would scoot about making promises to clients caring not a toss if the company had the capacity to make good on these promises. He’d then tell us he didn’t want to hear from the client until it was time to invoice, so our very small team would have to project manage on top of trying to deliver an impossible workload, and deal with irate client phone calls on top of it. Its worth noting that this company wanted to sell websites as platform to sell SEO services, and could not care less about build quality, accessibility etc unless it could help them get a sale.

Happy to say my current employer genuinely cares about delivering something worthwhile to clients, although we still have to be shrewd enough to make a profit and balance features and expectations accordingly.

Agencies seem to be evolving in two directions - makers of “boutique” sites that are hand coded and have all the nice new features and are reassuringly expensive, and low end “buy ten pages get two pages free” affairs built for a few grand, with an SEO retainer / protection racket thrown in as an extra. The former having lots of user testing, thoughtful IA and content strategy, the latter being built from a set of wordpress or joomla templates with the logo replaced. I hope to be developing our own company towards the former, but such an ideal is divided by the realities of the market at present.

Tony Chester said on March 6, 2012 4:06 PM

Very well said Andy. I’ve been running a small design firm going on 11 years now and have cleaned up a few previous agency messes. I’m sure as we’ve grown — there may be a few of our clean ups out there as well.

It disheartens us to see competition cutting corners. When you look at their portfolio and it’s 5 different layouts draped in 30 different designs. We know what the client just got but do they?

We’d rather avoid any type of charges once the project starts rolling. It’s best to be as up front as possible in the beginning and everyone knows what is and is not being done. All you get is a pissed off client and a bad nights sleep.

We do use freelance designers here but they are vetted in advance and our clients are aware. My reasoning is not every web designer can fit all design styles and payroll isn’t large enough to staff three designers :( Maybe we need to start some hidden charges — I kid, I kid.

We’ve tried the salesman route a couple of times but it just never seemed to work out. I’ve found I’m one of our best sales people and I actually can’t stand sales. It’s just the fact that when the client is speaking to someone who understands the web, they get a much better feel than from someone who’s just pushing paper.

@cynan — you are spot on. I often find myself zoning out when everyone’s talking ROI and numbers and charts. My mind is whizzing off on layouts and designs. Unfortunately, as I’m also wearing the sales hat — I may miss a few comments from time to time! Luckily I’ve got my biz partner, Greg Williams, by my side and he DOES loves the business talk.

Have a wonderful tomorrow,
Tony

Eric said on March 6, 2012 5:38 PM

nice shot.
Many people are before all, sales guys, and don’t care about what’s in the engine. To make freelance work under pressure is never a problem for many companies. Isn’t this the “market law” ?

Plethora of offers from 1 to 10, to many people who don’t care about the quality of the whole chain of a project.
That’s the current world.

Adam Smith said on March 6, 2012 8:43 PM

Fascinating post Andy. Some really fair points, even if the article is a little one sided.

What you say is certainly true of the Account Manager / Sales led agencies consisting of nothing but freelancers and a handful of permanent staff, but it’s important to note that that model is not ‘most’ agencies.

They represent a small number of London based giants working for major brands who have money to burn, so can easily work to 25%+ profit margins and burn out enthusiastic juniors looking to get big names on their CV.

‘Most’ web agencies I’d argue are smaller, modest agencies simply trying to make their stamp on the world, deliver good work, while making a modest profit. I would say the owners of these types of agencies fall outside of the picture you paint in the article.

No MD wants high turn over of staff. No MD wants their staff working on old machines. No MD likes cutting corners. I regularly speak to lots of owners from mid sized agencies (500k - 2m turnover) who want nothing more than to be known for creating great work. No-one at that level is in it solely for the huge profits you allude to above.

I think if you were to poll web agency owners on what they prefer, I’m confident the majority would rather run a respected agency with happy staff, than a short-term trafficking shop knocking out sub standard work for a quick buck.

J Aylott said on March 7, 2012 9:30 AM

Thanks for a good post Andy but let’s not be so one sided. Unfortunately not everything in this world is as black and white as you suggest. Sure, there are agencies that are weighted far too heavily towards sales, account managers and project managers with designers and developers almost an afterthought. Let’s not use them as the norm though and say that most web design agencies suck!

I run an agency that works on a mix of large and small projects for a diverse range of clients. In previous years we’ve been given plenty of scope, time and budget by our clients to do great work. The focus was always on delivering the best product and best fit for their needs. However, in the current economic climate that has changed and I’m not just talking about the clients with limited means. I’m talking about clients with billion dollar profits too! It’s now all about delivering the product cost effectively which is a totally different thing. Note that I’m not talking about delivering a shoddy product and cutting corners which shouldn’t be cut (and yes this does happen, but it also happens in every industry). What I’m saying is that efficiencies must be made otherwise the work will go elsewhere no matter who the client is.

The difficulty is getting your creative and technical teams to understand this and make the RIGHT efficiencies as they play a huge part in dictating price. Are we saying that every designer or developer is as efficient as they could be? Of course not!!! If you’re involved in manufacturing or retail then you know that everything can be made more efficient and lots of small efficiencies all added up together make a big difference. Every designer and developer needs to appreciate this fact and if they are proactive in making it work then maybe the account managers don’t need to ask them to cut corners.

There are tons of other factors too such as freelancers marketing themselves at stupidly low day rates and the mass of farming work out to India and Eastern Europe both of which are significantly devaluing the industry. Whether you like it or not the world has changed dramatically over the last few years and if you think that hasn’t affected our industry then you’re just plain mad.

In short, sure there is a lot of bad work out there and if you’re committed to doing great work then you need to separate yourself based on this key differentiator. But at the end of the day… money talks and ******** walks. The people who understand that will still be in the industry in ten years time, the people who don’t will be doing something else.