5 March 2012
Running an agency

Most Web Design Agencies Suck

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 And it's full of company founders who knew how things were done 10 years ago, but are now woefully out of date and motivated more by profit than good design.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.