5 Ways Ad Agencies Destroy Digital Projects

John McKinney
John McKinney



164547604New York City has been a mecca of the advertising business since the 1920s. Still true today, the past decade has seen the steady growth of the digital side of the industry, with a new population of marketers, creative directors, designers and programmers transforming the city into a microcosmic (arguably macrocosmic) example of the advertising industry’s expansion to the electronic frontier.

These agencies seem to spring up overnight, while more established technology shops transition into full-service agencies of record. At the same time, traditional advertising agencies continue to hire and buy the digital service offerings they need to stay competitive and meet client demands.

While this reflects the ongoing transition from old school to new school, there are significant differences in both the creative and production processes of digital product versus traditional creative.

Advertisers, marketers and creatives risk hurting their reputations, as well as the industry as a whole, by not fully understanding the core tenets of software and web design or by a lack of appreciation of the changes in work practice necessary to deliver the best creative for this new landscape — on time and on budget. In our almost 10 years of work as a technology shop, we have seen five common preventable mistakes made by agencies again and again.

1. Design By Committee

“Design by committee” is one of the more egregious crimes that can be committed by an agency. While every design needs managerial and executive level approval, this does not mean that you need to include those stakeholders at every design meeting or concept iteration. This a real-life example of “too many cooks in the kitchen.”

In reality, you should be hiring people that you trust to deliver on those key points and save iteration for milestone reviews. Including 15 people in every design meeting turns each interface tweak into a bureaucratic nightmare.

This solution also applies to keeping clients out of the design process until there is a clear project landmark for them to provide feedback. You should break design projects up into regimented design phases with limited input and a documented review process. If you’re not doing this already, you’re costing your agency time and money. If the customer knew better than your team, they’d be doing it themselves. Stick to the milestones, and everyone will be happier with the finished product.

2. Over-Promising Clients

The most critical role of any account executive or project manager is to communicate with the customer and manage expectations. In an effort to keep a client happy (or appease an unhappy client) many project managers will say “yes” to a request without confirming the feasibility and impact. For example: “Since we’re already processing credit card orders, I don’t see why we can’t store the numbers on the server!”

Alternately, an account manager might approve an entire concept, timeline and budget before having it reviewed by a tech director or someone with a real sense of the project cost and deliverables.

Account service is a double-edged sword. It can be difficult to tell if the account manager works for the client or the agency. While account managers strive to make their clients happy no matter the cost, the results of thrilling that customer with the promise of incorporating a new application or utility usually causes damage to the relationship when the inevitable realization hits that the request is outside of the original project scope, expensive or potentially impossible.

3. Inaccurate Budgets

It is extraordinarily challenging for a non-technical person to estimate how long an application should take to develop. This is not an insult to those less technically inclined, but it’s an undeniable fact. It’s extraordinarily challenging for a non-programmer to estimate how long a project should take.

Just because an account manager assumes something is “easy” does not mean that it is. A single page site with only has one feature might seem simple; however, this one feature is actually an entire user system with an e-commerce tab. Many of the projects that come our way with limited time or funds usually get the scope changed significantly before delivery, and the client is never as satisfied with a “plan B” option. Get a developer to help with your estimate. Otherwise, you will get it wrong, turning the project into a suicide mission.

4. Trend-Based Designs

It is very easy for a creative person (though sometimes at the direction of an itchy and “inspired” client) to get lost in current trends without stopping to consider how they actually affect the user experience of the desired platform (“This site needs more parallax, HTML5 and flat design”).

As a general rule when adopting trendy features, ensure first that they will serve some sort of purpose on your platform. Stop and ask yourself why the site needs parallax and pause to actually define what you mean by HTML5. Design for your users and how you want them to consume your content; don’t design for your portfolio.

Unless it fixes a user interface problem, visitors typically do not care about this type of thing as much as you think. They just want the site to look good and function well — it’s that simple.

5. The Mythical Man-Month

This is the most important rule a veteran computer scientist will beat into your skull until you understand it. The term comes from a magical book called “The Mythical Man-Month” by Fred Brooks, who is a legend in the world of software — specifically development practices. If you boiled the premise of this book down to a single, tweet-able idiom, it is this: Adding developers to an already late software project makes it later.

Read that a couple more times for effect. In fact, go read the book, and then come back and re-read this. I’ll put this idea into perspective: Digital Agencies do this all the time. Project late? Let’s throw more manpower at it! Project scope changing? Let’s add more developers! This will unfailingly cause your projects to require more time, and you will end up spending more to deliver less.

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