Some digital projects may require specialised skills and capacity that your organisation may not have. Using an agency (or a specialist freelancer) can be a helpful way of recruiting short-term expertise and support to deliver projects, particularly in a fast-developing area such as digital where you may not have staff in your organisation with a lot of digital knowledge or experience.
Digital agencies can provide very specific skills and expertise to deliver digital projects and provide you with high-impact work. But knowing how to go about selecting who is best placed to deliver your work when you don’t know a lot about the subject can be difficult. This guide looks at how you can use agencies for digital projects, how to select an agency that meets your needs, and how to ensure you’re set up for a successful working relationship with them.
This guide covers the following:
- The different types of projects that you might commission an agency for.
- Why work with an agency?
- The key considerations before beginning the commissioning process.
- Writing a brief - what information needs to be included, and what do you need the agency to include in their proposal?
- Setting a budget.
- Selecting an agency - what questions would you ask in an interview? What might you need to find out that isn’t covered in their proposal?
- What to expect when working with an agency - their process, and the expectations from you.
1.0 What might you commission an agency for?
An agency that specialises in digital projects can provide a number of skills and services that may not be available within your organisation. Digital projects often encompass a wide variety of formats, roles as well as expertise and commissioning an agency can help you to fulfil these on a short-term basis. If your project is very specific, it is also possible it could be managed by a freelancer specialising in a particular area (e.g. graphic design, animation, copywriting).
Types of projects
- Websites: One of the most common projects you may commission an agency for is building or redesigning your organisation’s website. Agencies can usually either recommend a platform or content management system (CMS) to use or work from your existing CMS. You may also choose to retain the agency to provide technical support (maintenance) for the website after the initial build is complete.
- Videos: You may wish to commission an agency to create a video or series of videos for you, which will be viewed primarily via digital channels such as YouTube or social media. The agency will need to be able to produce a strong piece of work in itself and also understand the different ways the video will work across different platforms and adjust length and content accordingly.
- Animations: This is quite a specialist area of work. If you decide you need animation (as it may be easier to explain a particular subject with animation than with actors) then most organisations are unlikely to have animation skills within their staff. This is where commissioning an agency can be helpful, as they will often have in-house animation teams or work with trusted animation partners.
- Social: There are a number of areas where an agency can provide useful insight and expertise for social media-related work, such as setting up paid-for advertising campaigns for specific audiences or creating a set of branded templates for social media posts suitable for different platforms.
- Digital Campaigns: If you are planning a fundraising, advocacy or awareness-raising campaign, then an agency may be helpful to deliver elements such as consistent branding and messaging, assets that work across different channels, design and copywriting, and campaign management and coordination.
- Building something specific to meet the needs of your organisation: You may have a vision for something that you want to be able to do online (in order to make a common task of your organisation automated, for example), but you may not have the knowledge to do it. For example, you might want a registration platform for events, or an interactive map showing the projects you’ve worked on. Agencies have the knowledge to be able to work with your brief and create a solution that meets the needs of your organisation.
- Developing plans: An agency can also be helpful in delivering consultancy work, such as supporting you to rebrand your organisation, including the development of a project plan and all the supporting elements to a rebrand alongside design and visuals (such as audience identification, defining your organisation’s purpose and USP, and roll-out of the brand across all channels and products).
- Building capacity in your organisation: Because of their range of skills and experience, agencies can also be helpful to provide training. This is especially important when they have built a product that you will be using on an ongoing basis, such as a website.
2.0 Key questions when considering working with an agency
Below are some key questions that you should ask yourself before commissioning an agency. It’s a fairly big decision to bring a third party into your organisation and in order to make sure that you choose the right agency for you, it’s important to consider the following:
Why do you need an agency?
Look at the project you are thinking of commissioning an agency for. Is it a must-have? What problem is it addressing in your organisation or service delivery? Will it improve processes or make it easier to achieve your goals? Does the delivery of this require the expenditure and time commitment proposed? Sometimes people may view an agency as a ‘cure-all’’ that will be able to solve a problem by producing a quality piece of work without much involvement from the organisation. But this is an assumption that needs to be interrogated during planning. If the work needs to be done, but you are uncertain about using an agency, it leads to the question…
Can you do this yourself?
It may be that you already have the skills within your organisation to deliver this type of digital work. Outline what is needed and check whether you can deliver every aspect to the standard required and whether you realistically have the capacity to do it. Often, an organisation may have the skills to deliver a project such as a website redesign, but staff are not given designated time and have to fit it in amongst business-as-usual work, which can lead to delays and a lack of focus.
Can you manage them?
Although an agency provides extra capacity and expertise, they are still going to require regular input from you. An agency will not know your programmes or audience as well as you, so you will have to provide them with lots of information so that they can get up to speed. Plans and briefs will need to be agreed upon, further information may need writing or providing, and designs and proposals will need to be reviewed, amended and reviewed again. Ensure that you have clear responsibilities and capacity internally for who manages and supports the agency.
Do you have the budget?
Before beginning the commissioning process, check you have a sufficient budget for what you are likely to need to spend on this project. If you don’t know what the going rate is, speak to colleagues and contacts externally who have commissioned agencies before (and relatively recently) to get a benchmark for what these sorts of projects cost. You don’t have to specify a budget in your brief and can ask for a breakdown as part of any proposals you receive, but it is useful to help you judge when an agency is being realistic in its cost assessment.
3.0 Writing an agency brief
Before beginning the commissioning process you will need to write a brief for any agency to read so that they can understand what you need them to develop, and any limitations or requirements linked to its development. Make this as comprehensive as possible, so that an agency fully understands what is being asked of them, and you will receive a more specific and useful response to allow you to make an informed decision.
What do you need?
- Summarise the project in a couple of paragraphs, to provide the basic information. Then follow this with a list of important deliverables - it can be helpful to work this out in a session with colleagues in advance. Don’t exclude anything you think might be ‘obvious’ - it’s better to be overly explicit rather than accidentally miss something that only comes up once development is underway and will have to incur extra costs. For example, in redesigning a website, a (shortened list) might include:
- New branding across the site.
- New templates for pages, homepage, events, news, and blogs.
- A contact us page and forms.
- Online booking system for events.
- Donation page.
- New imagery for the site.
- Integrated maps to show where you work.
- A revised navigation structure.
Who is your audience?
- Understanding who a piece of work is being produced for, and why they need it, is important to help an agency plan how they brand and design a piece of work, especially on digital projects, where the average user level of digital confidence can vary. You should have a good idea of who your main audience is, but you should also include any secondary audiences of note that will also be using the site. For example:
- Your primary audience might be beneficiaries looking to access your services or information, but…
- Important secondary audiences could include:
- Existing or potential donors who want to know more about your work and why they should donate.
- Volunteers wanting to get involved with supporting the organisation.
- Funders wanting to find key information on your work and outcomes.
- If this is something that you’re uncertain of, many agencies can work with you to ‘discover’ your target audience. Be sure to specify in your brief if this is something you would like support with.
What are your metrics of success?
- For both you and the agency, agreed measures of success are important to give a clear end goal. This is true both at the end of the project (i.e. that the agreed deliverables have been provided on time and to the quality required) and longer-term so that an agency is clear on how you will be measuring the success of this work. For example the website loads and runs faster, you receive more enquiries, and you receive more donations.
Current status and background/limitations
- It can be helpful to provide plenty of context for the work being done so that the agency does not make assumptions. These can include:
A brief history of the organisation and its purpose.The rationale and key drivers for developing this project and commissioning an agency.
- Whether you have existing brand guidelines and any other relevant policies.
- Your internal capacity and skills relevant to this project.
- Is the agency producing a brand new piece of work, or following on from things that have been built before? For example, if it is redesigning a website, how long has the current website been in place, what platform is it built on, and how is it performing against its key metrics? If the agency needs to make a new film or animation, is this part of an ongoing series that needs to follow established branding and format?
Timelines and budget
- Are there any deadlines that the agency needs to meet? Does this tie in with any other of your projects, for example, does it need to be part of a wider campaign?
- What is your overall budget (inclusive of VAT)? As stated before, you do not need to specify this in the brief, but it can be useful for you to automatically exclude agencies who work to a higher budget than you can afford.
The decision process
- Be clear about the deadlines for an agency submitting a proposal, what you need to see within the proposal, and when the agency can expect a response from you. If there will be follow-up interviews or pitches required, state when these are likely to be.
- Being as transparent as possible about the scoring system used for decision-making will also be helpful for an agency to know what to include (particularly if this includes budget). It is also helpful for you to establish this in advance if you do not have a standard scoring system already in place, to ensure that your decision is as objective as possible.
Case study: Food bank commission website to reach more people
Sosban Fach is a charity based in Wrexham that runs food banks across north-east Wales. Following a rapid expansion of their services over the last two years, the small team has concluded that they need a revised website. They have no significant experience of web design and development internally, though the Director has previously been part of a team that commissioned a website build in a previous role. The charity does not have enough unrestricted income to fund a redesign, but, fortunately, a successful application to a national digital grant scheme for charities has provided them with a fixed sum of money to spend specifically on having a new website developed.
The Director has retained their notes from the previous time they were involved in a website redevelopment and leads on the project. They begin by having a full-team meeting to thrash out what they need the website to do. There is some debate about how many functions they should put into the website, with a number of different suggestions. They agree to prioritise functions in the following order of priority, listed as must-haves or ‘preferred if possible’, and to ask agencies to indicate any extra cost or development time these extra functions would require:
- New page layout, including homepage, general page templates, and contact us
- Simpler navigation, including new content on services and about the charity
- Improved donation function
Preferred if possible
- Map showing where they work
- Social feeds incorporated into the homepage
- Editable submission form function, that could include requests for help, enquiries, and case studies
For audiences, the team list out all the different groups that could potentially visit the website, which ends up being a list of 10. They agree to identify four key audiences, grouping some together:
- Potential beneficiaries
- Existing beneficiaries
- Potential donors
- Related professionals/partners / stakeholders
The Director asks them to review what measures of success might be. They note some performance statistics that they think would indicate improved website performance:
- More visitors
- More donations
- More enquiries via the ‘contact us’ email and form on the website
They also want to know that the website will ‘feel’ easier to use and navigate, but are unsure how to express this in a brief.
Given they have a fixed budget expressly donated for the purpose, they agree to state the full budget in the brief. They set a timeline of three months maximum for development following the appointment, as the website urgently needs changing.
The team agree that the Director will share a recommended shortlist of three for an interview with the team for approval and that a panel of three will conduct the interviews either face-to-face or via video call, depending on agency location. They decide to ask one of their trustees, who is a communications professional, to join the interview panel to provide a bit more experience and insight.
Via the organisation that provided the grant, Sospan Fach gets in touch with a digital expert, who reviews their brief for them. They recommend some different metrics for the measurement of success (including bounce rate and pageviews on key content) and ask them to provide some further background information on their current website performance. For measuring ‘easier to use’, the expert suggests setting a target of no more than three clicks to reach, and setting up an online survey that can be sent. They remind the team that this can be incorporated into user testing that the agency will build in as part of the development process.
They also ask how much time the team has put aside to work on the project and highlight the likely needs that an agency will have at different stages of the redevelopment. This prompts an internal discussion about how they will fit the work around their existing commitments. After some debate, they agree that they will revise the proposed timeline to extend the periods when review and amends are called for so that they can guarantee to be able to respond.
Following these changes, they share the completed brief with the grant-giving organisation, who organises its distribution to a network of agencies. They also share it with some agencies that have been recommended by trusted contacts in other organisations.
There will inevitably be a cost to using an agency, as there would be for paying salaried staff. It is important when considering what budget to set for a project to be realistic about what it will cost - which is why you should look to consult with others at the start of the process to get a sense of what is a good range of prices to anticipate budgeting for it.
Internally, you should be clear about what the ultimate cost-benefit of this expenditure is likely to be. Some of this may be in the success metrics you set for the project (such as increased donations or wider awareness), but others may be in qualitative changes that make it easier for beneficiaries to access services or information.
Once the budget is set, be wary of asking for any extra work from the agency unless there is designated funding available for it. The budget has been set to deliver the work in the brief, and although small requests may be able to be absorbed into existing workstreams, anything outside this will most likely have to be paid for as additional costs.
When you receive proposals back from different agencies, you may see some variation in costs. Look at these closely to determine what is causing the differences. Is the day rate different? And if so, can you see evidence of higher quality delivery that better meets your needs in the portfolio of the more expensive agency? Are there more days budgeted for in one proposal than the other, and if so why do the two agencies have different views of how long this will take? Are there any extra costs or items that you don’t understand? If included, do the ongoing support and maintenance packages vary? How many meetings have they included in the project and how many rounds of amends have been built into the budget?
If price is a very important factor because your overall budget is tight, then be upfront with agencies that it will be a key element of your scoring system, so that they can consider how they can offer the best proposal for you - or decide not to put a proposal in if they are unlikely to be able to meet your requirements.
5.0 Key questions to ask prospective agencies
Once you have received proposals back from interested agencies and completed your scoring, you should schedule meetings with a shortlist of agencies who have scored sufficiently well to meet your criteria. Keep it to a manageable number - ideally no more than four. Even if there is only one agency you wish to proceed with, a meeting is helpful to have a conversation and gauge their understanding of the brief and get a sense of how they work and how the working relationship might go.
The format of this can be very much like a job interview and before the session, you may wish to give the agency a brief on what you want to discuss ahead of the meeting. It is useful to have all members of your organisation who will be working closely with the agency on the project on the call as well.
Below are some of the key questions you might find helpful to cover in this conversation.
- Go through the proposal - Ask them to walk through the proposal, summarising their approach. This can help provide a sense of their overarching view of the project, their understanding of your needs, and what they see as the most important elements.
- Ask more about weak areas or risks that they can foresee - There will inevitably be some areas of the proposal where the agency hasn’t scored as strongly or left some gaps in their answer. Use this interview to dig into those further to try and identify whether this is an oversight and whether they actually can answer these points strongly, or whether this is a genuine area of weakness and its associated risk to the project.
- Define the process - Each agency will usually work with a distinct project management style. Ask them to explain theirs, particularly around how they will plan work, check in with you, and work through amends. Think about how this will work with your organisational working practices. If it is likely to be difficult to accommodate, explain the potential clash and ask how they would propose to work around this.
- Examples of other work - If they have not done this already as part of their proposal, ask them to bring examples of their work for other clients that they feel is relevant to your project, and talk through those similarities, especially similar challenges that your project poses and how they overcame them.
- Ask what they see as challenges in the project - This will help you spot pinch points early, but also tease out any areas of mutual misunderstanding i.e. if you are worried about something, but they are relaxed (or vice versa) you can find out why this may be the case and aim to resolve this.
- What ongoing support is available - Although this will have been outlined in the proposal, it can be reassuring to openly address how ongoing support/future amends for projects such as website development would work, and how the relationship between you and the agency will alter once the primary delivery of the project is over.
6.0 What to expect when working with an agency
Once you have appointed an agency and got the project underway, then there will be a number of regular and irregular touchpoints and actions through the process that you need to be prepared for (or query if you don’t see them happening). Including when they plan to start the project and what they need in place from you to get started.
Project management approach:
As referenced in the previous section, make sure the agency outlines its approach to managing this project at the kick-off meeting so you are both clear on when certain actions will be needed - not just meetings, but the provision of content, information, reviewing amends, testing, etc.
Once a project is underway, it can be disconcerting initially to not be in daily contact with the agency in the way you would likely be if you were working on a project with a colleague in your organisation. This makes the keep-in-touch meetings very important, as a weekly or fortnightly opportunity to check progress against the agreed project timeline and agree on what the priorities need to be in the next week or fortnight of work.
Any robust project timetable will have been set up to allow for a certain amount of slippage due to unexpected absences or human error. But just as you will expect the agency to meet the agreed deadlines, you must also ensure that anything you are responsible for providing (such as content, amends or signing things off) to allow the project to proceed must be delivered when agreed, otherwise, it can cause the overall timetable to slip and may incur extra cost due to more time being required from the agency.
Dangers of shifting the brief:
In the middle of the design/development process, adding in either extra work or changing the direction of a project will have consequences on time and budgets when working with an agency. Although it may well be able to be accommodated, it will mean extra costs and an overall delay in delivery. It may also mean that work that’s already been done, based on certain assumptions, is no longer able to proceed. To guard against this, consult widely both internally and externally during the briefing and commissioning process so that you have considered all options, and if some ‘extras’ are requested, you can assess whether they are necessary to include.
Clarity on amends:
- Double-check with the agency at the outset how many rounds of amends are planned for each element of the project that requires them, and how many days you have to review. Then sense-check who in your organisation needs to be involved at each stage of amends, and ensure they know that they need to make the time to review. This will avoid delays in delivery down the line.
- When feeding back on a piece of work, be as explicit and clear as possible about what you would like to change. For example, rather than writing “Don’t like these colours”, explain why you don’t like the colours, how that criticism aligns with the objectives of the project, and perhaps what you would prefer to see.
- What access to documents and assets are they going to need?
- As much as you can, establish early on what policies, guidelines, photography and visual assets, the agency need to deliver the project. It can help to set up a shared folder using Sharepoint or Google Drive for mutual access so that you know what you have shared with the agency.
Choosing the right digital agency can end up providing your organisation with high-quality digital products and communications assets that improve your work and outcomes. But, as outlined in this guide, an agency still requires guidance and you should view the relationship not as outsourcing the work, but as taking on another team who requires good management and a good brief to deliver their best. And at its most effective, working with an agency can be like working with an extension of your own team!
By spending the time to plan out what you need from a project, converting that into a comprehensive brief to receive an equally robust proposal, setting out a detailed and realistic timetable, and ensuring regular and open communication, you can be more assured that your work with an agency will be of lasting benefit to your organisation.
Great conversations with digital partners (NCVO) - A deeper dive into working with a digital agency or partner
Supplier and freelancer directory (Charity Comms) - A useful directory of agencies, suppliers and individual digital and creative freelancers
Glossary of Project Management Terms (APM) - Agencies will usually have a formal project management approach. This comprehensive glossary covers pretty much every term you might encounter if you are not familiar with them already. Software provider Trello has a slightly less daunting ‘50 terms you should know’.
110 Website Questions to ask before web development (Hubspot) - If you are planning a website redesign, this extensive list of questions will help you be more specific about your requirements, and uncover some things you didn’t know needed changing, before going out to an agency.
Digital grant schemes
Here are some digital grant schemes, focused primarily on smaller organisations, that you may find helpful to investigate if you’re considering a significant digital development project.
The Fat Beehive Foundation - Offers grants of up to £2,500 for digital projects, for organisations with an annual income of less than £400,000
Paul Hamlyn Foundation: Tech for Good - Provides grants of up to £70,000 to enable organisations to improve service delivery through digital. For organisations with annual income between £75,000 and £10 million. Includes technical and project development support from CAST (Centre for the Acceleration of Social Technology).
Digital Candle - While not a grant, Digital Candle is a network of digital communications experts who have volunteered their time to support smaller charities that have questions about specific areas of digital development. You submit your query, and they will pair you with someone with relevant experience who can help you identify the next steps and key actions to take.
CAST (Centre for the Acceleration of Social Technology) - CAST is an organisation dedicated to helping third-sector organisations make
Agency - A company that provides services (often creative) on behalf of others.
Amends - General term referring to the process of reviewing and suggesting changes to draft content produced by a designer or agency.
Bounce rate - The percentage of visitors to a website who just view one page and then leave immediately, or ‘bounce’ straight out. It can be seen as an indicator that someone has landed on your website but can’t find what they want easily or are unclear about what to do next.
Freelancer - An individual provider who can deliver specific services. In this context, it could be a graphic designer, a web designer, an illustrator, a copywriter, etc.
Content Management System (CMS) - A software application that enables users to create, edit, collaborate on, publish and store digital content.
This guide was written by Brightsparks.