Digital agencies can offer unparalleled expertise in their particular niches. They provide a flexible resource for lean organisations looking to add advanced skills to their teams, and they can even borrow the tactics that built your competitors’ success and apply them to your brand. In short, digital agencies can be well worth working with.

We’ve put together this short guide to help you develop smooth collaborations with digital agencies. We’ll be talking about how to choose who to work with, negotiating contracts, and how to manage your work with agencies and contractors.

How to choose which agencies to work with

It’s an unfortunate fact that the agencies who do the best work will not necessarily be the best at promoting and presenting themselves. As a prospective client, you’ll need to dig a little deeper than visiting an agency’s website and talking to its sales reps to come to a reliable decision.

There’s no-one better placed to offer you sound advice than friends and peers in your industry, so make asking around for recommendations your first move. If you can’t draw up a shortlist using your immediate network, you might consider making a call out for recommendations on LinkedIn – though you should be aware of the potential for people’s vested interests or social ties to influence the response you receive.

In our recent edition of The Digital Marketing Podcast – which also dealt with the subject of how to work with digital agencies– our very own Ciaran Rogers touched on another strategy for getting the measure of an agency: calling up the companies they say they’ve worked with and asking for a reference. Most will be happy to help.

What’s better: working with lots of agencies, or with just one?

Deciding on how many agencies to work with is a case of striking the balance between your need for external expertise and your organisational capacity. The more agencies you work with, the likelier you are to have each part of your work carried out by real experts; however, the fewer agencies you work with, the lighter your organisational workload.

How to get the balance right?

The dream answer to this teaser is to find an agency which can do a brilliant job of all your requirements. If you’re lucky enough to have just the right mix of needs, there’s one out there.

Of course, most of us aren’t that lucky. In this case, it may be a good idea to create a framework for evaluating your ROI from engaging extra agencies against the added cost concerning your company’s time. If the added costs of managing extra agencies seem to be outweighing the benefits, you might consider a cheaper solution.

Getting a good deal, and getting it on paper

It can sometimes be tricky to know just how much an agency should be charging you for a project or ongoing work, as the chances are you won’t know as much as they do about their niche.

We would always recommend doing some research into this topic. Ask your peers how much they are paying for similar services, and try some web searches too.

If you’ve agreed on a fair rate with an agency, that’s great – but don’t sign on the dotted line until you’re certain your contract gives you the rights and protections you require. Here are some points to consider before you commit:

  • Is every clause of the contract perfectly clear? Comb through for ambiguities, and discuss any you find with the agency. For example, if a clause states “invoices must be paid within three weeks”, does that mean three calendar weeks (i.e. it could be paid over the weekend of the last week), or three working weeks? Also, does it mean payment must be made within three weeks of the invoice being submitted, or of the work being completed? The answers to questions like these may seem like a matter of common sense – but the point is that it’s unwise to leave legal clauses open to interpretation. Channel every pedantic fibre within your being and focus it on this task.
  • Watch out for excessive fees. Whilst it’s perfectly normal for agencies to write extra fees into their contracts, we do occasionally encounter cases of clients being exploited through excessive charges. In one extreme instance, a company was charged a 5-figure fee for handing over their PPC management to another agency. Check through your contracts to ensure any costs included are fair and proportional.
  • Make sure the contract outlines the details of how your company and the agency will work together, including lines of communication, requirements for work to be considered completed, and so on.

Once your contract is signed, you’re locked in for its duration – so do give it plenty of time and respect.

How to work together with an agency

Setting up a successful collaboration with an agency is really all a matter of good communications policy and practice. Every business relationship is different, but we do have some broadly applicable tips to share with you:

Your project management system, or ours?

We strongly recommend setting up your work with agencies in such a way that you are able to review the agency’s work progress in real-time, using a project management system such as Asana, Basecamp or JIRA.

Lots of agencies facilitate this by granting their clients access to the appropriate projects within their project management systems. This is worth setting up if the agency is carrying out numerous or complex projects for you – but on the other hand, if their involvement with your company is relatively minor and straightforward, it may be easier to invite your key contact at the agency to work within your own project management system.

The latter approach carries the potential added benefit of enhancing the contact’s understanding of how their agency plays into your broader strategy.

Another option is not to play any role in the project management process whatsoever. This requires a great deal of trust, but it will free up some of your time and may also take some pressure off on the agency side. If you’re taking a hands-off approach, nailing down a thorough and reliable way to measure the agency’s effectiveness becomes more important.

Staying in touch

As some of you will know from experience, websites and pretty much all things digital have a nasty habit of going wrong out-of-hours.

To safeguard your projects, you’ll need to ensure you can get in-touch with the agencies you work with at any time. Make having out-of-hours contact available a contractual obligation, and lock down the name and contact details of the relevant people from the outset.

You should also give some thought to how you communicate with agencies on a more routine basis. In our experience, you’ll get the best out of people (and keep them happy) if you book in your calls to discuss anything non-urgent well in advance.

The agencies you work with may also need to contact you at any time, so it’s important that they know your out-of-hours contact details too. And don’t forget to tell them when you’re going on holiday!

Turn conversations into concrete plans

Do you ever get the feeling that you’re having perfectly lively and interesting meetings, but nothing is coming of them? We’ve all been there.

The key to turning your meetings with agency contacts into progress is becoming a fastidious note-keeper and forward-planner. Try to turn every conclusion arrived at in your meetings into an action, which can be logged and progressed into the agency’s work stream. If you’re lucky, they’ll be doing this for you anyway.

Be clear on work required and criteria for success

Confusion over what exactly an agency is doing for you is toxic to the client-agency relationship. On the client’s part, being in the dark can breed mistrust (which does sometimes turn out to be well-placed), and this in turn will feed negatively into the working relationship.

To give yourself a clear overview and keep your agency partners properly accountable, you need to define work output requirements and KPIs, both on an ongoing basis and during every cycle of activity (e.g. a sprint, if you’re using the agile working methodology).

You may find it helpful to use a combination of task-completion-based and performance-based criteria. For example, if a digital agency is running your Google AdWords account, you might make it a requirement for them to:-

  1. Perform a set quantity of work – e.g. number of hours conducting keyword research and A/B experiments, reflected in their reporting to you at the end of the work period
  2. Work towards mutually agreed KPI goals, such as an increased conversion rate.

KPIs usually matter most – but task-based reporting keeps clients apprised and agencies honest.

How to be a good client

Wouldn’t it be nice to be an agency’s favourite client?

Being great to work with can bring all sorts of benefits for an organisation. To name a few: it reflects well on you as a brand; it encourages your collaborators to be more invested in their work for you; and it may even make all parties that little bit happier.

We took to Twitter to ask digital professionals: “What’s the single most important thing you would get your clients to do differently?” Here are some of the responses we received:








Twitter has spoken, and it seems that trust and communication are key to being a good client. Isn’t it funny how business relationships mirror personal ones? There might just be something in that.

We hope this guide has been useful, and that you can use some of our advice to strengthen your relationships with the agencies you collaborate with. Lots of agencies can produce solid results regardless of how you work together – but if you want to make magic happen, the two sides need to be in sync.