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5 Tips on Hiring a Technical Agency Partner

No matter what you believed before January, this year has already taught us even “universal truths” deserve some careful consideration. This includes evaluating the strategies you’re using to design relevant experiences, deliver on promises and create a difference.

The two most common situations we’re seeing across creative agencies are a) in-house technical team stretched so thin they can barely cover new work, much less think about opportunities for recurring revenue and b) outsource firm-hopping as business cycles wax and wane. 

How do you solve for these challenges? Branding expert Billee Howard hits it out of the park, declaring “one-size fits all models no longer work.” Inspired by her 5 Tips for Hiring a Digital Agency Partner in 2017, we decided to review the analogous considerations for enlisting a technical agency partner in a shifting industry environment.

"One-size fits all models no longer work." 5 Tips to Find the Right Technical Partner for Your #CreativeAgency 

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1. Look for people not programmers.

People are in the game because they’re passionate about what they do. They get excited about bringing results you (& your clients) need, on time and on budget. Programmers write lines of code until the task is “done.” They get excited about the latest "cool" tech trends, even if it means sidetracking or losing sight altogether of the goals of the project and the business.

Focus on what characteristics someone you’d want to share your lunch with would have - specifically, on shared values. These are, after all, what lies at the core of every successful partnership. Not a shared interest in big profits, not a keenness for the services and products you offer. Because, as Hildy Gottlieb explains, “when things fall apart, it’s not about the stuff; it’s about how the people feel about that stuff.” Partnerships built on shared value have greater impact and endurance because they harness the strengths of each team to solve a common challenge where everyone is vested in the outcome.

Make sure you’re not still stuck in the trap of thinking a “local vendor” automatically equates to immediate bond and a great culture fit. Unless you only service clients within walking distance of your office, choosing a partner that lends diversity of experience and background to complement your own increases the likelihood of successful cooperation and enables you to offer greater value to your customers.

Replace the “hiring a vendor” mindset with an acute appreciation for how a business ally brings the advantages of synergy - greater efficiency and excellence - to your operations.

2. Find a team that won’t just do what you ask.

Bringing a project to life is not as simple as taking your “creative brief as a set of instructions” that just need translating into code. Creative tech director at large, Igor Clark, argues “you have to interpret it, and that takes an extra spark.”

Seeking out this spark is akin to hiring for attitude rather than just skill set, and it’s exactly what you must do to find a winning technical collaborator for your agency.

There is a classic Steve Jobs interview that captures why sticking solidly to the customer’s specifications often results in total failure to achieve client satisfaction. He said simply “customers can't anticipate what the technology can do.”

A typical outsourced tech team may be good at ticking off tasks, but not adept at problem-solving. Your ideal partner asks the all-important “whys” because they understand and care about your and your client’s goals. They devise smart strategies to reach them. Build trust with them over time so their expertise can complement yours.

3. Check for laser eyes.

Is a huge team with we-do-all-the-languages-and-platforms developers really what you need? Alyssa Gregory, of Small Business Bonfire, looks at it like buying coffee. Are you after a huge selection from a warehouse store, or a bespoke cuppa from a barista willing and able to answer everything you want to know from bean to brew?

To answer that, consider what sort of creative agency you run. If your agency is specialised, choosing a comparably specialised technical partner offers a higher level of expertise, streamlined workflow and a shared ability to really hone in on your specific business outcomes. 

There’s even research to suggest specialist programmers can turn out code faster than their generalist counterparts (and yes, it’s clean code!). Faster delivery, balanced with quality, equals more time for new client work or even just for living life the way you envisioned when you started your agency.

Don’t feel like choosing a specialised development team means you have to turn down projects from clients who have technical specifications outside your preferred tool-set. The languages and software are the tools not the result. In other words, you don't care what type of hammer your carpenter uses, so long as the end result is good. If you followed tip 2, your technical agency partner can help you demonstrate to clients how their needs will be well met with your mastered approach.

4. ABC. Always be communicating.

As David Hassell, founder of 15five, says “open communication is a concept that almost all companies claim to value, but very few truly achieve.” Too often we correlate a high level of communication with the proximity of an in-house team. Shared office does not equal shared understanding. The distance that really matters is between your expectations and your tech team’s assumptions.

With the escalation of digital over the past several years, conventional wisdom says truly wow-worthy results are born out of hand-in-hand collaboration between creative and technical teams. Your internal lines of communication are already wide open, right? Sure, right until client pressures and deadlines are introduced.

It’s one thing to talk in terms of progress reports, and yes, you do need to set up clear ways for everyone to communicate what needs to be done, what they’re doing now, and what’s shipped. Make sure you and your prospective partners can also comfortably and calmly have the down-in-the-mud hard conversations. These include “this client requirement is bonkers and needs a rethink” and “we need to add an extra two weeks on to this project so we can implement process improvements.”

This is where the rubber meets the road, invariably, because such discussions could lead to telling your client something other than “yes.” But that doesn’t mean you should shy away from them, because they often also result in better project profitability and ultimately, greater client satisfaction. Just as you’re adept at shifting your client’s proclivity for a colour palette reminiscent of your gran’s frumpy flowered sofa into an effective and beautiful brand vision, honest and transparent exchanges with your technical team can uncover better, future-built solutions.

Shared office is not shared understanding. Distance that counts is between your expectations & #developers assumptions.

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During your review, jointly explore processes to ensure nothing gets forgotten or lost in translation - and include feedback loops to keep improving those processes. Consider how you would conduct regular retrospectives together. Reach agreement on your respective roles and contributions.

The way you interact from the outset can set a solid foundation for achieving communication nirvana, and make you virtually unstoppable in reaching your agency goals.

5. Never go shopping when you’re hungry

When a project is already off track or your pipeline is overloaded is not the time to start looking for a technical partner, because you won’t be prepared for the new relationship. Even if you’re lucky enough to bring someone who manages to get the project delivered, you’re likely to run into the same issue over and again.

Instead, plan ahead so this doesn't happen - find a partner with whom you can build a long term relationship. The right technical agency can help avoid project meltdowns from happening and be there with a smart plan if that curve ball comes at you.

Start by creating your shopping list, defining your own needs and expectations. Then go about setting up the proper systems to support fluid communication, productivity and accountability. When you have those tools and processes in place, host a “taste test” to see how well you and your prospective partner collaborate. 

Searching for the right development and support partner before you’re up against the wall means you won’t waste time and resources hunting a second, third, or hundredth time.

“There are literally over 300 million ways to win. Find YOUR way to do it.”

– Gary Vaynerchuk 

Buying the rhetoric that someone outside your walls can't possibly be aligned with your interests or that all you need is a no-frills coder because you can do everything else is shortcutting your potential. Your choices for extending your agency’s capabilities are far more nuanced than expensive in-house team vs cheap overseas outsourcing. Once you appreciate the tremendous opportunity to scale and broaden your impact without adding the massive overhead of typical expansions, you can begin developing a lasting technical agency partnership that is purpose-built to help you win the long game.

Key Takeaways 

Finding a technical partner to build a lasting relationship with is possible if you follow these five tips:

  • Look for people who share your values, not just programmers with an arbitrary skill set. 
  • Find a team of strategic thinkers who can ask and understand the "whys." 
  • Check that their level of focus and specialisation matches yours. 
  • Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.
  • Shop for a partner before you're overloaded and you'll have the proper time to make a lasting and effective choice.