Over the past decade, the digital skills shortage has continued to grow. This means that it's rarely feasible for a business to expand its internal team whenever new talent or technology is required for a digital project. Instead, most companies will typically turn to consultancies, software companies, or digital agencies to help with the heavy lifting.
Here, we'll take a closer look at the work agencies carry out, the way they work, and the results you can expect.
Before we get started, a small caveat. The term' digital agency' is a broad one. Some agencies may sell themselves as a marketing resource, others as product-focused, or even use the all-encompassing 'digital' to describe themselves. Others may specialise as well, so make sure you're clear on scope - an SEO agency may not be the best choice if you need graphic design support!
In reality, most of these agency types will be able to offer a wide range of services, so here we'll look at the primary benefits and considerations for a range of digital projects.
If you'd like a complete comparison of agencies, consultancies, software houses, talent marketplaces and more, make sure you check out our at-a-glance guide as well.
Harnessing Diverse Skillsets: The Good and the Bad
Pros: Broad Creative Skillsets at Your Disposal
When you work with an agency, one of the biggest bonuses will be the creative skillset available to you. Agencies focus on end-to-end delivery of a product, which means they can help you at every stage, from ideation to sign-off. This can be especially useful if you need help scoping out your project or to put more meat on the bare bones of an idea. Agencies are there to help you realise your vision.
Typically, they will have developers who will deliver high-quality work and can work on both front and back end (although some may specialise here) projects. They'll have case studies from existing clients and resources in place to support delivery.
Agencies excel when working as collaborative guides, helping you move through the various stages of a project with minimum friction, and you'll typically end up with a high-quality finished product.
Cons: Limited Technology Stack
On the downside, an agency will - for obvious reasons - usually have a specific technology stack you'll need to work with. Again, while this is great for one-off projects, it can become a burden for longer-term projects.
Remember that you'll want to integrate the project with your own systems and services, so it pays to make sure the agency has experience integrating their work with the tech you are using. If the plan is to build a stand-alone application instead, then you’ll also need to understand how this will be maintained, and for how long. If it isn’t included in the price, this could easily become an additional cost or admin burden.
This becomes particularly prevalent in projects designed to run continuously. Over time, it's inevitable that you'll look to expand or upgrade your own systems and processes. The last thing you want is a project that needs to be rebuilt to keep up with internal changes.
Agencies also typically operate with a relatively small team of developers at their disposal, primarily due to the financial implications. Maintaining a large bench can be a hefty investment. The developers in an agency are usually highly competent and proficient, but they may only offer specific languages or have experience with a limited set of technologies.
Jump-Starting Projects: Pros and Cons of Agency Speed
Pros: Quick Project Fulfilment
A helpful aspect of the agency model is the ability to offer 'out of the box' project fulfilment. With some exceptions, an agency may have worked on a number of similar projects in the past.
This means that their internal processes and project management will be pretty seamless. Once the creative work and concepts have been finalised, they'll be able to construct the bones of your project in short order, which can be especially useful if you need an MVP quickly.
Cons: Potential for Delays
Unfortunately, this doesn't tell the whole story. As mentioned, an agency will have a limited development bench, and the very thing which makes them attractive - their experience with similar projects - may slow down your project launch.
Agencies are dealing with multiple clients or even several requests from the same business. Without a large bench, your project becomes one of many to be juggled by the team. Agencies have many strong aspects, but don't expect an immediate start.
Adapting to Change: The Flexibility of Digital Agencies - A Double-Edged Sword?
Pros: Exceptional Cultural Fit and Account Management
Another area agencies excel in is cultural fit. In almost all cases, you'll have a dedicated account manager who fully understands the value of strong relationships and will handle the vast majority of the administrative work for you throughout the life of the project. They'll be highly responsive and looking for ways that they can add additional value for you. This can mean suggesting improvements to the project or bringing in specialists to help to make sure you get the best results.
Cons: Constraints in Flexibility
While your account manager can be incredibly helpful, this method doesn't always lead to increased flexibility. With technical projects, it's often useful for your team to interact directly with the agency developers, and this may not always be possible.
Similarly, their focus on multiple clients means that the team may not always be working to your schedule, and the agency is unlikely to be keen to alter its own well-practised processes to suit individual clients. You will likely be faced with limited - or even single - ways of working that can't be changed.
It's also worth noting that while agencies offer a high level of professionalism, their account managers are not typically developers and may not be able to provide technical insights into your project.
Crunching the Numbers: The Financial Pros and Cons of Hiring a Digital Agency
Pros: Comprehensive Services and Value for Money
Digital agencies offer a comprehensive service, which includes everything from ideation to delivery and are well-equipped to handle all sorts of one-off projects. The work you receive will typically be of high quality, and they'll excel at helping you expand and deliver your creative vision.
Most agencies offer a choice of one-off or retainer billing types and will do their best to provide as much value as possible at every stage of a project. Because of this, they can represent excellent value for money.
Cons: Potential Pricey Commitment
Initial costs are likely to be relatively high, and this can increase significantly when you consider the real cost of delivery. Over the years, the market has pushed agencies to become one-stop shops for digital delivery, and while this can be appealing, it can also lead to a tendency to cross-or-upsell additional services which you may not be able to fully utilise.
Agencies will usually offer low management costs, but development and tech resources tend to come with a hefty markup attached, and if you need services or capacity that doesn't fit the agency's standard models, then this can also drive additional costs.
Finally, remember that agencies are focused on delivering single projects. If you need a more extensive collaboration or ongoing maintenance and support, they may not be the best choice.
As you can tell, agencies come with a lot of positive aspects. They can be an excellent choice if you need help scoping projects or building out creative ideas, and they'll typically deliver high-quality work. However, this does come with limitations.
If you have a one-off digital project in mind that has a set end-point, an agency could be the ideal partner. For larger projects that may need updates, amends, or projects such as apps or platforms that need to stay active for a long time, there may be better options that will save you time, money and additional work in the long run.
We've put together a complete overview of different options that can help you choose the best possible choice for your development project, as well as deep dives into the various types of delivery partners on the market. As always, if you have a project in mind and need extra support, we'd love to hear from you.