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How to Work with a 3rd Party Creative Agency

Kent Winfield • July 16, 2019

Working with an outside agency to make the client’s creative vision an eCommerce reality brings with it many collaboration challenges and opportunities. 

I’ll start by listing the common problems and pitfalls encountered when working with 3rd party agencies, and then offer solutions and methods to address the issues or avoid them altogether.

Problem 1: Delivery process and schedules

Many times, an SI’s internal process on the timing and schedule of creative milestones doesn’t match the agency’s typical release schedule. For example, a key deliverable for front-end development work is often a style guide.  As the style guide is the “source of truth” for all design decisions, it is imperative to deliver this first. 

On the other hand, many agencies prefer to iterate through the majority of the design cycles and produce a style guide when the cycles have finished. Without clear communication, this misalignment on the timing of deliverables could affect the project’s start date, resource plan and delay development sprints.

Solution:

Successful collaboration on a project with a 3rd party creative agency means scheduling an early kick-off and touching base regularly. Making sure to align on the timing of specific creative deliverables will enable PMs and TAs to properly forecast development sprints around delivery milestones. Early alignment meetings will expose any possible issues with the delivery schedule and allow for the Project Manager(s) to adjust sprint cycles as needed.

As this intense level of collaboration is a must, the Project Manager needs to make sure there are substantial hours in the budget and timeline for this to occur.

Problem 2: Alignment of tools and platform standards on design deliverables.

Each agency has a unique delivery process and toolset that doesn’t always align with the SI’s process. A common example of this is a misalignment on the format and elements contained in the style guide. The style guide is the “source of truth” for design consistency in the comps and the mapping of global CSS styles, therefore, it’s the most important creative deliverable of all.  As creative agencies look at style guides with a creative lens, and front-end developers see the style guide as a development tool, it is common to see discrepancies here.

Other possible alignment issues are seen in the tools we use. For example, some front-end developers are familiar with working with creative comps in a collaboration tool called Zeplin. If the agency isn’t adept at formatting comps for Zeplin, unforeseen training and oversight hiccups could occur, leading to added hours and headaches.

Solution:

As I mentioned above, early alignment is crucial to effective collaboration with any outside agency. Agreement on the tools to be used and style guide format is needed to keep the project on-schedule or allow for alternative solutions if needed.  Part of getting to this alignment is educating the agency on your internal processes with detailed documentation. For example, our delivery guide outlines expectations on tools, formatting, creative comp delivery specs, and includes an official style guide for the agency to use as a template. Getting this information in the agency’s hands as early as possible will lead to productivity and value down the road. 

Problem 3: Scope definition.  

The scope of work defined by the agency and the client sometimes doesn’t match the development scope defined in discovery. The vision for the site in the agency’s eye may be amazingly creative, but may not always line up with the client’s technical requirements.

Other common pitfalls in scope alignment are the following:

Wireframe Creation. Custom requirements defined in discovery are “hashed-out” and approved through the wireframe experience. If the creative agency is doing the wireframes, the tools, format, and details are sometimes not in-line with the SI’s internal process.  This could lead to additional budget burn from the development team and QA.

The number of comps to be delivered. The number of comps delivered effects the front-end development effort as each comp brings with it the need for the site to be trued up to match its layout and functionality. Additional comps also mean additional QA effort to vet layouts and designs on a granular level.

The number of viewports in the comps. Similar to the overhead brought on by excessive comp delivery, the number of viewports in the comps can greatly increase the front-end development effort. For example, if the agency delivers tablet comps with custom layouts, additional FED hours are needed that typically are not accounted for in the project’s timeline and budget.

Front-end site reviews / UAT by the agency. Our Internal QA process and UAT process with the client may add front-end scope. This is a part of every project and a known factor. But, when 3rd party agencies are involved, an extended QA/UAT effort from the agency is not typically accounted for in the budget or timeline.

ADA. If ADA compliance is part of the requirements in a project, additional scans and reviews are necessary in order to confirm that the comps are following a certain level of ADA compliance.

Solution:

Communication and Education.  It’s a good idea to have key members of the creative agency attend requirements and discovery discussions. This way, creative project managers can define requirements internally and set the rules of engagement (I.e. wireframe ownership, number of comps/viewports to be delivered). This will also facilitate the cadence of iterations, the number of review meetings and the scope of the agency’s involvement in UAT.

Problem 4: Change Control.

It is natural for changes and customizations to come up during the creative cycles: after all, creative agencies are paid to be creative and push boundaries. Problems arise, though, when there are no process in place to account for the additional effort and time required to process these changes. 

Solution:

A regimented process around change control. The ideal change control experience is for the BA to capture custom work in a change register with detailed requirements that defines the scope of this additional work. These items should then be estimated and go through an approval process with the client that includes a possible timeline extension and/or the need for additional resources.

Problem 5: Content management strategy.

Content slots typically seen on a site’s homepage or landing pages are seen as flexible, “carte blanche” areas of the site where designers are free to experiment and stretch the style guide. Also, the client may have content management processes in place that will affect how these slots are designed, developed and maintained.

Solution:

Alignment on scope and adherence to the style guide is a must for a successful frontend implementation: and this includes content slots! Consistency in font treatment, image placement and layout are crucial for front-end developers to create repeatable content areas that are easily maintained by a content manager.

Deviations from the style guide can be identified through creative reviews that include key members of the front-end development team (LFED, CFED). Not only are these resources quick to identify style discrepancies, they are also adept at coming up with alternative solutions that ameliorate potential budget issues. We don’t want to stifle our creative partners, so it is vitally important for the front-end development team to collaborate with designers on areas of creative flexibility.

As you can see, there are many possible pitfalls when SI’s work with creative agencies outside their organization. Successful partnerships mean that both parties strive for a good working relationship and communicate early and often to define scope, align on the delivery process/tools and account for increased oversight/collaboration time in the budget.


Kent Winfield

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Kent Winfield

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