Employing an agency - to do anything - is a huge decision. You are effectively trusting a third party with a key aspect of your business operations (if it’s not key, you should probably not be spending money on it). But many of us engage agencies without a huge amount of thought.

Even when there is a more formal process, it usually focuses on a meeting and a proposal document. There’s no doubt that these can be useful. There’s also very little doubt they only tell a small part of the story. Specifically, they are easy enough to ‘game’ for the agency.

Why deny it? Every agency has that charming, intelligent, fabulous-looking employee who can be wheeled out for the prospect meeting before being packed into cold storage until the next one. And the average proposal can represent an imaginative flight of fancy that would make Gabriel Garcia Marquez blush. To state it plainly: the meeting and the proposal put a lot of power in the agencies hands and very little in the clients.

That’s why I am a firm believer in asking straight questions that require straight answers. The one question you really need to be asking? Drum roll please…..

“Do You Ever Outsource Work?”

A simple yes or no will usually do, although in some very limited cases there may be attenuating circumstances worth listening to. Either way, this is a question you should always be asking any agency you work with.

I would hope the logic is self-explanatory. Anytime you use an agency (or any third party), you are handing over control of some aspect of your business operation. The plus side is that you can bring in expertise and person-power that just isn’t available internally. The negative is that you lose a certain amount of oversight. When your agency outsources the work again, often without the client knowing, you are now two steps removed from what’s going on and playing chinese whispers with absolutely critical information and oversight relating to your business. It’s not a great place to be.

But there’s another reason this matters, and here again we come to the murky world of “how agencies work”. A surprising number don’t outsource work when absolutely necessary, or because they need specialist experience on a specific project. They do so as a matter of course. The agency exists as an empty shell: a huge amount of the creative and development work is going to be done elsewhere, by someone you will never meet, as a matter of course.

I believe that is bad for clients. It makes it hard to manage the back-and-forth inherent in any creative process and it makes it really hard to get on top of issues that emerge in development or crop up after launch. It usually means you are paying hugely over the odds in order to benefit a middleman who is adding very little value, and may even be taking it away.

This willingness - indeed eagerness - to outsource is one aspect of the agency model I’ve never agreed with, and we never outsource work in Kooba other than in very specific cases and with the full agreement of the client. To be fair, we’re not alone: plenty of other agencies agree with us. But plenty either don’t agree or don’t care.

There’s an easy way to find out which camp your agency falls into. Ask.

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