A good Project Manager is critical to any website project, but it’s often just not enough to get an engagement off the ground and sourced to the right people.
Having worked for and with web agencies for 12 years+, I have seen dozens, possibly hundreds of Requests For Proposal (RFP) documents come across my desk. In all of those years I can recall perhaps two or three where, after reading, I felt I could create an accurate work estimate. That so few stand out in a crowd of so many, has led me to accept that almost nobody knows how to write an RFP that is useful enough for a Web Agency to confidently produce a well defined proposal.
What is interesting is that more detail is decidedly not the solution to a better formed RFP. A good RFP document isn’t a detailed functional specification. Nor is it a complete set of wireframes. Instead it must walk a line between defining critical needs well enough to allow an Agency to make a determination of effort, but also loosely enough to allow an Agency the flexibility to explore creative and technology solutions on their own.
The worst of the bunch are the documents prepared by Marketing Directors who are firmly entrenched in a “Brand Image/ Brand Messaging” mindset. These types of documents are filled with language about big ideas but contain almost no substance as to how those ideas might be fulfilled. This is all fine if the expectation for the project is to pay the Web Agency to develop ideas for how a “Brand Vision” might be realized online, but until that work is done, creating an estimate for the totality of the project is like throwing darts blindfolded.
Most RFPs fall somewhere in the middle. But even so, more often than not, documents come to agencies filled with tons of information about image and style that, while perhaps useful for a creative team, has little or no bearing on the overall complexity of the project. And at the same time, these documents are often missing critical (and known) information that could sway a project budget and its timing by 100% or more.
Assuming for a moment that your RFP is well formed, if you are somebody looking for a web agency, in New York in particular, the odds are that you are still going to get lost. There are something like 400 Web Agencies in the greater NYC area with a myriad of capability mixtures. Some of them will charge you $500,000 to do a home page concept and another one might charge you $10,000 for a whole website. Having somebody who knows the Agency landscape well is a sure-fire way to ensure that you get everything that you pay for and that your budget and an agencies capabilities are properly aligned.
Further, unless you have done 10 web projects or more with an outside agency, the odds are you don’t understand very well how a web agency functions or how best to interface with one. Sure you may understand process. You may be well-read and have maybe even managed some projects yourself. But the trenches of an interactive agency are a unique place filled with hidden traps. Knowing, managing, and working with an agency effectively requires a strong knowledge of agency psychology and not just process.
The reality is that projects get delayed and generally de-railed for a wide variety of reasons, good and bad. Unless you have a ton of experience, it’s going to be very difficult to know if a proposed delay or a request for additional budget from an Agency is a legitimate, good idea for your business or whether they really messed up and are trying to cover up in some way.
A Mediator solves these problems.
What is needed is somebody with 10+ years working in the field with at least 4-5 different agencies. They should:
- Translate your idea into a useful RFP.
Being clear and articulate at this stage can potentially save you a huge amount of up-front discovery cost and will allow an agency to create a much more accurate estimate so that, what ever number comes out the other end, you will have more confidence in it.
- Find the right Agency for you.
Knowing what is going to work best for your project is critical. And it has as much to do with intangible factors like personality as it does with skills and reputation. I have heard stories of highly reputable freelancers who have bid on projects only to loose them and be hired by a larger agency that won the project. The client ended up working with the exact same group of people but paid twice the cost just because they didn’t know how to ask the right questions.
- Be the voice of project reason
This is where the “Mediator” part becomes so important. Although the client pays the Mediator, what the client is paying for is competent advice from somebody who has the interests of THE PROJECT first. Be clear that the mediator is not there to push wrong-headed ideas through to the agency as cheaply as possible. The mediator is there to ensure that everything that is done is in the interest of the project goals, and to facilitate productivity so that each party contributes what he/she is best suited for. Should an agency propose an idea, that is in the best interest of the project goals, the Mediator will defend it, even if it is contrary to what the client wants or thinks.
Agencies Need Mediators Too
Clients are not the only ones who need to engage a project mediator.
Agencies spend untold resources fielding enquiries from potential clients that aren’t anywhere close to being ready to be talking to an agency. A very experienced account person will know within 5 minutes whether a prospect at the other end of the line is legit (meaning they have a real project and a real budget that fits within the range of what their agency charges) and if they are not legit, to cut them loose quickly.
This attitude requires much discipline however and it’s a natural human tendency for a sales person to be blindly optimistic when trying to land work. As such, even experienced account people will often spend weeks trying to suss out scope from a prospect that knows very little about what defining scope even means to a web project. And just as often, the result of all that hard work is the realization that the prospect either doesn’t have the budget or hasn’t thought through critical issues around how features they “know” they want will effect their business.
For example, I can’t tell you how many times I have had this conversation while working at an agency:
Client: I want live 24 hour online support.
Me: How many enquiries do you expect you will get?
Client: I’m not sure
Me: Who is going to staff the online support center?
Me: Maybe we should put that feature on hold for the time being.
Simply by being a dispassionate advisor to the project, a Mediator avoids wasting time like this. And by doing so, measurably reduces the risks that are inherent in web development projects, saving both clients and agencies time, money and frustration.