“Award winning digital agency”​ does NOT mean “the best”​.

I’ve been going back and forth about whether to write about this issue for months, because it’s very hard not to come across as negative or whiny or “jealous”.

I’m not, I swear.

I just compete in a market where a lot of shady and deceptive stuff goes on, and good people are being duped. My intent is always to have an open conversation about unspoken problems, so I hope this is taken in that spirit, and hopefully, educates some clients along the way.

A few months back, I suggested on LinkedIn that the only people that get awards are those that spend all their time nominating themselves for awards. Naturally, it was hyperbolic and a generalisation, but I copped some heat, and was even accused of “sour grapes”

Honestly, that’s not the case. I simply don’t care about awards, because I don’t believe they actually mean anything. I most certainly would never nominate myself or pay to enter them, and even if I did, most of what we do is behind the scenes anyway: audits, fixes, project rescue, consulting, integrations etc – all the unsexy, necessary (and low-profile) stuff.

In other words, we are the digital agency who cleans up others’ messes.

There’s not exactly an award in the digital marketing industry for “dropped everything to create an emergency landing page and moved a client’s domain to a new server in half a day, because their agency went out of business and everything went dead, and now they are ignoring calls or emails and there is no backup of the $50,000 website they just put live and there’s a media campaign this week”.

or

“Saved the client $1000 a month in ad spend through optimisation”

or

“saved the client $100k in marketing spend without losing a single head count”.

Doesn’t work that way.

It’s very difficult to believe in the credibility of Awards when you’re in our position.

Obviously I won’t name the awards or the agencies, because that isn’t right and I have integrity, but I also want to tell you that awards tell you nothing about the quality of the agency or their work. In fact, I have often found the opposite to be true.

In the last year, I have audited (and fixed) quite a few “award winning” digital agencies’ work for clients who suspected they weren’t getting what they were promised (or paid for), and asked me to take a look.

What I see continues to shock and amaze (and infuriate) me.

Yes, even at the high end. At the lower (under $5k) end of the market you expect compromises. But, bigger clients beware: paying more does not mean you’re getting more. As someone who has always priced fairly and worked with integrity, I find it upsetting to know that we deliver so much more, and work so much harder, for so much less!

There are a lot of digital agencies that are claiming “award winning” status, all while leaving behind a trail of overpriced, terribly designed, broken and slow sites, not even optimised or mobile-friendly, with terrible-or-no strategy, with clients on SEO & PPC monthly fees and not actually doing anything… and an increasing number are charging clients top dollar, only to delegate work to juniors and interns (or off-shore).

  • One had charged $20k for what was obviously a $1000 off-shored job. My report got the client their money back.
  • One charged hundreds of thousands of dollars for a Drupal multisite that is still broken and doesn’t have even basic blog functionality after 2 years of development.
  • One was charging $2k a month for Adwords Management (not spend) and they hadn’t even logged in for 3 months.
  • One was charging $5k a month for SEO, without even the most basic of technical tweaks or site updates being done in 2 years (and the client writes their own content!).
  • One quoted a simple request as 3 days of development — it was no more than an hour’s work.
  • One had stripped out and white-labelled an Open Source CMS, and was selling development of core features back to the client at a premium.
  • One had advised a solution for a client knowing full well that the client would need a rebuild in 6 months, even though the client had specified their plans in the beginning.
  • One resold a $55 Envato template for $25k, and had configured the back-end so poorly it took us an entire day just to figure out how to make a simple change.
  • One had developed the site with all content fields on lockdown, so that the client could not add in any additional text without paying for development work.
  • One has been charging a $40k a month management fee. That’s plus production, plus ad spend. And no, the work isn’t good.

All of the above have come from “award winning” agencies in the last 12 months. And no, it is not just the small ones. The big ones are just as bad.

It is really disappointing, and quite disillusioning, to see our industry through my eyes. It’s hard not to be “negative” when this is what you see, day in, day out.

Awards don’t really mean anything other than “we put extra special effort into a key client that had our best work”. It is not an indicator of all their work. Trust me, in my experience, most of the grunt work is handed to juniors and/or off-shored and the average client is subsidising the “award winning” work.

When choosing an agency, make sure that “award-winning” is not your only criteria, and that you don’t just rely on the work that they choose to show you. Push them. Ask who is going to be doing the work. The good ones will be honest with you if they are using a freelancer or off-shore (there is nothing inherently wrong with it as long as it is open and well-managed).

And, ask yourself this question: Are you are a key client (like a major brand or high profile startup)? If not, and you have an inkling that you’re overpaying, you should definitely ask questions. Agencies that are doing the right thing will be straight with you (or open to someone else looking at the project).

Awards are nice. Some of them are credible. I am sure that in many instances they are well-deserved. But, they are not really a marker for anything other than “we nominate for awards”, “we pay to nominate”, or “we put all our best effort into a client that is good for our PR”.

Never assume that Awards = good.

They look shiny, but make sure you dig deeper. Ultimately, what matters is whether you trust them, whether you feel you are getting value for money, and how YOU are treated. Are they open with you about who does the work? Do they take time to explain the effort and cost? Do you have a nagging feeling that something isn’t right?

Trust that.

Of course, if you are a cheapskate or difficult client, this doesn’t apply to you. Your agency is probably not charging you enough (I can tell that too… but that’s for another time…).

Note: like other agencies, audits are not part of a sales strategy for Kintsugi. Yes, we run an agency, because that stuff pays our bills, but this is not why I do these audits. I’m looking to make consulting our focus, and I want to emphasise that if your current agency is doing the right thing (yes, I can tell), I will always advise you to stay put, call a meeting and arm you with info you need to try and resolve it.