Do you need a Digital Agency or a Web Design Company?

January 14, 2018

Tony Zipparro

You (the client) have been scouring the local and online scene for a company to help build your website, shape-up your marketing materials and potentially push marketing out. You have had a couple different ‘scope’ calls and even two physical meetings with places close to your business. You have received a number of proposals back from the companies you’ve contacted and soon begin to realize the wide range of prices and terminology. Most notably you see some companies labeled as Digital or Creative Agencies and others as Web Design Companies.

First things first, you might sayDoes it matter?

The resounding industry-based answer is of course…YES! These minor word adjustments in the name drastically effect the type of business you are dealing with. This includes the experience, pricing and scalability you will receive as a client. Not knowing that there are different ‘types’ of web design or digital companies out there will hinder your ability to make an educated decision.

Why does it matter?

Do you really hate brussels sprouts?

Think back to the dinner table as a child. You made your way through the mashed potatoes, chicken fingers and are left staring at those little shriveled green, cabbage balls they call brussels sprouts.  Your mom or dad look at you and say…” Finish your vegetables or you can’t have desert.” Ah the dilemma. But despite your unwillingness to oblige, the sweet smell of dessert causes you to cave.

Fast forward a number of years until you are finally able to make your own life decisions. For a majority of us, we continue to ignore the cabbage-like balls of sadness. But why? While they might not be the tastiest of treats, the main reason for the revolt is simply because of the negative association it has in our minds. We only hate them, because… well, we have been trained to.  What if we had to eat our whole dinner just to get brussels sprouts as a reward?

Regardless of your vegetable relationship, the point is that it matters knowing the difference between a Digital Agency and Web Design Company because you will be forced to interface with each. You will have to gauge the potential partnership opportunity for your business, and not letting ill-conceived notions (from past or current experiences) jade you is key to making the right choice. Arming yourself with knowledge about each option prior to engaging will help prepare you for realizing which one will be a better fit for your business.

While you may offend an over-sensitive digital agency by calling them a web design company (and vice versa), the real reason to know is because it’s beneficial to you (the client) and your expectations going in. Self-awareness for yourself (as a startup or small company) or organization / department (for larger companies) is paramount in going in with the right mindset and coming out with the right partner.

Why are we lumped in together to begin with?

Search Norms & Industry Simplification

There are really two reasons.

The first reason is because of common search nomenclature (aka the Google search powers that be). When people are looking for a website what do they type? ‘Web design company’, ‘web developer’, etc. The knowledgebase of the searcher has created an environment that agencies and web companies are vying for that same set of eyes (as well as others like template builders, hosting companies, branding agencies, graphic designers, etc.). Because the Google searcher is often times vague or uneducated about their end product they overgeneralize. Businesses are in place to make money, and as such they target those keywords that they know might well lead to a closed deal. Therefore, a searcher is shown tons of different types of companies, not necessarily just based on the search term entered.

The second reason is because people have an affinity for oversimplifying industries and lumping anything with an association into a specific job type. Case and point? My mom continues to believe that I can fix her computer and show her how to better use her iPhone…. because that is what I do all day….

General Definitions

The 10,000 Foot View

Picking the right fit is as much about your personality (as a client and a company) as it is about what the agency or web design company has to offer you. Whether the relationship works out is some real heavy type stuff. But first…some Quick & Dirties.

Digital Agency

Quick & Dirty: Focused on a custom, premium experience laced with questions, research and deliverables along the way. A Digital Agency aims to be experts along the spectrum from design to development to marketing. They get in the weeds with seemingly trivial (at the time) questions and they pride themselves on being able to solve complex problems and simplify it within design or development for betterment of the business. The standard of a designer or developer in an agency is typically higher than other types of companies. Because of this they hire and groom experts in each of the fields of service they offer. This comes at a premium to the business and pass-through cost to the client. There is no set menu of web designs, logos or marketing that is offered. It’s all custom to the client. Digital Agencies are more expensive than Web Design Companies and the client is essentially paying for the time to complete the project or strategy.

Web Design Company

Quick & Dirty: Following a more structured process whereby the projects they take on focus more on the end deliverables and less on the learning of the brand or strategy to arrive at the best design focus. Timelines are shorter and services less custom. They ask less questions upfront. Web Design Companies are able to better specialize in specific industries and generate templates or guidelines for future clients within those industries. They highlight key services that can help get exposure, but typically on a local level. Complex applications, integrations or projects are often not in their wheel-house as they do not have the developer backing to support massive scaling. Web Design Companies are more rigid in their pricing and are more affordable than Digital Agencies.

How do you know?

Our Version of the Cosmo Quiz

So, what are the best ways to tell whether you need a Digital Agency or Web Design Company? Below are a couple pointed questions that based on your answers could help mean you are better positioned for one over the other.

Do you think $30,000 is a lot for a website?

  • Budget isn’t everything, but it does help create a pretty finite line in the sand when it comes to Digital Agency versus Web Design Company. If you think $30,000+ is astronomical for your website you need to go the Web Design Company route. If not, then chalk one up for the Digital Agency case.

How about $5,000 for a logo?

  • If you answered ‘Yes’ to the logo cost but ‘No’ to the website cost you are on the fringe. You should definitely look to interact with both types of companies. If you answered ‘No’ to both then stick with a Web Design Company. Remember Digital Agencies charge based on time, and to complete a quality logo for 50 hours or under (assuming a $100 / hour rate) is a tall order.

Have you done this before?

  • Yes: Then you might look towards enlisting a Digital Agency in the mix. You probably have a list of good and bad experiences from the previous project and typically we find that clients after one or two goes at a site with a Web Design Company find refreshment in choosing a Digital Agency as their needs might now be more inline.
  • No: First timers have an easier path breaking into the space utilizing a Web Design Company. WDCs are often a bit more ‘soft’ in their guidance of a client and terminology thrown at them. Plus, there are not as many pieces of the puzzles laid out in a WDC, whereas a Digital Agency asks all the tough questions upfront.

Do you believe that simply by the way something looks it can convince a consumer to pay more?

  • No: Web Design Company route for sure. Don’t waste your money on the ‘fluff’ research and strategy that gets to the design.

What is your primary goal?

  • Simplify: If ‘yes’ then go a Digital Agency route. Simplification is often the most complex part of a project. Whether it is simplification of design, content, branding, or systems, it takes a lot of design / dev-heavy operations and strategic thinking.
  • Amplify: If ‘yes’ then go a Digital Agency route. Amplification is usually done to help ‘amplify’ results. You want return on investment and will most likely be dealing with new, unfamiliar markets. Have a Digital Agency conduct the research and tame those unknown variables.
  • Rectify: If ‘yes’ then go a Web Design Company route. If you are just looking to fix something that is broken or never existed put your investment to first rectifying it. You can always ‘perfect-ify’ it at a later date.
  • Build-ify: It depends what you are building, but more than likely (unless you have tons of outside experience in previous companies or endeavors) go the Web Design Company route. Work out what you need, see how it performs and enhance from that point. Don’t put all your eggs (or money) in a single basket.

Are you highly attracted to companies that only focus on designing with your industry?

  • Yes: You might have a better time transitioning into a Web Design Company. Their business models often focus on working within a couple niche verticals. So whether it’s Healthcare or Restaurants or Manufacturing, they often specialize on designing only within that industry.

Can you sacrifice certain aspects of the project (design, code, integration)?

  • Nobody wants to sacrifice anything, but this realm commands a great sense of realistic expectations. If sacrificing in design, development, integration or marketing won’t kill your business or drastically tank your revenue expectations then you can probably do without. Go the Web Design Company route. If you cannot do without then you better go the Digital Agency route.*

*Think of it this way. If the site is information-based go the WDC way. If it is feature / user-based go the Digital Agency way.

Final Thoughts

Worth hopefully more than 2 cents

LLT is of course a digital agency, but let me be 100% clear when I say that we firmly believe every business has a different match in each phase of its cycle. We are not right for every business and vice versa. It’s as much personality and value expectations as it is pricing fit.

Digital Agencies and Web Design Companies do not always fall perfectly into the ‘molds’ stated above, but the point is to help create awareness of the differences and decisions you will be faced in making prior to pulling the trigger on an engagement. If it’s one thing we as a company have seen over the years it’s not whether or not the project gets done or gets done well (of course that is a given!), but it’s whether or not the personalities fit.

It is people that make decisions, create and run projects…not methods, processes or standards themselves.

What a business needs, well… is what a business needs. But often that need is not what is executed. It is the personalities behind the need that drive decisions that are sometimes optimal or not for that specific business requirement. Alas, that is the way the world works. However, calling out that personality preference is a huge potential help in finding the right ‘partner’. Good luck and happy agency hunting!

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