Red Flags When Hiring A Digital Agency

Written by Jenny Claxton

What's normal when working with a digital agency and what should make you run a mile?

A view across a beach - there is a red warning flag planted in the sand.

If you are looking to partner with a digital agency or web designer for the first time, it can be scary to entrust them with your brand, your online reputation, and (of course) your money. Especially if you aren’t technically minded, it can be really overwhelming and hard to know who to trust.

We’ve helped several clients who have come to us after bad experiences with previous web developers and have noticed the same themes coming up over and over again. If you are a SME owner looking to hire a web professional or agency for the first time, here are some red flags to look out for:

Poor online presence 

If the agency’s website and social media profiles are outdated, poorly designed, or inactive, it reflects their professionalism and commitment to best practices. We’re all guilty of getting caught up in client work and forgetting to upload that blog we’ve been meaning to post, so don’t panic if you spot a typo or another minor issue, but be wary of any digital agency that doesn’t have a decent online presence.

Lack of social proof 

Watch out for a lack of portfolio or case studies as well. A reputable agency should have a strong portfolio showcasing their previous work and successful projects. Look out for references or testimonials as well. If you can’t find any, it could mean they have a limited track record or a history of dissatisfied clients. Keep in mind – some projects are completed under an NDA, so can’t go on websites or social media publicly, but if you ask the agency, they should be able to talk through some case studies without any identifying details. If they can’t provide examples of past projects easily, it’s a sign to look closer before going ahead.

They can start designing ASAP 

A good website will support your organisational goals and help you develop your business, and put user experience before anything else. Anyone making a site design without taking the time to understand what really drives your business and what your customers need from you will get you online quickly, but it won’t be a good long-term fit. Be very wary of anyone who can come up with a final design based on a quick questionnaire or one email; the more exploratory work they do at the start of the project, the better the outcome will be.

A reputable agency should also be able to outline a clear and tailored strategy for your business based on your goals and target audience before commencing any of the actual work. If they can’t (or won’t) provide a detailed plan of action, it’s a red flag. Another thing to be wary of is agencies that pressure you to sign a contract before you’ve had a chance to fully evaluate their services or ask questions. Take your time to make an informed decision! 

There are “no ongoing costs” 

A website will always incur annual charges with hosting and domain fees, so any kind of “all-in” price without mentioning these costs should be questioned. If you have your own hosting and have registered the domain yourself, then a fixed price package can be a great way to keep on budget. However, especially when shopping for a brand new site, beware of anyone saying they can get you up and running for a set price without explaining how the website will be maintained and kept online long term. We’ve seen clients who’ve bought a package that included a period of hosting and domain fees, only to find that once the initial offer expires they are locked in to overpriced retainer to keep their site live. There are lots of reputable agencies who will offer this type of ongoing contract, but the difference to look for is being upfront about this. Long term support should be sold as a benefit, not hidden away in the small print.

This is rooted in a much larger issue: a lack of transparency. Transparency is crucial in any business relationship. If the agency is not forthcoming about their strategies, pricing, or reporting practices, it could indicate they have something to hide…

They will host your site and sort out the domain

This is an orange flag really, as some clients genuinely hate all things technical so having the hosting and domain set up for them is a huge help. However, as the owner of the website, you should always have access to the hosting and domain as the registered owner, even if you never touch it and let the agency handle the ongoing management. You should also be able to chose your hosting platform; the agency will make recommendations but you should get the final say on where your website lives.

The nightmare situation (which we’ve encountered several times!) is that your web developer goes AWOL, or the agency closes down and you have zero access to your site. If you aren’t listed as the owner, the hosting companies won’t let you in. You will literally have to sue the developer or agency to prove the domain is yours and regain control, which if they are ghosting you, can take years and thousands of pounds just to catch up with them. In the meantime, the best case scenario is that your site remains static; the worst case is that they redirect your domain to a competitor’s site, or destroy your reputation with unsavoury content. In many cases, the easiest thing to do is buy a new domain and start again, which can be heartbreaking if you’ve spent years building up an online presence around the perfect domain name.

BIG promises around SEO or social media results

No one knows how the algorithms that control search and social media feeds actually work, so there’s no way you can guarantee that certain actions will create specific results. Best practice will help improve your results, but anyone saying they can get you on the 1st page of search or 10,000 followers by next week is doing something dodgy.

Unrealistic or empty promises are always a no-go. Beware of agencies that promise guaranteed results or quick fixes. Digital marketing success often requires time, effort, and ongoing optimization, so it’s better to invest in a long-term strategy focusing on steady growth.

Custom content management system (CMS) on low-budget 

Many of our clients get their sites rebuilt as they want to get rid of an old or clunky CMS. Cheap custom-built or in-house CMSs often lack proper documentation and support, meaning you don’t get the benefit of being able to manage the website yourself day to day. One client we worked with had a site on a ‘bespoke’ CMS, which had been built in-house by their old agency, with no documentation or way to edit it without going back to the original agency. The only way the client could update their site was to start again from scratch.

CMSs are a great way to balance a custom design with no-code day-to-day editing, so the thing to look out for is how easy it will be to maintain your site if you decide to no longer work with that agency. A good tip if you are being offered a CMS you aren’t familiar with is to search “CMS NAME add new page” and see what comes up. Are there many helpful tutorials that seem easy to understand? Or is it one random post on Stack Overflow that launches straight into complex code? If all you are getting is technical documentation or GitHub queries, it’s a good sign to steer clear unless you have an in-house tech team to handle things.

Two screenshots of a Google search. One has beginner tutorials and step by step instructions. The other has developer documentation and Stack Overflow posts.
Does searching for the CMS give you beginner-friendly tutorials or complex developer docs?

All the jargon

Migration to a cloud VM running a PHP 7.4 install with WP CLI and global CDN sounds fancy… but what benefits will it actually bring you and your business? A good web agency will always be able to explain to you what they are doing and why. Are they using jargon because everyone round the table knows what it means, or is it a way to distract you from probing their strategy too deeply?

Poor or unclear communication in general is also a big red flag. If the agency is slow to respond to emails or calls, or if they provide vague or evasive answers to your questions, it could indicate communication issues down the line. 

Of course, with many of these things there can be an innocent explanation. Maybe their website is being redeveloped this month, or they haven’t answered your email yet as they’ve been in hospital. Perhaps they are suggesting a bespoke CMS as your business has very specific online needs that can’t be catered for with mainstream software.

If you are currently researching a web professional or agency who seems like a great fit but you are concerned about something, your first step should be to dig a little deeper. You want an open and trustworthy relationship with them, so politely asking them to explain the situation in a little more detail shouldn’t be a problem.

So, now that you know what to avoid, what SHOULD you look for? 

  • A professional and well-maintained online presence
  • Happy to talk about previous work, with examples and references
  • Clear pricing that separates the initial build from ongoing costs 
  • Straightforward communication, with good answers to your questions
  • A scoping session or detailed discovery questionnaire where you can fully discuss your business strategy and customer needs
  • Realistic goals with long-term strategies 
  • Able to help with hosting and domains, but letting you retain ownership
  • A reliable CMS platform with training and/or documentation available 

We hope these tips will guide you in the right direction if you are looking to hire a reputable digital agency or web developer. If you’d like to find out more about how we can help you develop your online presence, why not book a free introductory call or send us a message? We’d love to chat more!

by Jenny Claxton

Jenny specialises in user experience and web design. Her sites balance the user needs against the business goals to make sure everyone gets what they want. Jenny believes that the internet should be accessible to everyone, and that running your website should be an easy part of your general admin. As a result, she has developed the Red Spark Digital training packages to help website owners feel confident and empowered to make basic changes and updates, as well as knowing when the time is right to call in extra help. When not being extremely online, she makes art and writes questions for TV game shows.

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