If you have all the time, resource and expertise you need to write a sufficiently detailed brief to put out to digital agencies then read no further … congratulations, you are in the 3% who have.

If, on the other hand, your briefs tend to be on the short-ish side; a little light on technical detail and insight and you sometimes wonder how you are going to compare like-for-like, then you might wish to read on to learn how to save time and money and get better results.

Going out to tender is inherently flawed. Briefs are difficult to write and can take ages, crucial insight is not often available, consultants are costly, and worst of all, an agency’s primary objective is to win the pitch, not necessarily to provide you with the best advice.

When you get to shortlist stage “capability” has become a given and – according to pitching consultant Ian Forbes, capability accounts for less than 40% of the decision at this stage.

You can check capability without going out to tender. It’s likely that one or more of the agencies have been recommended to you; you can audit recent work and talk to an agency’s clients to confirm that they can do the work on time and on budget and have delivered similar projects for similar organisations in the past successfully.

Once you’ve shortlisted three agencies and confirmed capability, invite them to come in for coffee. Include the people who would be working with you and not just the sales team and the CEO. Don’t ask them to do any work. Just ask them to bring their portfolio, a few case studies, their thinking and to show what makes them different from and better than the rest. Make it informal and chatty rather than a formal presentation.

Once you have checked capability, taken up references and met the people with whom you would be working, it’s likely that one agency will emerge as your favourite.

Let them know they are in the lead and let the others know that you won’t be working with them on this occasion.

You haven’t had to write a brief, none of the agencies has had to write a proposal or pitch and you have found a team who can do the job, with which you feel you can work.

Tell the selected agency that they will be paid to help you develop your outline requirement into a fully specified project plan. That might equate to 10% of the project fee.

Tell them that you expect them to reimburse that amount, if you progress with them to deliver the project. That might be done by way of a 10% discount on subsequent invoices until it’s recouped.

Tell them that you reserve the right to break from the agency once the plan has been written and agreed. In that scenario, the agency can keep the initial payment but you get to keep the document. You can then approach other agencies with a much more detailed brief, developed in part by an agency asking all the right questions and containing many of the answers.

Then start work with your agency to develop your strategy into scope and structure and produce together a project plan that defines in great detail the deliverables and dependencies and has a healthy contingency (especially if there is a technical build element to the project). The document should leave as little as possible in doubt. Avoid the expectation gap that often develops … “Oh! That’s not what I expected at all!”

The document will benefit from the expertise of your favoured agency which would not have been the case had you gone out to tender on your own brief and made a decision based on pitch responses.

Assuming that you are all happy working together and that the plan is sufficiently detailed with a healthy contingency, you will have a better outcome and you will have saved both time and money in the process.

Mark Walmsley