Saturday 21 March 2009

Putting Creative Agencies on Notice

Working across a number of highly-visual, rich, and interactive web sites, I’ve had the, ahem, delight of working with several of Australia’s big creative design firms over the years. I won’t name names.

These guys have variously been tasked with building good looking sites and funky widget things; their modus operandi involves mood boards, wireframes, and giving themselves stupid titles like Web Maven and Producer. They seem to rate their development ability on the basis of their ActionScript skills and their capability (I’m guessing) to offload—er, subcontract—work to an Indian sweatshop doing MOSS and AJAX and/or hire junior devs with just enough aptitude to fool most people. Naturally they’re happy to charge thousands of dollars for something like an email template—but they’re used to that because they all come from over East. Marketing people love them because they use the words “digital” and “creative” and have beards.

Well Mr. Creativity I’ve got news for you: your development skills suck and the recession economy means most organisations will be expecting full value for the outlandish buck you charge. To wit, you’ll need to start delivering more than spiel because I’m onto you.

Some of the experiences I could recount here would come across as unbelievable but here are a few classic examples nonetheless…

Creative Agency Blunder #1

We’ve been battling it out with a particular agency from Sydney for a year now just to get a reasonably simple data-driven application built that would integrate with our existing mapping solution (which the same firm built in 2007). When we first went back to these clowns the same guys who did most of the work back in 2007 were still around and picked up the new bits… before they resigned. Fair enough, people leave places. The only problem was the application was largely built in Flash and we’d already started integrating; you’ve already read my comments on the development abilities of these agencies (why can’t they just stick to being creative? They’re good at that!!) so needless to say the code was buggy and half the functionality requested hadn’t been implemented (spec? What spec? There never was a spec…).

Back and forth we went with the replacement creative team while they effectively rewrote the existing application in HTML and JQuery, retaining bits and pieces of the Flash here and there; deliveries kept coming, poor Luke in my team kept on re-integrating, bugs kept getting found, and no one had the guts to can the project.

Naturally we had a small number of change requests as the process trundled along and we were happy to pay for those changes. But the real punch line was when we received a bill for bugs they themselves had introduced! No joke—and this after significant delays brought about only by their incompetence.

Creative Agency Blunder #2

Then there’s our MOSS developer friends, also out in Sydney. Initially they requested remote access to our MOSS environment so they could develop yet another flashy but very simple applet. I declined that one as we hadn’t worked with them previously at the technical level and there’s no way I could trust them to behave within our constantly moving code base—and that’s apart from figuring out how to expose TFS and all other bits of our environment externally.

These guys actually produced a “spec” for us, which was reassuring; it was one page, of course, but the five bullet points covered largely what would be required and I made the silly assumption Marketing, as the group managing the contract (don’t ask), would have a firm grasp on things from their end. The spec basically said “web part”, “rss feed”, “web service you’ll write”, and some mention about Flash/Silverlight/AJAX. The price tag would be 10k+ and we would write all of the backend functionality in-house so they couldn’t botch it up and we could reuse it for another part of the site. Put it this way: all they had to build was a web part with some basic animation that pulled a small amount of data from a web service we would expose—nothing more.

The first delivery—after they emailed me to figure out how to invoke one of our web services—included a user control and instructions on how to install Son of Smart Part. The control was also built to rely on session state which I believe is a joke for any big web site (the widget would be going on our homepages… and we’re sitting behind two layers of caches, which was made clear to them). Finally, all the CSS and javascript was bunged into the control itself instead of sitting in external files—surely they can at least do that bit well?!?

I sent that version back before we even attempted to integrate and they responded a few days later with v2. Rewritten as a web part, I passed it along to Matt in our dev team for integration and he soon noticed basic functionality was missing—all of the key wiz bang, essentially. As Matt had already undertaken some work to integrate the thing, we sent it back with the request they work from our modified code base as much as possible, to which they agreed.

v3 came back to us the afternoon before launch day with none of our modifications but we progressed re-integration anyway—the turn around time to raise this and wait for a reply of some form was unacceptable. Did I mention when they “tested” version 3 before sending it our way they forgot to switch over to calling our web service and seemed to be astounded at the old data they were seeing—from their servers!!! Lo and behold, this version incorrectly addressed what was missing from the first version and broke another aspect of the control.

Sigh… by this point we’ve spent as much time attempting to integrate the thing as it took the agency to build it and it’s still nowhere near where it needs to be. Did I say how simple this was supposed to be?

My advice to these agencies is as follows:

  • Define a technical specification that you understand
  • Don’t deliver subpar code—test to make sure it meets the requirements and delivers basic functionality expected by any normal web user. Value add in this area.
  • Don’t charge your customers for your mistakes
  • Reduce your rates because you’re not worth what you’re charging
  • Get with the times: Flash sucks big time and Silverlight/AJAX will slowly kill it; do what you do best (design) and hire people with the skills to deliver in whatever technology set you’re selling—not inner-city Photoshop monkeys who think they’re developers because they can write bad Javascript.
  • You’ve got to communicate to integrate
  • Stop giving yourselves stupid titles you can’t back up

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