Apr 22, 2008

Recognizing Our Differences: Agency Website Design Redux

Adweek’s Brian Morrissey has been reviewing a spate of new agency websites (Modernista!, Barbarian Group, Grey) over at Adfreak. His post’s been getting a lot of commentary and it got me to thinking that in looking at agency sites, if we're going to start with usability and function, the biggest distinction we need to make in that regards is the size and/or renown of the agency.

That's because people visit the sites of agencies they are familiar with for very different reasons than they visit the sites of agencies they've never heard of.

I'd posit the main reasons people visit the sites of well-known or large agencies are:

  1. To learn the address and/or phone number of a particular office.
  2. To bone up on the agency and their clients before an interview.

To that end, those two pieces of information need to be readily accessible. Grey's site fails on that account since a potential junior account exec interviewing for a post in the New York office would not easily be able to find out what accounts the NY office has. (To be fair, this is an issue with many large agency sites.)

So if those are the two primary pieces of information an external audience is looking for, the other critical audience for the site is going to be the internal one: because let's face it, who's really going to spend a lot of time with an agency site other than the people who already work there. To that end, the Barbarian site seems well designed and the (very robust) content seems like it would be of interest to the people on staff. If the content continues to be interesting and relevant, then I suspect it can also be a good recruiting tool.

Ditto, Modernista!'s site-- the "cool factor" of the site will boost internal morale and definitely makes for a good recruiting tool, something Lance Jensen, who founded the agency, has stated was precisely the point.

Now this is all well and good for agencies people are already familiar with, whose reputations precede them and where the decision to include them in an RFP is in no way going to be influenced by the design and content of their website.

But what about smaller agencies, shops whose websites are likely to be everyone’s first encounter with them?

These sites need to be a bit more functional in nature. They need to emphasize things like case studies, because they can’t assume a potential client or potential hire is well aware of all the work they’ve done and the website may be the agency's one and only opportunity to make a good impression.

Now that’s not to say that the website needs to be deadly dull and boring. Just that its design needs to accommodate a different user with a different usability need. It’s got to work a lot harder than a site for a well known agency does. Which just makes designing it a different sort of challenge. Things like people and work and location and phone number are still important. It's just the hierarchy that's changed.

If anyone has any suggestions for small/not very well known agency sites that work, I hope you'll share them. Especially if they don't fall into the traps I wrote about here.


Eaon Pritchard said...

kind-of on topic. london agency nonsense asked their visitors to vote on potential designs for their site.
you may have heard about it before, not particularly 'new' news but there you go.
cheers E

Anonymous said...

you make a great point - i was just looking at smaller/boutique agency websites to compare against our site and noticed that they, like we, emphasize case studies and personnel and all that far more than the big agencies. and rightly so.

and no, seo for 'advertising agency' shouldn't figure highly for big or really any shops because who looks for an agency by googling ad agency (unless, perhaps, you want a digital shop). there are better ways to spend the dev budget.

Alan Wolk said...

@eaon - Welcome and thanks for pointing out that link. It's an interesting way to go about it. Curious what the final site looks like.
Are nonsense well-known in UK?

@DB: SEO is *extremely* important if your url isn't your agency name dot com. Take Naked - can you imagine how many ummm, unique places googling "Naked" can send you? (Their new site is what comes up first, btw. Good job Noah & pals.)

Ditto numerous smaller/newer shops who lost out in the url derby. There have been a few times where I saw an agency someone was working at on LinkedIn and could not find a url to the shop since it wasn't optimized.

Besides which, SEO is always a good idea in terms of keeping you top of mind.

Anonymous said...

@ toad - seo is extremely important, but only if it is focused. my problem with seo discussions around agency websites is that they revolved around things like where you rank on "advertising agency" or "minneapolis advertising" when they should focus on just the things you mentioned.

nobody searches for an ad agency by googling "ad agency" though they may search for naked that way...

Alan Wolk said...

@DB: Gotcha. That makes sense.
Mind-meld resumed.

Anonymous said...

It all comes down to one thought, and this goes for strategy for client sites, "know your audience". Big agencies can get away with the wow factor, flash sites whereas smaller agencies would be wish to be more visible to search engines.

Alan Wolk said...

@Zach O - Welcome to the Toad Stool. Thanks for your comment- I'd forgotten to add how important SEO was for smaller shops who actually do get clients that way.

Anonymous said...

the publicity-shy boys at zeusjones.com had the original "non website website" btw. check it out.

the thing i've found about agency websites is that you could very easily spend a lifetime creating your agency site. but at then end of the day they're functional, aren't they. do people visit agency sites for fun?

when i visit a production company website for example, it's part of a purchase process and if a site's "entertainment" gets in the way of the information i want, i get pissed off.

i'm guessing clients feel the same way about agency sites. not saying they should be dull but a lot of them are painfully self-conscious.

HighJive said...

oh please. most agency websites are only viewed by the staffers as a potential awards show entry.

Alan Wolk said...

@TSR: Agreed. When a site has a "shtick" I can deal with it once, in the intro. But it's incredibly frustrating when they insist on using it every time you move on to a new page. Wastes time and is creative overkill, like a giant elbow in the ribs.

@HJ: Welcome back. You've been missed.