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.

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