Our average client typically falls into two categories; a traditional premium or luxury brand with multiple channels or a high-growth DTC brand – with our remit often focused on scoping, governing and managing the launch or re-launch of their eCommerce store. One big trend that’s come off the back of the pandemic is these brands wanting to create highly engaging brand experiences or digital flagships – with creative and design playing a much bigger part or role.

We’ve had this with 5-10 clients over the last year or so and I know lots of other brands are doing the same thing. The issue this poses is that there are very few agencies that can deliver best-in-class creative direction & design and best-in-class development (both front-end and back-end), often leading to compromise in one area. This is where we’ve started reviewing the roles of the agencies and looking to couple together market leaders across these two areas. 

The concept of splitting design and development partners isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly wasn’t as commonly needed or adopted as it is today. This article is designed to cover the pros and cons and provide tips for managing the different stakeholders.

Pros of using separate agencies for design / creative direction and development:

  • Two specialist teams focused on their individual areas of expertise
  • Creative agency likely more experienced and skilled at getting under the skin of the brand and product and working with different stakeholders
  • Creative agency likely to apply more time to conceptual development and key aspects of story-telling, hierarchy of content and pages, different journeys for different personas etc
  • Creative agency processes usually provide more definition around digital styleguide and are better at enforcing consistency 
  • Likely collaboration on end result of template designs and requirements for front-end development
  • Ability to select a development partner based solely on technical requirements

Cons of using separate agencies for design / creative direction and development:

  • Costs are likely to be higher for using two specialist service providers
  • Design agency not considering limitations of platform / technology (can be managed)
  • Coordination and project management will require more time and planning
  • Project will almost definitely take longer to deliver
  • Risk in friction between the two parties
  • Misalignment around building / delivery (can be managed)

My view on separating the two agencies

Overall, in my experience, a lot of the best eCommerce brand sites and experiences I’ve seen have come as a result of a collaboration between a very strong Creative Director or Art Director and a development agency, rather than a single agency. This I would say is just as a result of that creative input having a broader view of things and being able to think beyond a certain type of project. I’ve found that bringing in either independents or independent agencies to cover the Creative / Art Direction pieces just brings a specialist, fresh view on things and they’re more likely to really manage the discovery piece optimally (workshops, brand extraction, delving into detail around product etc).

I do think there are agencies that can cover both areas really well, but these are rare and they’ll still usually not be as strong in both areas as some of the more specialist providers. 

Also, eCommerce agencies are generally more skilled around design and UX and less around that brand discovery piece, which is really important for the types of projects I’m describing.  

Some examples of reallys strong sites that I think benefit from having two inputs include:

General suggestions & advice 

  • Make sure you select the partners based on real specialist areas
  • Ensure you put time into getting them working together from the start
  • Have a very clear process and ensure there are frequent crossover meetings
  • Add buffer for changes following key milestone meetings
  • Make sure you allow for an increase in PM time

The counter argument

The only thing I would add to this is sometimes you don’t need to do the brand discovery piece or have a huge amount of input from external suppliers, be it as a result of a very strong internal team or very clear digital brand guidelines etc. There are also agencies that are very strong in both areas, which can reduce the need for Creative Direction (although most are still not as strong in one of the two areas).

Ultimately, I do think if you’re looking to create a really best-in-class brand experience or eCommerce digital flagship, you’re best off separating these two areas for the CAPEX build piece. You can then work with the development more over time once you’ve established the digital styleguide. Feel free to shoot over any questions on any of this.