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Unconventional Guide To Find The Best Digital Agencies In Singapore

Insider thoughts on what really works and what digital agencies actually do

Introduction

Only a small portion of a digital agency’s clients make the most of their relationship with their partner agency. Reasons why vary; crossover between what the agency provides and what their in-house marketing team do, working with another agency for parts of their digital strategy, not enough time to properly consider the benefits, or simply not enough budget. Which are all really valid explanations in the real world and could be applied to any industry really – I’m sure we could be making better use of our accountant or phone company for instance if we had the time and inclination to sit down and try to understand the ways they could help us beyond the basics.

We’ve created this page to help you to understand what a digital agency actually does, to discuss some of the services a digital agency provides. And most importantly, how to select the right agency partner for you.

What is a digital agency?

A full-service digital agency combines all the creative, strategic and technical services an organisation requires to cultivate an online presence. Including, but not limited to website design, website development, app development, visual identity and logo design, copywriting, SEO, social media management, videography and photography.

Brand building

Brands don’t just ‘happen’, they are planned and cultivated. And much of the cultivation happens online. To develop a brand there are certain things successful brands extract from their digital agency partner which others will (often unsuccessfully) try to do themselves, or simply don’t do at all. We’ll discuss a few of these below.

Visual identity (branding)

A brand is more than just a logo, it’s everything around it and supporting it. It’s the consistency of the message, and the tone of voice in which the message is delivered. It’s the overall message it delivers, and it’s the place in which the message is conveyed. Bringing all this together is only the beginning. Actually implementing it in a coherent, consistent fashion is the other part. Not to mention developing it as the business grows and its environment changes.

Perception is reality, and as the saying goes you only have one chance to make a first impression. Making the wrong impression on an ideal customer just once could lose that person or business forever. And remember, people don’t like their worldviews being challenged – so changing their minds after making the wrong impression is going to be a really tough thing to do. It requires more effort initially, and upfront investment to create a brand identity which will make the right first impression. But it pays off big time in the short run, and especially the long run. Successful brands know this.

There’s never enough time to do it right, but there’s always enough time to do it over.

– John Bergman

User experience (UX)

Simple concept, it’s the experience of the user when engaging with a brand (be it the brand’s website, app, or its actual product or service). The key question is how does the experience make you feel?

Feelings are a matter of perception. The same 2 people may listen to the same Britney Spears song, attend the same Donald Trump rally or watch the same episode of Celebrity Love Island and report having entirely different experiences. Their perceptions of those experiences shape their thoughts, and is – to them – their reality. That perception is what keeps some people coming back for more, or repels them entirely.

Providing an exceptional user experience and creating positive feelings in an audience is one of the ways small companies get big, and how big companies maintain their position in the market. You could apply it to lots of things, when you think about it – entire countries even. For companies wanting to trade in Asia for instance, Singapore is a more inviting prospect than some other South East Asian countries because well, stuff works. The ecosystem in which companies operate in Singapore (which encompasses everything from transport to the rule of law, the financial system, sanitation and internet security among many other things) is more conducive to doing business than an informal cash based economy, which provides an unpredictable environment and poor user experience for doing business.

A key trait in brands which have franchise and / or scalability potential, is their system. It’s this system which creates an efficient environment for the business to consistently provide a positive user experience for its customers. Think what you will about Starbucks coffee, but if you’re in need of a tolerable coffee in pleasant surroundings with reliable WIFI, clean bathrooms, nice music and good service, you’ll probably go there over risking it with an unknown cafe which mightn’t meet all of these criteria, where the experience is unpredictable. The same can be applied to pretty much any other ubiquitous franchise. They have systems which work, and consistently provide a positive user experience. They give people what they want, and make them feel good.

Moving online and maybe you have concerns about Google’s ethics when it comes to tax avoidance or violations of people’s privacy, but if you’re in need of accurate information fast, you’re probably going to use it instead of any other search engine. Duck Duck Go is a terrific alternative search engine with venerable practices. But for anyone who ever uses Duck Duck Go knows, the experience isn’t nearly as good as the experience of using Google. Which is why Google accounts for about 75% of worldwide search traffic, and Duck Duck Go less than 1% (other factors are at play of course – if you’re interested here’s a decent article comparing the 2 search engines).

It’s hard to overstate the value of providing an exceptional user experience when developing a successful brand. And in the below 2 clips are Larry David‘s pretty hilarious takes on his emotional process encountering a product which hasn’t been designed in a way which works for him.. Perhaps you recognise those feelings of frustration and anger Larry is experiencing from a bad encounter you had with a website? While these clips are pretty extreme for comedic effect, they actually do a great job of depicting the negative impact a poorly crafted product or website can have on someone’s day. Watch as he goes from having an otherwise pleasant time, to encountering a difficulty which disturbs his serenity, to his blood visibly boiling over resulting in some hilarious outbursts πŸ™‚

 

Website design

Websites are the foundation of most business’ online presence. User experience (UX) and visual design together form what is commonly known as ‘website design’. A web designer might have little experience in user experience design, just as a user experience designer may have little knack for the visual design aspect of creating a website. As little asΒ  3 or 4 years ago when online users were less sophisticated, a web designer could reasonably be expected to do everything from the user experience research and wireframes, right through to the visual design and development support.

Online behaviour changes though and as you might expect, roles have become more specialised to meet online expectations. Nowadays most digital agencies of note will have design departments comprised of specialists in user experience design, as well as visual design. UX is more research focused and needs gathering with the chief output being a website’s wireframe (akin to the blueprint for an architecturally designed home). UX is focused on functionality and ensures the website is going to work smoothly. While visual design is essentially about making the website engaging and look cool. High level website designers with considerable experience can capably do both the UX and visual aspects of designing a website.

Web development and technology know-how

Focussing first on web development, genuine expertise in this is what will get you a website or app which delivers on the promise of your design. It wouldn’t make a lot of sense getting a wonderful architect to design you a beautiful functional home, only to have some inexperienced builder construct it. Nor would it make sense engaging anyone but an exceptional web developer to build a website which has been designed by a high level digital designer. Funnily enough web development expertise is where most digital agencies struggle. Why? Well it’s the hardest skill to attain, though it’s also the easiest one to disguise deficits in to their customers because customers have even less of a clue about web development than an agency lacking any real expertise in it.

For a digital agency acquiring real web development talent requires an understanding of it; not necessarily being able to code, but having a strong enough working knowledge of it to ensure any potential web developer employees actually know their stuff. Which is hard! There are coding tests available which some agencies use to try and weed out pretenders, but even if the developer passes the test how does the agency know ongoing that the developer is following web development best practices when it comes to security and code hygiene (among many other things)? It probably won’t. And this can be very problematic indeed. We regularly field inquiries from companies which are in a state of panic because they’ve begun to realise serious issues with the way their website was developed.

Ramifications of poor web development aren’t always obvious – we had an established SME client approach us recently who was reasonably happy with the look of their newish website but estimated they’d lost close to $1m in revenue the past 6 months (about 80% of their total revenue), because their digital agency failed to retain their organic search rankings in Google when they built the new one. They were dealing with key staff members resigning due to lack of work and pay and the very real possibility of closing down entirely. Largely because the web developers building their new website had been negligent and were without proper oversight in the digital agency where they worked.

Whichever digital agency you choose, we suggest being sure as you can be that there is considerable internal web development knowledge beyond just the developers themselves. Web developers come and go, and sometimes they leave a trail of chaos in their wake. The permanent members of your chosen agency should have the capability to both manage their developers and ensure they’re maintaining standards, as well as clean up a possible development mess themselves if that unfortunate scenario ever eventuated.

As for general technical know-how, where to begin… there are thousands upon thousands of variables in a company’s online mix which might (and will) result in the need for fast technical assistance. Websites, social media platforms, servers, CRMs, CMSs, SEO and everything in between – they’re all interlinked. Time is money and fixing technical issues fast is the difference between making money, and losing it.

Partnership

It might sound a bit patronising when a digital agency pitches itself as your ‘partner’. Especially when they don’t even know you or your business. For most business’ though, it is in its interest to work with a digital agency where it sees at least the potential for a partnership to flourish.

When you think about it, there are some comparisons between a digital agency and its client with a partnership of the romantic kind:

  • For some agencies the thrill is in the chase – landing the big name client. Just because they’re charming through the courtship phase though, does this make them a suitable long-term partner?
  • Some digital agencies are quiet and just go about their work. While others are in to posturing and making a big noise about their wins.
  • Some agencies seem sound on the outside, but come with baggage and unresolved issues which can become apparent as the relationship develops..
  • Some agencies are every bit as good as they sound and look!

As nice as it’d be to suggest just using a bit of common sense to guide your choice of prospective digital agency partner will suffice, the reality is a bit more complex. Remember, there’s money and prestige involved, not to mention jobs and livelihoods. So suitors won’t hesitate to bend the truth to get what they want. In Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell referred to ‘Truth-default theory‘ which basically revealed just how bad humans are at spotting liars and our tendency to misjudge people. You might want to keep that in mind during your decision making process. But also, here a few tips to help with your choice:

  • Really think about what it is you want from your digital agency partner, both in the short-term and in the long-term.
  • Take it slow. Start off with small stuff, ad hoc projects and tidbits. Get to know each other, look for strengths and weaknesses. The best digital agencies won’t be short for work because there’s always plenty of demand for those at the top of their game. So they won’t be in any great hurry to sign you up. And if they’re really good they’re going to want to get to know their client properly too before getting in too deep with them.
  • Look closely at their past work. Drill down on the websites they’ve developed and designed. Ask for firm answers (in writing) on who actually did the design, who did the development and the SEO etc. Ask whether the person or people who did the work are with the agency still and whether they will be working your project. Ask to see the portfolios of the people currently working there.
  • Be careful with making decisions purely on cost. Unless you are extremely confident in your understanding about exactly what you’d be getting for your money, it’s in your interest to only attach moderate weight to the cost factor (unless of course the disparity in costs is just absurd between suppliers). Some digital agencies have enormous overheads and need to charge crazy high prices to support their need for lavish offices or inefficient work practices. Some can back it up with awesome work, some can’t. Some moderately priced ones will require loads of hand-holding and revisions which eats in to your own time which could be better spent elsewhere. And so on… FYI in our experience a typical RFP from a quality client will attach about a 30% weighting to cost in its weighting criteria.
  • Inquire about anything which has the potential to lock you in. It seems bizarre but business’ do still find themselves in some pretty horrific situations when a relationship dissolves over things like server access, social media page ownership, intellectual property and ownership of the code. Remember, as the client you are paying for a service and once paid, you unreservedly own what you have paid for. Be sure to read the fine print here.

Accountability

A digital agency will generally offer everything a business might need in so far as its online presence goes. And if the business has taken the agency up on the provision of all their services, then their results will be more black and white, than if the business engages various vendors for different parts of their online strategy.

If one agency is handling everything, there’s more ownership. More accountability. The agency feels more responsibility for the fate of their client and as a client you should be able to expect real dedication and indeed, excellent results. Efficiencies are gained too by one agency having ownership over everything from the brand identity to the copywriting, code, design and digital marketing. As communication flows between members of the one agency more fluidly than between different agencies and actors.

When selecting your agency partner, we’d really recommend thinking beyond the immediate requirements of the business, and considering some of the services you’re likely to require down the track. And, if you feel you’re likely to require quite a wide skill set then consider finding a suitable partner with the right skillset, instead of settling for someone who can only satisfy your immediate requirements.

Some other points to consider during your selection process for the right digital agency:

  • Getting a website developed by someone cheap then seeking a better agency to take over management of it is a pretty common tact. Invariably though it doesn’t work out as planned, because the new web developers will be able to see that the website has been poorly developed and therefore they’ll shy away from the job, or take it on at a far higher cost. Or they’re going to put in a bunch of caveats due to the unknown nature of the job. Any web developers who know their stuff will admonish accountability when working on a ‘lemon’ website because a website built by amateurs contains too many unknowns.
  • It pays to be very concise in your project brief. Vague RFPs yield vague responses.
  • Listing sample websites in your RFP to illustrate desired look, feel and functionality is really helpful. And more than that, look beyond competitors in your local market or even industry. Search for other websites overseas and in different industries to illustrate what you like and want. Afterall, you want to look different to your competition right, not the same?

Having one digital agency manage everything is generally the best approach because of the inherent accountability. But it’s not always practical and sometimes there are simply people you really want to work with who specialise in web design and / or web development for instance, and so the other digital marketing services you’re going to need will have to be sourced elsewhere. If this is the case, consider putting your RFPs out to the various suppliers simultaneously, as opposed to getting your website built and then going to market for digital marketing. That’s so the digital marketing supplier can have meaningful input in to the design and development of the website. SEO, PPC and social media are all partly dependent on the design and development of a website, so factoring them in to the build from the outset will give you the advantage of an effective website from Day 1. But additionally it will preclude the need to make expensive changes later on.

Top digital agency lists

Every other week we and probably ever other digital agency in Singapore too, receive invitations to be listed on some new best digital agencies in Singapore list for a fee. A couple of times we’ve been approached quite vigorously by a reasonably well known online publication to be recognised as 1 of the ‘Top 10 Digital Agencies in Asia’ on their list – for a cool sum of SGD$4,500. Which’d be a bit like buying a place on the podium at the Olympics..

These and other ‘top digital agencies’ lists are of course just advertising dressed as real news. To use someone else’s words they’re ‘fake news’.. They can be kindof useful in that they aggregate a bunch of agencies in the one place which can save some time when shopping around. But these best digital agencies in Singapore websites are best taken with a large dose of salt because being one of the best agencies around has nothing to do with it – any old agency can list on them for a fee.

Budget

Touched on briefly already, but in regards to budget it’s recommended you attach only a moderate weighting to cost in your selection criteria, somewhere in the 30 – 35% range. That’s not just a random figure, it’s the weighting range which we most often see in RFPs sent to us by both private and government clients alike when they invite us and other local digital agencies to tender on their projects. The rest of the weighting criteria is usually made up of things like proven technical expertise, proven performance, references and response acumen.

If you are inviting digital agencies to tender for a project, we would recommend doing considerable research first in to your top 3 – 5 potential partners, and limit the tender process to this shortlist only. If you don’t, and you fire your RFP to all and sundry and the recipients get wind of this, there’s a good chance they’ll either pull out entirely or put less effort into their bid. Why? Because if it’s known an RFP has been flung in all directions it suggests the client doesn’t really know what they want. Responding to an RFP takes considerable time, and experienced digital agencies value their time highly; they want to know they’re investing it in potential clients who know what they want, too.

Want to talk?

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Toby Burrows - Digital Consultant & Owner

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Exceptional website design and development by Singapore web design agency, Matterhorn Digital. Specialist WordPress developers in Singapore who are just at home writing exceptional code in Node, React, Angular or Vue JS. Data driven digital marketing agency specialising in Google Ads and SEO, with one of the most responsive, proactive support teams you will find anywhere.

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Toby Burrows
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