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Fear, Flattery, and Word Salad: In this week’s episode, Paul and Rich spill (not-so-secret) insider secrets and discuss what businesses should be wary of when hiring a digital agency.

Analytics change, as does the in-house vision for a product. How can you ensure that your agency will accommodate the dynamic development process while staying within your budget? Why is it important to remain on equal ground with your agency — and what has that got to do with acronyms?

At what point is it important to worry about scaling? And why should businesses be wary of suggestions that are a little too on-trend? From demanding transparency, communicating clearly, sniffing out flattery, and ensuring that all proposals — no matter how shiny — are entrenched in your core business needs, Paul and Rich have got you covered.


Paul Ford Didn’t they—they had Metallica come out last year and talk about—

Rich Ziade That’s incredible.

PF Yeah, talk about managing Metallica-based relationships using Salesforce [Rich laughs boisterously] [music fades in, plays alone for 18 seconds, ramps down].

RZ We are going to share—and this is—this takes a lot, this takes a lot of guts.

PF Yeah!

RZ We’re gonna share the five gotchas to watch out for when you’re hiring an agency.

PF That’s right, don’t—I mean, number one: [Rich lets out a high pitched whistle] the easiest way to avoid gotchas is just to call us [music fades out],, send that email.

RZ Check that box!

PF Yeah, but let’s not just market ourselves. Let’s talk about things that can go well.

RZ Alright, so you’re gonna get six, it sounds like.

PF That’s right. That was six [ok]. We’ll lead with six [ok]. The—one of the ways they get you is they take advantage of change.

RZ This is a big one.

PF This is kinda the biggest one in some ways, right? So, the number one thing people wanna do is get you in the door and get you to sign something, so they can start to work for you.

RZ Get the foot in the door—

PF That’s right.

RZ—as they say.

PF And so, a lot of times what they’ll do is they’ll create a relatively small initial engagement. “Hey, I wanna build this thing, and an app, and a platform,” and they’ll go, “Well, you know what? That’s not gonna be that expensive. Let’s get started.”

RZ Yes. Let’s be clear, though. This isn’t people being dishonest.

PF No!

RZ They’re—they’re not selling you something that they’re not going to give you. What they’re doing is not acknowledging how dynamic the software development process is—


PF And how really serious change occurs.

RZ Always.

PF When you’re developing software.

RZ In a meaningful way. Always—

PF I mean, let’s get some examples, like you might think that you are building knowledge management for educators and it turns out that halfway through that everything you assumed about your customer was wrong [chuckles] and you shoulda done a little more research.

RZ You’re gonna learn stuff, right?

PF That’s right.

RZ Rarely do you go to an agency and say, “Here’s the exact blueprint of exactly what I want and exactly how I want it.” That’s very rare, right? Usually—

PF That’s just outsourcing. Then you’re gonna—then you might as well just hire the engineers yourself.

RZ Correct. So, what happens is you sign on, and they tell you, “It’s gonna cost this much for this period of time.” And what inevitably happens and—and it’s not through error or mistake, it’s just change. It’s change because you had—you’ve learned things about users. Sometimes the business, you know, swoops in and says, “We can’t not have that . . . one bit. We gotta have that one bit. Maybe we didn’t talk about it in the beginning. We gotta have it.”

PF Let’s give people some examples. So, one—one I see a lot is analytics needs change. You know, we have a—we dev—we design how the product’s gonna work and what the experience is gonna be and then the business comes in and says, “Well, we can’t measure it. So you’re asking us to, you know, you’re asking people to tap the blue button and we don’t know they’re [yes] tapping the blue button.”

RZ Yes.

PF And you go, “Well, we didn’t plan for that, so now [yeah] we’re gonna have to really change a bunch of stuff.”

RZ Yeah! I mean ideally you’re—you’re scoping that in but even if you had it in there, like there’s analytics and there’s analytics. Right? It’s gonna—it’s gonna—


PF Here’s the classic example: the new—the former Chief Marketing Officer departs the company.

RZ Oh that’s the killer move.

PF The new Chief Marketing Officer shows up, a month goes by, you’re two months from launch, and you have that meeting.

RZ And he says, “I can’t look at analytics on my phone.”

PF “Yeah, well, you know at Squiggly Corps. I had no problem. Why don’t you use Google Split Flap?”

RZ “I’m on a plane half the time.”

PF “Yeah, you’re asking me to—what is this? What are—I—I—I just—it’s not gonna work.”

RZ It’s a—it’s a change in terms of your advocats and your customers is a big deal, right?

PF Well and then a lot of times they’ll be like, “Well, let’s go get you the budget to fix this but now you have two problems.” So change shows up, you’re working with the agency, and you go to the agency and you say, “We got a new Chief Marketing Officer, you know how it goes, [mm hmm]: we have to re-platform on a different analytics provider and do a lot more with mobile admin.”

RZ Correct. And—and look: they might know pain is coming, they might know the agency is like, “Hey guys, you just did a hard, hard left on us, we’re gonna have to revisit the—the—[trails off]”

PF Mm hmm!

RZ And that might be reasonable but I think, what—we gotta end each one of these tips with sort of a—a remedy of some kind.

PF Of course.

RZ Ask that agency what they’re gonna do when change comes in.


PF That’s right.

RZ “What are you gonna do? Like, what is that? Walk me through that process. Are you gonna immediately send me a change order that has a dollar figure on it to accommodate for that change? What if it’s small? What if affects—like what are you gonna do? Walk me through how you think about change because—” As to your point earlier, getting you in the door and having you on the hook, there’s nowhere else to go. It can explode. And you say, “Alright, enough. Fire the agency. We’re taking it in. Or we’re taking it somewhere else.” That’s nuclear, right?

PF It’s all bad, though.

RZ It’s all bad, right? So usually what happens is you’re kinda on the hook so ask them how they deal with change; ask them if they’re willing to acknowledge change.

PF See, this is a—this is a key thing: agencies—it takes forever to set up a relationship, right? It takes a long time. You gotta sell; you gotta communicate; there’s big numbers involved; everybody’s gotta get approval. The agency gets you in and then what they know is that your clock is ticking, and it’s ticking often faster than theirs is.

RZ Yes.

PF And so, now you have this pressure that you need to get this change made and in and your boss is saying, “Don’t give them another damn penny, that agency. We already gave them a lot of money!” [Yeah] And they go, “Honestly, that’s a very significant change, it alters the scope, and we’re gonna need to—to come in and discuss it and then we’ll do a change order.” Ok! Number two: people for dollars.

RZ Ok. This is an interesting one, right? There is anxiety. When you approach and agency, and you’ve essentially asked them, “Look: I need you to bring success to me.” You’ve said this before, Paul, what are we trying to do? We’re trying to help people get promoted and level up and be tied to successful decisions that they make.

PF Mm hmm.

RZ So what you’re saying to an agency is, “You are my bet.

PF Yeah!

RZ “You are the one who is going to make me look really great.”

PF “I’m gonna spend somebody else’s money so that you can make me look good.”

RZ [Laughing] Pretty much.

PF Yeah.

RZ So there is anxiety in the room. There is fear in the room and there is anxiety in the room. And—and this is gonna be terrifying to give people this—So what [stammers] can happen is the agency sniffs that out and says, “Well, that’s not gonna cut it. You’re gonna need to do more. You’re gonna need to spend more. It’s just not enough. You’re gonna need to do it.” Now here’s the thing: if you’re not technical, and an agency is telling you that you need—that—we’ve done this. Full disclosure. We have told people, “That’s just not enough. What you’re asking for is really big, and it’s simply not enough.” That’s fine and good, and have that dialogue, and probe that agency. Where it gets scary is if they take the wheel and start to expand scope on you.


PF “Listen, I’m gonna tell you what you need. You need a Senior Platform Architect for six months.”

RZ “Well, beyond that, you need— you need to be on this other platform. You can’t possibly do it here [mm hmm]. It’s going to take—this is the only way you—you really wanna win? You really—” So what’s happening is they’ve taken over the narrative and they’re defining now, they’re actually scoping it out for you, right?

PF Really good, really sick—slick salespeople can make this feel like they’re saving your life.

RZ Correct.

PF If you are working with an agency and you start to feel that you’re an idiot and that they’re saving your life, be careful.

RZ Yes.

PF [Chuckles] They should feel like your partner!

RZ Exactly. So scrutinize that. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know what that acronym is, explain it to me.” Which leads to our third really important bit of advice.

PF Word salad! Which I like a good microservice based architecture. [Rich chuckles] The word—the word architecture [with Caesar dressing chuckles]. Yeah, the word architecture can be thrown on the end of anything. If you hear the word architecture too many times—

RZ Oh yeah!


PF—be very careful. Acronyms are dangerous.

RZ They are very dangerous. They’re—the analogy I love to use is . . . the doctor’s prescription.

PF Oh yeah!

RZ You don’t—like what? He just scribbled on a piece of paper. It’s illegible!

PF It’s magical!

RZ There’s no way you’re going to hand this to another human being and they’re gonna understand what that is, and what it is it’s a form of encryption and it creates a level of distance, and it creates a perception that you’re a novice, and now you are in the hands of the experts.

PF Well, and you don’t wanna ask because—see, it’s the opposite: if you actually do ask, [chuckles] they start to realize that they’re gonna have to tone down their salad. If you never ask, they’re gonna go deeper and deeper in and they’re gonna watch you squirm.

RZ Do not be ashamed of asking. [Yeah!] The simple remedy here.

PF Mm hmm. I mean, look: we just did a proposal where there are 25,000 bullet points underneath, in your brain. 20—there are 25,000 things that are gonna have to happen [yes] for this proposal to—to really like come into the light. The proposal is eight slides.

RZ Simple. And there’s no weird language in it. And we have had people tell us, “I really appreciate how you put clarity forward here.” They’re actually appreciative. They’re like, “You didn’t talk down to me; you didn’t try to be fancy on me, and make me feel stupid.”

PF One of the things with tech is that tech has a tendency to make everybody else believe that it’s their job to know what we do.

RZ [Chuckles] Right.

PF But I mean we’re not that—it’s not [exhales sharply]—it’s like auto mechanics. I mean it’s like we build [yeah] nice cars, right?

RZ Yeah.

PF But you don’t—everytime you go to your car and turn it on, you don’t think, “I wonder how the engine’s doing today?” That’s not your job!


RZ Absolutely. That’s not your job. But! Don’t be afraid to ask. Number four.

PF Trendiness. Blockchain [chuckles].

RZ You went right for it. You don’t have to go that hard.

PF No, it’s when they tell you about the new magic thing.

RZ It’s the robot hand touching the earth [oh yeah] and the earth has a little glow on the tip of the finger [yeah] and it’s bringing life to the earth. Internet of things.

PF Internet of things is a lot. It’s a lot. You don’t need it!

RZ It’s a spectacular phrase. The internet [mm hmm] which everybody knows it, they don’t—people don’t even say internet much anymore.

PF Of things!

RZ [Almost sings] Things!

PF Things.

RZ Things!

PF Things. That’s great marketing, isn’t it?

RZ It’s incredible! It’s worth—

PF It’s almost as good as digital trans—

RZ—that opened up a multibillion dollar market!!

PF Digital transformation might be better.

RZ Digital transf—eh—eh—it might be better.

PF Cuz digital transformation’s like, “Hey, whatever you got, you need a little transformation [yeah] in the digital way—”

RZ Let me clear, though!

PF Internet of things, though, is pretty good cuz you’re—you literally, I’m looking around the room we’re in right now, I see a lot of things.


RZ I see a lot of things, right?

PF And some of them have internet.

RZ [Chuckling] Some need to!

PF But not all do. Like look at those Quadratini wafer cookies.

RZ Right.

PF They’re not hooked up to internet of things.

RZ [Laughs boisterously] I’ve read good, solid definitions of digital transformation, I’ve seen it. We have close friends and colleagues who work for very big consulting—the biggest consulting in the world—

PF Look, it’s all fine! And you need—you need frameworks to discuss things. Like, obviously, if you are working in a censor-based network that is going to change the way that you’re delivering products in the physical world, internet of things is very meaningful. If you’re trying to take a leg—a legacy financial organization and make it truly responsive to its users, digital transformation matters.

RZ Yes.

PF But boy! Can you just drop those into the middle like, “Hey, what is your DT strategy?”

RZ Yeah.

PF “Are you guys actually doing anything around IoT or are you just gonna [yeah] wait and see what your competitors do?”

RZ That’s right. Don’t be afraid to dissect it, demystify it.

PF Mm hmm. Don’t forget—don’t forget AR and VR in here too.

RZ Ah!

PF Everybody wants to—


RZ We’re not ready for it. I tried augmented reality, dude. It’s bullshit. I downloaded a couple of apps, it was just a—it was a 3D cat walking on my dining room table.

PF Everybody wants to juxtapose The Incredible Hulk onto your Kindle books, it’s not—

RZ It doesn’t make any—it’s just not [yeah]—it’s not what—I see furn—the furniture bit I get but that’s a pain in the ass so I’m like—You know, you’re downloading the Ikea app, I think does it, and you can put a table in the middle of your room and see how it feels. It’s crap. It’s just—there’s nothing there. There’s just nothing there.

PF There’s always a new platform or seven, right? And people often come to us as an agency—we build things. We build large—

RZ Absolutely.

PF We build surfaces that you then build other things on top of. People come to us and they say, “What are you doing about AR, VR, ML, IoT, DT?” And the answer is really funny cuz at first, when we started to company, I always felt kinda bad cuz I’m like, “Nothin’ today.” [Yeah] Like I read the articles; I’ve used the products; I understand [yup] how it works. The one that I think is—is real is machine learning cuz it actually is a kind of program—[yeah] programming. Like it changes the way that inputs and outputs work but the world that we’re in is a little different. The AR shops are the ones that are working—they’re gonna make Wrigley’s spearmint gum pop up on an app and say, “Chew me!!” [Yeah] Right?

RZ Yeah.

PF Be very careful when you—

RZ Scrutinize it! Look, these things are real. These are real trends like you are talking to your—

PF [Crosstalking] How do you counter this? How do you counter this? You say, “I need to understand my ROI and I need to understand what we’d be investing—”

RZ You threw another acronym out to solve the acronyms deal.

PF But it’s just not that. There’s never a day two. Right? There’s never a like, “And then, after we’re done with this round of the augmented reality squirrel that helps you with your financial planning, then [chuckles] we move on to phase seven where it becomes a rhinoceros.” [Rich laughs] Like it’s never—there’s not a plan. It’s, “We’re gonna get some impact, it’s all gonna work out, don’t you worry about it.”


RZ Right. Scrutinize it, tie it to business value when you’re talking to people.

PF It’s ok to not know how this works but you really should be able to articulate it back to yourself and say—

RZ We’re up to number five?

PF I think so.

RZ Alright.

PF Mighta lost the count. But, look, [Rich chuckles] people show up and they say, “Well you need to plan for a hundred million users.”

RZ Mmm. Well, you know, it’s very flattering.

PF Oh of course.

RZ When you hear that.

PF “You got a big idea.”

RZ Yeah.

PF “We didn’t think about that.”

RZ Yup.

PF There are simple ways and safe ways to redundantly launch things—

RZ And to scale.

PF And to—then to scale after that. And it’s fine! Fine! To take into account that you might eventually really, really grow and blow this business up. Don’t solve those problems today. Your number one problem if you come to an agency wanting to build something is that you don’t have that thing in the world yet. That’s the only real problem. It’s not that you don’t have a hundred million years, it’s that you don’t have [trails off]—

RZ Yup.


PF And so, I mean, one of the—

RZ And you’re gonna get stuff wrong. Embrace the fact that when it goes out, you think your prioritized it right and you nailed it. You’re gonna learn some things that you’re like, “Ho-ly shit. I can’t believe—”

PF It’s so hard to ship though. It’s so hard to ship inside of an organization cuz—

RZ Get it out!

PF People think launching is finished, right? So then you’re—you’re gonna have to go back to your boss after you launch and ask for more support [yup]. That’s hard!

RZ Yup.

PF So what an agency will do if it’s—if it’s not being—if it’s—if it’s flattering is tell you about how big this is and how much planning must be done to prepare for big business.

RZ Yup.

PF And that is—that’s a way to getcha.

RZ Yup. You got one more?

PF Yeah. Overpromise around specific platforms that are bigger, different than you need.

RZ Ok.

PF So—

RZ Explain.

PF Uh, “Hi, you know, I wanna do something that is for catwalkers.”

RZ Mm hmm.

PF “Where we can connect people who like to walk cats with cats.” “Well, you need Salesforce.”

RZ [Chuckles] Ok. But the thing is, Paul, they may need Salesforce [both laugh].


PF Well, Salesforce probably has that module built in—

RZ Without a doubt. Without a doubt.

PF Right? Um no, there are a million platforms and they can be very profitable for agencies to install [chuckles] and—and sell to you.

RZ Yup.

PF You know, Salesforce thrives because people who integrate Salesforce—

RZ An army out there.

PF Yeah, they will come and do it for you.

RZ There’s a nation of people that will do that and that’s—

PF For content, there’s Adobe XI Corps [pronounced ‘si corps’]; for big integration projects in giant companies there’s things like SAP [mm hmm]. Like there is a world. Most software, actually—I think it’s really worth pointing this out: most software is not people making apps that get delivered on your phone—

RZ It’s implementations.

PF It’s implementations of SAP for Fortune 5,000,000 companies.

RZ To be clear: we have implemented Salesforce. It’s a real thing. It makes sense. The build by discussion is a very healthy one. You should always [these are great tools!] ask it.

PF You should always use a platform if you can but the thing with all those platforms is they start with that out of the box like, “Oh! Salesforce Yellow. That’s nice. That’ll get me what I need.” And then [right] they go, “Well, you need Salesforce Haircut Cloud.”

RZ Yup. And it’s time—but, you know what? It’s time to customize it for exactly what you need and next thing you know the engineering is piling stuff on top.

PF Really simple software as service products that look reasonable and have a great monthly rate can get into the hundreds of thousands [mm hmm] really quickly. Now you’re in there! [Yeah] And you’re like, “I never thought I would get from 5,000 to 5,001 users,” [yeah] but that five thousand and first—and God knows when you’re gonna make 10,000 for the next tier [mm hmm]. You’re now gonna be underwater, right? [Yeah] So it’s so much planning and thinking and you really need to play—but you can throw those out and the thing is is like if you’re buying, you’re gonna be buying something really familiar like Salesforce. Total cost of Salesforce is really tricky to understand [yeah] and they should be able to talk you through like all the different plans and all the ways that you need to scale and what would happen.


RZ If that’s your path. I mean, honestly, have that dialogue. Why are you building it? Can’t I just buy it? Listen to that. Hear it through. Why are you selling me that? Can’t you just build it? It seems pretty straightforward. My requirements are really weird, there’s no way this tool is gonna know what I want out of the box.

PF [?] is now that we’ve sat down and talked them all through. What you can hear is there’s a completely justifiable reason for everyone of these things that they’re going to sell you.

RZ That’s the thing.

PF None of this bad unto itself.

RZ None of it.

PF It’s just that if you have a salesperson on the other side they’ve been told, “Yeah, what we’ve got right now is Salesforce talent is freed up and that’s really what we need to be selling.”

RZ Well it’s not just that, they get a cut of the Salesforce licensing.

PF So good.

RZ That’s the model, right?

PF It’s so good and you go to the conference.

RZ Yeah.

PF Yeah. Dreamforce. We gotta go one year.

RZ Um, alright, recap: honestly, you’re nailing the one recurring theme is seek transparency; ask for conversations that are just plain English; tie them back to business value; and ask them—

PF Good agencies are very, very proud of delivering back.


RZ Absolutely, absolutely. That’s how we scale. It’s how we found our success in three years.

PF It is what I care about. I feel terrible if I don’t deliver value. I deliver value.

RZ It’s how we grow. That’s how we—word gets around.

PF Well and it’s why people call us back, right? Like I mean it’s sort of like otherwise there’s no—there’s no point in existing if you can’t get repeat business [yeah]. Might as well throw the whole thing in the trash.

RZ Stare ‘em down; ask those questions; ask for transparency; cut the bullshit.

PF Listen, lemme tell you straight up, too, we’ve had a couple things where people walk in and they’re like, “I wanna give you a lot of money to get this done, let’s go!”

RZ Yeah.

PF It just defers the conversation 90 days. You’re gonna have the same—we’ve had those conversations [yeah] about what’s really going on. Like, we’re an agency. So if you show up and you say, “We’re gonna build this and we need to get started tomorrow.” We’re like, “Oh! Boy! Here we go! Ok! Here we go! Ok! Ok!” [Rich chuckles] The problem is two months later, that same person’s gonna sit down and go, “I have a lot of issues coming up around the engineering that’s happening here with the other team that I have over here and we need to work with you and—” And all that complex—

RZ Engineering on their side, you mean?

PF On their side. All that complex—

RZ Well you’re step—you’re getting into our world now. Let’s not confuse this.

PF No.

RZ This is like our problem now.

PF Here’s what I wanna say: you can’t really defer the complexity. There’s no way to avoid all of these conversations. So if you talk to people, if you’re in there and you’re talking to an agency, really get clarity about what six months looks like or what a year looks like or it looks like after three months—whatever it takes because you’re going to have that conversation.

RZ Yup.


PF You might have it in the middle with your boss yelling at you as you’re worried about change orders.

RZ Yeah.

PF Or you might have it right now when you’re signing the contract and there can be clarity on—on all the sides. There’s a thing you say, Rich, that’s very, very important and it kinda guides this business which is there’s no bad news 60 days early.

RZ That’s true.

PF And you should think about that when you’re talking to an agency and creating your relationship as well.

RZ Yes.

PF Now is the time to get it on the table.

RZ I have a bonus one, Paul, to close it out [music fades in].

PF Go.

RZ Don’t be seduced by an extremely glossy, very sexy proposal.

PF True. Proposals are formal documents that describe how things are going to go.

RZ Yes.

PF That’s all they really need to be.

RZ Keep in mind they’re also marketing material.

PF That’s exactly it.

RZ We just made selling harder for about 12,000 agencies around the world.

PF I hope so! I hope so! [Rich laughs boisterously] I like to compete.

RZ Cool.

PF Well, if you need us . . .


PF I’m Paul Ford.

RZ I’m Rich Ziade. Thanks so much.

PF Bye! [Music ramps up, plays for five seconds, fades out to end.]