Here at Nebulab, we’re privileged to work with tens of brands across different categories, business models, team compositions, and revenue stages, helping them shape, launch, and refine their eCommerce experiences. Some of these brands started with us, while others used to work with different agencies and told us about their experience.
While every agency has its own culture and way of doing things, we’ve identified a few traits that separate successful brand-agency collaborations from the rest. These are not defined processes, but rather a philosophy for working together.
In today’s article, we have distilled this philosophy into five fundamental principles. When implemented, we’ve found that these principles consistently lead to dramatic increases in agency productivity and effectiveness.
If you already have an agency and would like to take your collaboration to the next level, or are looking for an agency and unsure how to evaluate their work methodology, you should dive right in!
1. Promote Knowledge Sharing
Many executives provide context to their agency on an as-needed basis: burned by previous experiences or just strapped with time, they create a structure where communication only flows in one direction, and the agency only knows what they absolutely need to do their job.
While this might get you the short-term results you’re looking for, it also means you’re missing out on a lot of value your agency could bring to the table.
Pretty much all eCommerce agencies are verticalized–that means they only work in the eCommerce industry. As a result, they accumulate valuable expertise about industry trends, baseline performance, and best practices, not to mention the networks that they often manage to build up over time.
If your relationship with your agency resembles an assembly line, it’s very unlikely you will ever benefit from any of their organizational knowledge.
Instead, aim to remove all communication and knowledge barriers between your team and your agency. Give them free access to your team, and expose them to as many ceremonies and artifacts as possible–all hands, cross-functional meetings, strategy documents, and anything else that might be useful.
Once you do that, you’ll be surprised at all the different ways your agency can help you.
Recommended read: Sense and Respond
2. Demand Extreme Ownership
Here’s a controversial take: dedicated QA teams are a waste of time and money–at least in the way most brands structure them. If everything your agency does needs to pass a QA check, you’re doing it wrong.
This doesn’t just apply to QA but to any other areas where your agency needs “gatekeepers” or handholding. Instead, you should aim for a structure where your eCommerce agency is responsible for all stages of execution:
- Your agency should be responsible for contributing–as much as possible–to the product roadmap, based on their knowledge of your brand.
- Your agency should be responsible for refining your requirements and uncovering edge cases, problems, and needs you might have missed.
- Your agency should be responsible for QA’ing their own work, releasing it, and ensuring it’s working as expected once it’s live.
- Your agency should be responsible for proactively diagnosing and fixing the problem when something goes sideways—as it inevitably will.
If you’re reading this list and thinking, “My agency would never be able to do that,” there’s a fundamental lack of trust that you need to resolve. Perhaps they don’t have the skillset, or you tried giving them more freedom, and they failed. Talk to them openly about what you’re trying to achieve and see if the situation improves.
Recommended read: Turn The Ship Around
3. Think in Products, Not in Projects
A structured product management practice is what separates the brands that aimlessly wander from project to project and the brands that are intentionally pursuing a business strategy with their eCommerce website.
Unfortunately, many brands confuse product management–the practice of collecting and leveraging quantitative and qualitative data to inform your product roadmap–with project management–the practice of establishing and following a structured process in the execution of said product roadmap. Let's put it this way:
- Doing product management without project management means moving chaotically in the right direction.
- Doing project management without product management means moving meticulously in the wrong direction.
A good place to start is how you frame problems and validate solutions: rather than just writing down business requirements, use quantitative and qualitative data to explain the business need driving a particular initiative. Then, once a solution is implemented, use data to validate the impact of the solution.
Obviously, there’s much more to product management than just leveraging data: a good product manager is a master storyteller and can craft compelling narratives for why your brand should head in a particular direction, collaborating with different stakeholders and rallying your whole team behind a shared vision.
In the past, we have written extensively about the value of product management and how to establish a product management practice in your eCommerce team, so feel free to check out our previous articles here and here.
Recommended read: Escaping the Build Trap
4. Improve Continuously and Systemically
You and your eCommerce agency should be on a path of continuous, systemic improvement of your baseline performance. Rather than shooting for the stars only when the situation requires it and then falling back down to your usual standards, you should constantly reassess your work together to understand how to take things to the next level.
If you’re unsure how to do this effectively, try running a retrospective. In a retrospective, all team members can bring and discuss their feedback in a blame-free environment, with the only goal of improving the team’s performance. Retrospectives are most often used by software development teams, but they are a generic tool that can be applied to pretty much any business scenario.
Retrospectives allow you to improve continuously, but you should also ensure you’re improving systemically. By that, we mean that you should strive to maximize the impact of any work you do by considering how the work will affect different areas of your business, now and in the future.
A prime example that we like to use is building a design system for your brand. A design system will allow you to dramatically increase your iteration speed in the long term: you’ll be able to build more in a shorter timespan and reduce the amount of decision-making needed during the design process.
Unfortunately, design systems never seem important in the short term: you need to make a conscious effort and invest a bit of your time in your future needs–in a way that’s compatible with your immediate goals, of course.
Recommended read: The Goal
5. Do What’s Right, Not What’s Popular
The relatively recent commoditization of eCommerce infrastructure is fantastic news for brands: you can now build rich eCommerce experiences with a fraction of the effort that was previously required. Sign up for any modern eCommerce platform, and the amount of functionality available out of the box is mind-boggling.
However, this comes with a side effect: many brands have stopped thinking about how to properly align their eCommerce stack with what their business really needs. Instead, they just pick whatever’s most popular and stick to that. Unfortunately, agencies are not immune to this pattern–especially those that lack experience or strong R&D capabilities.
The result is a sea of online stores that all look and act the same and a borderline irrational fear of doing anything that deviates from the status quo.
Best practices should be considered a starting point that you can build upon, not an absolute constraint. Whenever you’re making a choice, it is your agency’s responsibility to present all your options and then determine what resonates the most with your market, vision, and business requirements.
Don’t get us wrong: there is a cost for deviating from the most traveled road, and you need to be able to quantify it. It all boils down to whether the additional benefits justify it.
Recommended read: The Lean Startup
Change Is Hard, Not Impossible
As you’ve seen by now, none of the principles we’ve just outlined are quick wins–in fact, many of them require a significant mindset shift, and we can’t promise that they will deliver results overnight.
What we can promise is that this way of working is infinitely more powerful than more transactional agency relationships, where you’re just paying money in exchange for pixels or code.
We’ve also seen first-hand that this kind of change can be implemented–you just need to be patient and accept that there will be slip-ups in the process. When they happen, treat them as your opportunity to practice continuous improvement!