When it comes to web design/development, we often hear the terms ‘agency’ and ‘consultancy.’ These two terms, though used interchangeably by many, actually encompass a vastly different focus and purpose.
To help you better understand the differences between an agency and consultancy, we will also be breaking down the phases and steps typically involved in a design/development project.
Differences between an agency and a consultancy – as seen in the various phases of web design/development
Before any other form of planning, an agency/consultancy (let’s shorten this to “a/c” – not to be confused with air conditioning) and its potential client will usually determine if they are a good fit for one another through a discovery conversation. During the call/meeting, the potential client will share about their pain points, business, budget, needs and goals, while the a/c will share about their services and other relevant information. The purpose of this call is for both parties to ask each other questions and build rapport, so that they can eventually decide whether they would like to work together.
👉🏼 Agency: The focus of a discovery conversation between an agency and its potential client is mostly centered around a certain service that the potential client is interested in. Even though the agency and potential client will get to know each other’s values, culture, and expectations, these conversations tend to be more about how the agency can provide value and meet objectives in a particular area (such as web design).
Sometimes, this discovery conversation can also be replaced by a pitch meeting, where the agency seeks to win over a client with a creative and compelling story and portfolio.
👉🏼 Consultancy: The focus of a discovery conversation between a consultancy and its potential client tends to be more dynamic, and can be focused on whatever pain point that is bothering the potential client. The consultancy will ask guiding questions to dive deeper into the potential client’s pain point, and similarly, both parties will get to know each other’s values, culture, and expectations. This is because a consultancy prefers to solve the root of a problem by providing a comprehensive solution that also takes into account other aspects of the client’s business. A service such as web design in this case, is a puzzle piece that supports the overall business strategy.
Unlike an agency, a consultancy does not pitch to the client. Its focus is on understanding the potential client’s unique circumstances, and then provide a customized solution after thorough research and understanding. A consultancy also tends not to advertise, and instead gets most (albeit not all) of its clients through client or network referrals.
Define Project Scope & Create Website Sitemap
Should the a/c and client proceed with working together, they will then work together to define their project scope, timeline, cost, deliverables, etc.
The a/c will conduct an audit of the client’s current situation, as well as research about the client’s business, industry, competitors, and customers. Based on this research, the a/c will develop and propose an outline of the website architecture in the form of sitemaps.
👉🏼 Agency: The project scope is usually limited, such as to a stand-alone website; and the audit/research step centers around website-related information.
👉🏼 Consultancy: The project scope can range from a limited to a very comprehensive one. The consultancy can support a client in many areas, including website design/development, marketing, operations, product/service improvement, etc. The audit/research step can cover as many aspects as necessary for the consultancy to deliver objectives for that project.
After having a good understanding of the website architecture and content flow (with search engine optimization (SEO) taken into consideration), the a/c will design its first deliverable, usually in the form of a low-fidelity wireframe. This low-fidelity wireframe can be designed with various different tools (which vary depending on what the designer is most familiar with; at Free Logic, we use Adobe XD). It is like the “skeleton” of a website, without fancy fonts, colors or any elements of design.
Once the low-fidelity wireframe is finalized, the a/c then designs its next deliverable, usually in the form of a high-fidelity wireframe or prototype. High-fidelity wireframes and prototypes are built with the same tool such as Adobe XD, but this time round, the client can see all the visual elements such as fonts, colors, images, illustrations, and written content.
The level of design depends on the client and project scope. If a client already has a solid brand style guide, then the wireframe/prototype will be designed based on the existing style guide. However, if the client would like to build a new brand image from the ground up, then the a/c will likely go through some mood boards and branding discussions before coming up with the visual design. For clients who need additional content creation such as photography, graphic design, etc., the a/c might be able to do it in-house, out-source it, or refer the client directly to their network.
👉🏼 Agency: The design that an agency produces emphasizes aesthetic appeal, creativity, the client’s current website objectives. This design, however, may or may not take into account the client’s overall business needs and goals, both in the short and in the long term.
👉🏼 Consultancy: The design that a consultancy produces emphasizes functionality and its connection to the client’s overall business strategy, both in short and in the long term but especially the latter.
With the design finalized, the a/c goes ahead and implements it to create a fully functional website. This implementation step is followed by user testing, to ensure a smooth user experience before officially launching.
👉🏼 Agency: An agency usually works with the website host and domain that the client had to figure out and set up beforehand.
👉🏼 Consultancy: A consultancy, like an agency, tends to not prefer hosting a client’s website. However, a consultancy will offer advice and even technical assistance when it comes to switching or setting up a website host and domain.
4. Analyze & Optimize
If included in the project scope, the a/c will continue analyzing website-related data and continue optimizing the website to help the client reach their objectives.
👉🏼 Agency: This phase tends to be shorter for agencies as they often operate at a faster pace, going from one short-term project to another. After the website launch and possibly a period of analysis and optimization, the client is usually left on their own – that is, unless they choose to hire the agency again.
👉🏼 Consultancy: This phase tends to be longer for consultancies which often have longer-term relationships with their clients. Since the website should be a part of an overall business strategy solution, the consultancy will continue analyzing and optimizing the website or any other project, to help the client get closer to not just their website objectives but also their overall business goals.
At Free Logic, we may also offer training and technical support to our clients (up to 6 months, a year, etc., it really depends on the client) to ensure the client team is fully equipped to leverage their website and work toward their business goals.
Agency vs consultancy – which one should you choose?
Short answer: it really depends on your needs.
If you already have a sound and solid business strategy, and are just looking to make specific business tasks and projects easier/faster, then you might want to hire an agency for a shorter-term project that is primarily, for example, building a website.
On the other hand, if you would like more strategic guidance and support, then a consultancy can help you with that, while delivering a website as part of the solution.
Building a website can be confusing, technical, time-consuming, and intimidating – but agencies and consultancies are here to help. Whichever you choose, just make sure that both of you communicate your expectations clearly and honestly. The last thing you want is a misaligned goal. You are a team after all, whether it be for the shorter term or longer term!
*Free Logic is a digital consultancy that helps small businesses, nonprofits, startups and artists with comprehensive business solutions that often (but not necessarily) include website design/development. We value transparency, teamwork, and continuous improvement, so that our clients will never stop growing with us. If you would like to learn more about our philosophy and services, feel free to get in touch with us!