You should Fire your Web agency when …

It seems I go from client to client and have the same conversation. I spend time educating, explaining and laying out the basics of why they need to ensure that their  Online strategies are not based on supplier lockins. It makes sense therefore that I detail some of those issues here and explain the reasons behind them; but first a little potted history.

In the early days of web development  designers were using   Frontpage or Dreamweaver and relying on basic server or client side scripting techniques to create some dynamic content. Customers who wanted to change content would contact the designer. It was always possible to have a complete copy of your website which you might choose to pass onto another developer or designer.  As web hosting companies matured and grew they offered more services and features and suddenly every web designer that worked out how to make more than a basic “Hello World” application was building their own Content Management Systems and then reselling these services to their clients.  This was a great time for web designers since they could now encourage clients to view the service as  liberating and flexible all the while discouraging their clients from looking elsewhere since they had locked them to their own Content Management Systems.

Not all developers and designers took this approach though and a few used the competitive and creative business models of Open Source to create Content Management Systems which could be freely copied, installed, modified and managed.  Initially for many end users though the value in this appeared to be  very little since the work in installing  these CMS’s was almost too much for many. Again the web developers would coo into the ears of their clients and lull them back to apathy. After all, they were managing everything so it would all be okay.

Things however have changed and its time for a few brave consultants and designers to take the lead and wake up our clients and customers to realise that not only can they manage their content but they can choose their own paths to freedom from oppressive and misleading web agencies. Its now possible to set up a domain , add a content management system, manage email and run a website all for as little as $300 a year and still have the freedom to bring in external consultants, developers and designers to add features, design and content to a website and to have the freedom to allow work to be handled in a more competitive market, which leads me to the title:

You Should Fire your Web Agency When…

They wont build you a Website or Online Strategy which uses off the shelf and Content Management Systems such as WordPress, Joomla or Drupal.

I love to hear the reasons from these agencies for not doing this. Apparently its not well supported, or you cant do as much programatically with them, or you wont get as good a design choice as if you went with their system. All the above excuses are vanity and laziness.

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They wont tell you that you can install and manage a blogging tool as easy as joining WordPress or picking a suitable hosting provider who manages it all for you.

I once listened to a very well respected PR company educate a room all about blogging but continue to downplay the ease with which people could get started. They focused on coming to them for the help and advice on installing and delivering a blog. Seriously are we that Web1.0 in the community that such actions are going to be continually acceptable?

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They wont allow you to backup every part of your content of your website for yourself.

Oh the promises I have heard of backups and archiving and protection all of course with an added cost and an added recovery value. Yet  more consultancy shenanigans which mislead and misdirect a client to believing that ‘things with computers are still difficult’.

They wont allow you to migrate your website , database, design and content from them to another Host.

Can you imagine paying for a booklet design only to be told that you cant print it anywhere else but with the designer. The serious point here is that if thier back end systems are so “special” and “unique” arent they more a liability that a benefit ?


They wont offer to run a local copy of your Website.

Want to test out ideas, content, layout , design ? Sure but only if you spend a little more with the designer again to have some other hidden site for testing. Again using off the shelf content management systems the client is going to be able to play in their own sandpit and teach, train and learn without risk to live content.

They wont integrate third party widgets and scripts without making your walk through hoops.

Show me a web2.0 site that doesnt offer a badge, widget, api, javascript or whatever bit of content for you to paste, embed and copy and I will be surprised. What never comes as a surprise though is how many privately built Content Management Systems cannot even handle a simple YouTube embed let alone a few custom Javascript Google Analytic lines. Again the Off the Shelf systems are offering these features with spades so why should it be a struggle for a customer to implement them ?

They provide meaningless URLs to address your content.

Are you seriously telling me that there is a benefit in delivering a URL that looks like

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Compared to one that looks like


Its going to be good for Google, Good for your readers and good for your searches if your content is created with names that humans can actually read.

They rename Images and Image content that gets uploaded.

Do they realise that Google searches images as well as text ? It helps then to have Images stay the way you named them if only to help you and others locate them at a later day ( see above ).

They dont provide a pingback mechanism to update sites like Google of content change.

This one always makes me laugh. Every time I talk to a agency they either do not know what it is or dont understand its value. Either way what is hard about reading this line in wordpress and understanding what it means ?

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They dont provide multilevel RSS feeds for content, categories, tags etc.

RSS is hardly an uncommon component for many sites. Again this feature seems to be considered an added extra by many home made CMS products or it is limited to a very narrow series of content on the web. Meanwhile , yes you guessed it , off the shelf CMS products seem to be able to deliver RSS for every occasion. Further its worth checking that the RSS feeds are actually readable by Google reader and not just whatever the in house CMS designer has been using for a reader.

For example add /feed/ to the end of or  . It creates the feeds so you dont have to .

They dont offer a proper Sitemap.

This has to be the most annoying conversation to have everytime. No a sitemap is not just the nice collection of links which mirror your menu structure for your visitors to read. It is also a file which search engines are reading in order to be informed about what pages are where and their frequency of change and well plenty more content besides.

Plugins are ten a penny for WordPress to create sitemaps for you on the fly

Their product runs on expensive architecture to deliver a website.

An occasional caveat from Webagencies is that they will allow you to run a local or another copy of their content management system but you will need to purchase some additional product and application licenses on which the site will run. If they have built a CMS on such architecture then you can expect the costs for hosting and managing just such an environment to continue to grow.

The software to run this website consists of an operating system called Linux which runs a  Web Server application called Apache that uses a database server called Mysql and its tied together with PHP ( L.A.M.P ) oh and its all free to own, use and access. I can run it on a machine as cheap as £99 and still serve a few thousand page hits a day.

They cannot point you to a number of other consultants, hosting companies and agencies that can support the work they did.

Interesting point this one. Many companies choose Word because, well everyone else uses it. They choose Windows because well they can go out and get support from a number of suppliers. Likewise they choose Personal Computers from suppliers because they can choose from a range of suppliers. However when they choose a supplier for their online strategy they seem quite happy for the answers to be based around technology that can only work in one place and with one supplier. Go Figure ?

And a special mention goes to some great contacts from my own twitter sphere Steve Purkis and Thom Allen.

They cant point to training material that supports using their services other than those upsold items of their own devising.

Pretty much the same point as above. Would it not  be better to train staff in technologies and toolsets that are transferable not simply provision locked ?

There we go , there are many more reasons to Fire Your Webdesigner but the above list  seems to  cover the core information which I repeat.

The  of course in being the little boy in the crowd shouting out about the nakedness of a clients strategy is that  your never going to be popular with the crowd but at least the Client ( and the Emperor ) are going to appreciate getting better cover.

Thanks for reading.

[update] Dont be afraid to pimp yourself or your agency if you dont break any of these rules. Also if you can think of more things I can add in then drop them into the comments. Thanks again.

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36 Comments on “You should Fire your Web agency when …

  1. Excellent post, Nik, and very timely. CMSs are a wonderful thing, and more keep springing up. In addition to the ones you mention there are Django and Plone, both built with Python. In a way this is good, but in a way, too, it could lead to more confusion and double-talk from those looking to lock in a client. You might want to add “They won’t build you a web site on a *well-known* CMS.” Of course, some clients are willing early-adopters, but I think your suggestion regarding being able to supply names of other consultants or agencies that can support them and particularly the documentation caveat should allow a client to find a comfort level with the popularity of a CMS.

  2. Nick – a top article with lot so of valid points! I work with WordPress, Drupal, and others and especially enjoy working with MODx too, very customisable from the web developer side.

    Sadly, many of the groups and small businesse’s I get called in to help, are held at the mercy of their original web company. (rarely a single designer I find.) The part of educating and supporting them to be in control of their own site, hosting and backups is essential. Many people I deal with don’t even have the basic ftp details to access their site. Helping them to understand and be able to make informed decisions is one of the best parts of what I do. Whether they then choose me to work with them thereafter, or use someone else that I may signpost them to, who would be better to work with their needs it doesn’t really matter. At least they are one step closer to being stronger and in control and likely to have a more productive and balanced relationship with their future web designer.

    Which in turn, in the long run, enables us web designers/devs to have clients who are better in their understanding and able to work with more productively.

  3. Also, you should fire your agency when

    # they don’t have SVN (or other) version control.

    # can’t hand over your backed-up databases and files on demand

    # they use old-skool FTP to upload to servers rather than something sensible like SSH/SFTP

    # can’t do a full cost breakdown and justify every charge without bullshit tech speak

    # can’t tell you the names of their personnel who will be working on your project and who’s responsible. (Or alternatively, push you from one person to another all the time)

    # can’t give you the name of someone technical at the supposedly-excellent hosting company they use. Can’t tell you the uptime of said company.

    # can’t tell you exactly why you should be working with them rather than someone in Eastern Europe for 1/4 the price


  4. On your point about how to name images, what we decided to do at when we created the latest platform was that ultimately the subject line a user gave when making their post was likely to be the best possible thing to name the image/s/video/audio uploaded. It makes semantic sense and of course helps with the Google juice. This is the best approach I think for anyone creating sites which are highly dynamic and user created.

  5. Jof – Yeah sorry .. I kinda wanted it to not say Me in the comments since it wasnt ME

    Alfie – Thanks for your comments I am betting moblog has content which can be embedded into another site as well. And thanks for commenting I feel theres going to be a lot of consultants printing this thread out for later use

    Laura – Ahmen to that thanks for your comments they were not at all garbled. It always amazes me that these companies claim to have knowledge and skill but seem keen to keep it all under a bushel!

  6. Good article. You make some very important points. I think this is information that needs to be out there for firms. It is surprising the amount of firms happy to lock themselves into a solution because they don’t think it is more beneficial to do that rather than take a little more ownership themselves, save a bit of money and also increase the value of their staff.

  7. Brilliant article! Thanks for not hiding it under yeat another “bushel” 😉

    F.U.D. – that’s what keeps clients “status quo” (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt). Think back to your drop-in w/Onions guest “Roger”.

    Lots F.U.D. especially in the non-profit (NGO) sector. Lots! And ironically lots of $¥€£ directed AWAY from their mission to the for-profit lock-in artists. Shame.

  8. Good stuff Nik.

    Great to see you expand on this even more than in the brief conversation we had on Friday. We need to build more awareness on this issue so that when people get asked to work on a project they have the tool kit they need and not the one that some third party has already convinced the client to be the only way forward.

    Twice now I’ve been hamstrung by sites built with CMS that more or less disable any chance for the sites to grow. Sadly it tends to be the larger organisations that get stung the worst due to a history of paying large sums of money for inept advice and services that don’t deliver.

    But there’s a lot in this post that I hadn’t thought of myself and it’s nice to see the list being added to in the comments 🙂 Good work!

  9. Mauricio – thank you for commenting like I said the conversations keep being repeated I hope this is a post that people will be able to reference and pass on.

    Sizemore – no , thank you sir, if you had not lent an ear to the idea I wouldnt have pushed ahead so quickly. I gather you and quite a few bloggers I know have been hamstrung by custom built privately run CMS which do less and cost more and seem able to place the blame at everyone else but their design.

    Jeff – thanks for the retweet I have to say the NGO and the Charities do seem to be vultured by the cost consultants working on the lack of skills and education at the client level to justify their own inflated contributions.

  10. Great post Nik. Although there’s a lot here that passes me by- but also a lot that smacks of design agencies I’ve worked with and puts the problems we’ve faced into specific points I can now argue back with.

    I’ve been trying to convince other people I’m working with to utilise tools such as wordpress for new sites and blogs and have met a lot of ‘oh but these guys have built their own blogging tools/ cms so its easier for us to just use them’- going to forward this post to each one of those people!

  11. Great checklist Nik and thanks for the mention!

    The Freedom you get by using free software (software which is under the GNU Public License or compatible *cannot* be understated. Many of our parents and/or grandparents fought hard for our Freedom, I feel we are now in the process of doing this in the digital age.

    Free Software means freedom of choice and not being restricted with what you can do with the software you choose to use; it also makes us IT suppliers work harder to provide customers with the best service possible as they are free to go elsewhere if they are not happy with our services, resulting in a truly competitive marketplace.

    It’s great to have someone like yourself explain this in Plain English, keep up the good work!

  12. A well writen item Loudmouthman and I can see why you were slightly hesistant about publishing it!

    I’m not a web design, so I’ve read this from the perspective of a potential client.

    As far as I’m concerned, web designers should be able to hold their heads up and shout “look at my work, use me because I do a good job” and their clients would stay with them because they’re good at their job. If it’s necessary for you to lock your clients into a proprietary system in order to keep them, then you’re not really that good. If you were good, they’d stay even if they had a choice.

  13. …oh, and just to add – the guys who created Drupal now have investment and provide a fully commercially supported version through their site at so if you decide to play with Drupal, start there, it has a great few modules already installed to get you up and running…

  14. Great work on this post. Hopefully some of the larger organisations will pick up on this and see it isn’t always the safest bet to stick with the design agency they have grown comfortable with.

    If you are good at designing, your clients should return. Not just because they have no other choice.

    Good work!

  15. Interesting…in my non-social (unsocial? LOL) media life I am a web designer and developer, of nearly 12 years and freelancing for 5.

    A few things:

    1 – Web Agency and Web designers are very different things, agencies tend to be managing the other sides such as print design, media buying, account management; things you don’t mention in your post. There are other reasons why clients will choose an agency, from the silly (went to the right school/daddy knows you/class reasons) to the more pertinent (understand the industry; understand the different media channels; know the politics etc).

    So the choice of agency, as well as the choice of system are far more complex than what you lay out above. If you’re client is the sort who can just chop and change like that, then they are probably fairly small.

    Web designers are the small fry usually in this; and want to create sites in Photoshop and not have to bother with the rest – hence the developers.

    2 – Scalability – now I love WordPress, have used it for client sites, but running a site of say the BBC size? Errrmm….I would be wary of doing that. Obviously most sites don’t have that kind of load, but some do. Drupal I know little about, Joomla’s quite impressive (I know a site that uses Fireboard?) but WordPress I do know can have issues that require cacheing and various hacks for larger more frequently sites. Maybe 2.5 fixed this; but that kind of assurance isn’t really forthcoming from the people at WP. Where are the really large WP sites?

    3 – familiarity – funny you should mention MS, they are part of the problem (along with Apple and others). I personally use Open Office, but that kind of brand recogniseability goes a long way to placate the less technical clients. It’s lazy to implement something like that just because it’s Apple or MS; especially when there is a just as good free system available – Apache won that battle, Linux maybe less but things are changing.

    Sadly there are people who use MS’s terrible Content Management Server. Why? Well their developers are MS drones, indoctrinated into the world of MS via Powerpoint and Word because that’s what the Training manager understands. To change this the open source alternatives need to get in there…into the corporates.

    And convince everyone that their systems can run sites as big as the BBC (which was a custom system using AppleObjects years ago, no idea what it is now).

    That’s the issue – posts like this can only go so far to change that. You need some backup?

  16. Great read there Nik.

    I totally agree on the points you’ve made. Being into webdesign myself, and growing into the social media scene, I do find it so much easier using a CMS such as WordPress or Joomla then going into a complex design. Not because I’m lazy but because there’s so much you can do with them, the software is always being updated by developers, and there is so many add ons badges, widgets etc to add to the website which can improve it in so many ways, I’m never afraid to recommend it.
    A CMS website I’ve found handy in the past is

    All the best,


  17. Very interesting article and reads as a good checklist for anyone looking to get a website built for them. Can I just add to the list that you should not be working with any web design agency who is not automatically including a discussion about which web analytics package to implement on the site or who can’t implement the tool of your choice. If you are going to spend money on creating a website, you need to be able to measure and understand what is/isn’t working. There is so much data available that can be used to inform business decisions and you should not be working with companies who do not find this area important.

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  19. I think this is a great analysis – after just having been told by BECTA that they’d be doing a pilot of RSS in response to queries about lack of provision I think this is very timely – I also responded on Seesmic from an ed perspective

  20. @tim Apparently the beeb use joomla for a lot of their stuff now. C4 use WP MU.

  21. Hi Nik,
    One reason why some agencies (not mine) are hesitant about using an open source CMS, particularly one based on PHP, is because of security concerns. One of the downsides of using something like WordPress, especially with a load of 3rd party plugins, is the constant patching to prevent nasty people destroying your site.

    In some cases, a sandboxed back-end management system that outputs only XML/JSON and HTML to a live web server, is a more suitable and secure setup.

    I don’t think it’s fair to say you should “fire” a web agency if they refuse to go for a WordPress solution, when WordPress isn’t the right tool for the job.


  22. Paul thanks for your comment but the constant claim of security issues in open source software is a misleading story.

    If your product is behind closed walls then no one will know of security issues involved and your able to hide and mislay issues over security.

    Meanwhile open source software by placing itself out in the open is available for many eyes to consult and deliver security advice and opinions on.

    The open model for security has long been the more established secure method of building secure sites.

    Meanwhile the claim that constant patching s required is another misdirect. Ive been managing several hundred users every year and its easier to patch and manage open source sites due to their well reported and documented nature.

  23. I take things (behind my eyes) a little more personal and I can say reading your article almost made me ill, because it was sooo true.

    Talking to clients I am such a passionate advocate of everything you said and Jof’s comment too that sometimes it is hard to swallow when they overrule your advice and go down a path that will soon be strewn with pieces of their company and a “money pit” too.

    I worked with one client having to do extra work for a *serious* discount that was likely to lead to jobs lost if I didn’t help. Unfortunately in the example I am thinking of it was 90% because senior managers got involved when they shouldn’t, forced poor decisions and as a result put the project at risk. Let be honest if heads were going to roll you know it wouldn’t be those big fish, so I helped them out.

    In general on bids or projects I feel a huge degree of failure if a bad decision is made because it is my fault for not being persuasive enough to change their minds.

    Am I taking it to personally? Yeah but i don’t let it out as I said ‘its behind the eyes’

    Cheers Nik and thanks for the write up I really couldn’t have written it better.

    Ps. Thx Jof there was a couple there as a none developer I had never thought about and have added to my list to remember for my next client.

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  25. Nik,

    Thanks for the post.
    Yes – I agree that most clients only need a WordPress or a Drupel site because it is cheaper and easier to manage.
    And yes – web developers should always give their clients options so that an appropriate/desired CMS or framework is developed.

    That said, I don’t think Drupel, WordPress and Joomla are the only answers to every project, especially huge projects where the client is not sure what they want and/or needs to move fast

    Some thoughts/questions:

    1) I don’t think Facebook or Linkedin use Drupel or WordPress – why? Don’t you think that when you want to build bigger system, you should use Frameworks, not CMSs?

    2) Some clients don’t care what system they are on and just want to job done very fast and cheap. It’s always easier to hire only PHP programmer compared to Joomla/Drupal experts. Thoughts?

    3) Cost per programmer on large, long-term projects can also be an issue when you need many 3 year+ experienced Drupal experts.

    4) Drupal multisite functionality has various limitations, and it’s not widely used. Joomla doesnt have it. This is a scaling issue in my opinion.

    5) Processing time for both CMSs is huge because every iteration consumes lots of MySql memory – another scaling issue.

    6) What do you think about lack of standards? Installing lots of modules, developed by various vendors, creates a lack of consistency in the code, which increases maintenance costs over time on large projects. Thoughts?

    Again, I agree with the majority of your post, just want to get your thoughts on the above items.

  26. Kevin, thanks for taking time to post a comment, herein my reply

    1) Facebook, Linked-in, Digg, Twitter et all are not Content Management Systems they are bespoke websites for a particular application. They are not providing framework management to content delivery they are the content delivery for their own data set. The reason they dont use WordPress is they have an application need not a CMS need.

    2) The arguement that clients dont care what they are on suggest you can argue it both ways then. Drupal, Joomla and WordPress are developed in PHP there fore a php expert , if they are expert and not specialists, should not be flailing around because they are looking at a CMS or another persons code.

    3) The Cost of any programmer is always (n) where n is the value to hire for any period x. Using the previous point then the cost for hiring help is alway nx irrespective of time.

    4) I’ll admit joomla and drupal have limitations on multisite then again delivering content to multisites is as aspect of data over content management.

    5) procesing time is a oxymoron. All processes take time. If your having problems with scalability its easier to use a well known and well adopted CMS to compare benchmarks vs a propriatary little implemented bespoke system. After all if your only benchmarking and customising for yourself your always going to get the results you seek.

    6) Lack of standards ? Id turn that on its head right away and point out that many bespoke and privately developed systems have had a greater lack of standards in terms of popular requirements such as rss, atom, embeds, naming conventions and taxonomy. Consistency in code is improved on larger projects that are shared and developed publicly.The reall issue comes from private , internal , development teams working in house with a high turn over of staff across a project.

  27. Loudmouth as spoken…

    Thanks for the thoughts Nik. Looking forward to more geeky discussions in 2009.

  28. Interesting post but…does anyone have some examples of (uk based) web agencies which meet these requirements?

    thanks in advance!

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  30. A worthy note about frameworks.. Some guys look like they’re re-inventing the wheel but are in fact just bespoke developing on top of frameworks like Symfony, CakePHP, Rails etc.

    There’s an ugly underbelly to certain modules/parts of the packages you mentioned when you get down and dirty developing extensions, plugins and modules. Mainly due to years of legacy support.

    Ask before you fire 🙂

    Kind Regards,

  31. $300? you are being ripped off – try $60 p.a.

  32. How do you feel about elaborate CMS that are developed ‘in house’. I’m a big WP/Drupal/Whatever fan, but surely specialised proprietary CMS’ have their place? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

  33. Nice list, agree with most of it but the CMS and WordPress comments should be quanitfied, theres a time and place for a blog and off-the-shelf CMS and is only relivant to SMEs and sites that are largely content based.

    If you’re an SME looking for a cost effective solution, wordpress is a good solution but If you’re a multi-national looking for language support, eCommerce (not paypal), integration with your existing CRM, Stock Control, then you’ll most likely need an agency that can build a bespoke system.

    I would also warn away from agencies that give you their sole solution as “You need a blog”.