TL;DR- Find the best digital agency by looking for a company with experts, full service (interactive) capabilities, people with strong strategy and business acumen, the right size amount of people, a trustworthy crew, and a passion.
Everyone wants to find the best digital agency (or agencies) for their business, but once you actually start actively searching weeding out the cruff becomes a much more daunting task...especially since anyone on the internet can really say anything they please. Finding the best digital agency in an over-saturated market like NYC can be an absolute pain in the ass. I've worked on both sides of the market. I've worked for a large Fortune 500 trying to find a digital agency of record, and I've worked for a digital agency. Right now, I sit somewhere in between as a consultant where I'm neither client nor agency, but work closely with both. Here are the things I look for and major watch-outs:
This seems like such an obvious one, but I can not stress it enough. The agencies I usually steer clear of are the ones who are constantly pitching me something. I'm usually on the bleeding edge, but agencies that can teach me something new, offer new insight, and are able to build connections through networks of ideas are the agencies that will deliver real value in the end. If an agency is annoying you with their pitch, how will their marketing, design, or digital assets be perceived by _your _customers.
Full service (aka Interactive)
Actually I really hate the descriptor "interactive" to describe an agency or firm that can do everything because it's really an awful use of the english language and is corporate language that has been diluted into nothing. That being said, you want someone who can deliver on your needs. Whether it's NDAs, RFPs, on-boarding education, or countless other items every agency that you have to bring on inherently adds another layer of complexity and time. You want a shop who just can get things done and done well. A shop who envelopes strategy into a fully integrated execution is going to be far more valuable than a shop who just builds your specs. A shop that can look at all aspects of your business, help you identify opportunity, develop a strategy, develop wireframes for a website and storyboards for a video, then execute and provide you with these beautiful assets in a neat package is a shop I will hire every single time.
Strategy and business acumen
I could possibly put this into the section above, but it's honestly so important that I decided to keep it on its own. There are hundreds of agencies in NYC that can execute (how well they execute is a different matter). The problem with digital agencies is that it's honestly such a new game that they get too wrapped up in what is going on in their world that they forget that there is still a business to run. Usually this means they want to build something shiny, but not for the right reasons. Chasing shiny is great for brainstorming, but unless you can tie it to actual business value, then it's a just an exercise and wasted money.
Size matters (but not the way you think)
There are many big names in digital agencies (particularly in NYC), but unless you are spending $1 million on a project with them, chances are that you're going to be getting a B team with a large agency. Even if you are spending $1 million+, you are a new client. Agencies tend to take care of the clients that are directly tied to steady cash flow. Over time you may transition into an A team, but you certainly won't be getting it at first. With a small (but ample) agency, they don't have room for B teams. B players are quickly weeded out and let go. Junior members of the team may grind their teeth on a smaller project, but everything is ran through a Senior employee with years of experience who guarantees that the quality of work meets their standards. Now small doesn't mean stretched. You want to be careful and make sure that the team can handle the workload (or hire to accommodate for it). Steer clear of agencies who are one or two man shops if they have other clients. This can be dangerous. If you have a massive project, make sure there is at least one Senior person for every area of expertise (design, strategy, technology) and the employees to handle the workload. Many medium sized firms have small branches in different locations, but as a whole they have the team to support your needs.
Trustworthiness and personality
These almost go without saying, but quite frankly there are a lot of slimey players since this is a relatively new industry. You'll get the "social media marketing experts" and the spammy snake oil salesman on far too often of an occasion. Look for people who you would like to go out with for drinks. You will be spending a lot of time with these people. You want someone who you can trust, both to get the job done and to be looking out for your best interest. Finding a digital agency who is genuinely concerned with the best interests of your business is going to pay off in dividends later on. Ask for references and press the references, particularly of companies who hired the agency to do the type of work you're interested in.
Passion and adventure
Now this is kind of an x-factor. There are so many ways that you could spin this or adjectives that you could use, but it comes down to how excited the team is to work with you. Engaged and passionate digital agencies are going to produce better work for you than anyone else. They'll pour their thoughts, their personal research, and their ideas into your project which is what you want in the end. You're paying for creative minds who have applied these talents to the business world. Look for programmers who contribute to the open-sourced world, look for designers who have a personal website where they try new things, and look for agencies who are passionate about what they do.
How do I find this perfect agency?
Now how do you start your search? I go off of personal recommendations, investigate campaigns or sites that I thought were well done, and I use Google. You can always reach out to me for personal recommendations below.
Did I miss something? What do you look for in a digital agency? How do you start your search? Leave a comment, or squawk at me on Twitter @codelitt