We’ve been growing pretty quickly these past few years, and when that happens you often need external support. More often than not we’ve turned to agencyland to find help.

Sometimes we’ve needed to bring in an agency on a tactical level, to help us with a specific – and perhaps one-off – project. On other occasions we’ve taken a longer-term view, with the aim of forging a strong relationship and retaining the agency.

Finding the right partner is just as difficult as hiring the right staff, and just as crucial. It goes without saying that not all of the agencies we’ve seen have been successful in winning our business. Sometimes there is a real sense of disappointment, especially when you like the people and their work, when you talk them up, when you know they have the skills, and when they fail to deliver in the meeting.

So here’s a list of common reasons why agencies don’t get hired. Many of these points also apply to consultants and freelancers too. To win more work, try to avoid some of the following...

Having an inaccessible website

How can I evaluate your agency if I cannot access your website? I wouldn’t hire an agency with an inaccessible website on general principles. 

Using Flash and making me ‘click to enter website’ is so very 2003, and as pointless now as it was back then. Designing mystery meat navigation is no way to win our projects. 

I have used my iPhone to visit agency websites while on the move, and if it looks anything like the below screenshot then it’s game over for you…


No 'About' page

All companies should have an ‘About’ page on their website. This is surely one of the only true rules of doing business online. I can think of no good reason why you wouldn’t have one.

The About page is normally one of the first pages I look for when trying to find out more information about an agency (or any other business, for that matter). 

I specifically want to know about the history, the team, and the company culture. The kind of work you do is important, but a portfolio-only website with no background information looks sketchy. 

Don’t avoid creating an About page just because you’re a small / new agency, or a one-man band. Do avoid creating one if you are a bit dim.

Tardy communications

“When did you send them the brief?”, asked our commercial director. 

“Shortly after the end of the US Civil War,” came the reply. 

Old Chinese saying: ‘You snooze, you lose’.

Being late for the meeting 

Nobody likes to be kept waiting. If there’s potentially money involved then there can be no excuse. 

This isn’t about my colleagues and I behaving like divas, it’s about the folks who are ‘trying’ to win the business. If they’re late it suggests that they’re not trying hard enough. Are they late with their project deadlines too?

Lack of attention to detail

Typos are bad enough in emails and blog posts, but in mockups and other presentation materials they are unforgivable. 

The detail always matters. It really matters when an agency is trying to win our business. It may sound silly but we do actually care about the spelling of our brand name, among other things. 

Poor, half-assed presentation

If you’re not bothered about presenting your ideas in the best possible light then why bother showing up? No printouts? Half-baked mockups? Hungover? A lack of preparation (and energy) can be fatal.

All the gear but no ideas

We love people who share ideas. This isn’t about you giving us free expertise, it is about showing that you understand our needs, our brand, our audience, our tone of voice. By contrast, a lack of ideas or an unwillingness to think out loud can leave a bad impression.

There’s nothing wrong with showing a little leg.

Failed to understand our business model

“Oh, so you’re not actually a consultancy…?” 

Ugh. We’ve heard this so often. While we do have a consultancy division there is rather a lot more to our business than that. Didn’t you do your research?

Didn’t ask enough questions

If you’re going for a job interview then here’s one piece of advice from me: always ask more questions than the interviewer asks you.

Works every time, for a number of obvious reasons. The same applies to agencies when a new client is in the offing. Dig deep with those questions, to help you understand the client’s needs. 

Didn’t understand our goals

All of our projects are there for a reason. It is important for partners to see how a project fits into the bigger picture. A lack of awareness about the tactical value of project is bad news for us. 

There are budgetary goals too. Projects have costs and targets assigned to them. If we know that a campaign will deliver a maximum of £20k in revenue over its lifetime then there will be much head scratching if your agency quotes £50k with the “guarantee of ROI”.

Signs of hubris

We’ll throw money at the things that work, to scale them up, but some things just don’t scale. So be very careful when walking towards a dead end. 

Convincing us that something will work and is worth spending a chunk of money on does not necessarily mean it will work. It may convince us that you're deluded.

Hubris is a very bad thing.


Based on the amount of blog posts and reports we’ve published, we know how important Google is to our business. But thanks for clarifying.

Too much chatter about previous work / clients 

Talking about your previous work is a good thing if it is relevant. It is an awful idea if it isn’t. 

We don’t really care about who you’ve worked with, we only care about the quality of the work you’ve done. You won’t be hired simply because you’ve built a rubbish microsite for the biggest brand in the world.

Promises of secret sauce

“So how are you going to do that exactly?”

“You’ll have to wait and see.”

Nope. We know that the dark arts can be very dark indeed. There be monsters. Swerve!

Playing buzzword bingo

Thanks for “reaching out” but no, you may not “circle back”. Enough with the buzzwords! Industry jargon is often unavoidable but please try to speak plainly. Some words should be avoided at all costs. Especially 'leverage' and 'synergy'.

Too wishy washy 

Sometimes you attend an event in the hope of learning something. You want real nuggets of insight, to find new tools, and to see examples of creativity. Instead you sit in on a social media session where the speaker repeatedly rams home a simplistic message: “You must listen! You must engage!”. Minds = not blown.

We really like the detail. We’re not so much into broad statements. Get to the point. 

Bad cultural fit 

Personal relationships and a strong cultural fit matter a great deal. Are you going to be able to gel with us, and vice versa? Do you work in a similar way to us? Do we share the same values? Are you going to go the extra mile because you actually like your client?

No real plan of attack

“So what comes next? How will this work?”


When it comes to hiring an agency (or contractor / consultant / freelancer for that matter) what are your biggest turn offs?

[Image by Dita Margarita via Flickr, various rights reserved]

Chris Lake

Published 1 May, 2012 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

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Comments (14)

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Glad the "too much chatter about previous work/clients" is a recognised phenomenon - I wondered if I might be alone in experiencing this.

(PS, typo at the end: "When it comes to hiring and agency")

over 6 years ago

Steve Richards

Steve Richards, MD at Yomego

Nice one, Chris. Some clients are still light on the detail when it comes to feeding back when you don't get commissioned. In my experience, agencies would always prefer honest and open feedback, warts and all. Maybe a tickbox with your list could help!

over 6 years ago

Eoin Kenneally

Eoin Kenneally, Ecommerce Consultant at Consultant

If i hear one more agency wanting to talk about social media i think i might never answer the phone again.

Also the secret sauce thing is another pet hate.

Its nice to have a brief overview of previous work but if its older than 12 months I don't really want any depth.

over 6 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@StuartW - Sometimes it feels a bit self-congratulatory, or isn't relevant. It's always impressive to have done brilliant work for brilliant brands, but time is tight, so it's best to focus on how you're able to help us. (Thanks for the typo spot: now fixed).

@Steve - Agreed. It's a good idea to try to steer agencies in the right direction and we will normally say if there was a stumbling block, unless the block is the size of a small moon.

@Eoin - Secret sauce is one of the worst things on this list. Smoke and daggers and snake oil merchants are to be avoided.

over 6 years ago


Anja Jessen

As another take on your "All the gear but no ideas": I love it, when an agency actually reads my brief. I hate it, when they throw it back at me almost verbatim as The Strategy.

Also, let's just NEVER discuss swag in a pitch. Ever.

over 6 years ago


Hilton Barbour


I might add one more. Showing up with all the Chiefs and none of the foot soldiers. Clients aren't impressed when the pitch team is not the team working on their business day 1. I've seen too many pitches where the big guns make an appearance but you never see them again.

over 6 years ago


Dan Coleman

One more personal bugbear is "acting like a lawyer" - if an agency is going to spend a load of time and energy arguing over the context and implied meaning of a particular word in the scope they are going to be a pain in the arse to work with. I understand the need for protection but also understand if you are delivering on your pitch we aren't going to have a problem in the first place. There is a happy medium that thankfully most agencies I choose to work with tend to nail. Some others just need to go back to arguing on the internet.

over 6 years ago

Kevin Galway

Kevin Galway, Head of Business Change at Onecom

Great post & comments.

Chemistry will play a big part even if it's the best ever pitch in the world.

The pitch & assets are just a tool, you shouldn't be in the pitch if you haven't got the right credentials, and qualifying will help with that.

People buy from people, and from people they like.
Get the right mix of portfolio, experience and people - then you have a winning combination - even if you are more expensive.

over 6 years ago


Vanessa Kristensen, Director Online at Orange

Great post, I'm always amazed at how underwhelming agency pitches can be for work that they apparently want to win.

Ignoring or misunderstanding the brief is a particular bugbear - if I've gone to the trouble of writing a brief, then read it and reference all the points of it in your pitch. If you don't understand it, then arrange a pre-pitch meeting to check you're on the right track.

I think there's also a potential post in the topic of being a good client - you can do a lot to help yourself when it comes to getting good service from your agency or consultancy.

over 6 years ago

Albie Attias

Albie Attias, Ecommerce Director at King of Servers Ltd

Good post Chris. A number of your points relate to passion and enthusiasm. These must shine through for a positive outcome. Lots of agencies can talk the talk and until you hire them you won't know if they can walk the walk but if they've gone the extra mile, asked the extra questions and shown genuine interest in your business there's a good chance they might be a good fit.

over 6 years ago


Tash Hughes

WHat a great list, Chris! And some great comments, too - I especially lek the one about meeting the chiefs but working with foot soldiers as this is a pet hate of mine. It is the foot soldiers I need to brief and work with so that's who I need to meet at the start.

As someone who has asked lOTS of questions from clients and shared ideas on the spot, I love hearing you praise such things - sometimes it feels like clients are annoyed by the details I ask about (fiddly things like who is the audience and what is the purpose of the project!)

over 6 years ago

Kevin Galway

Kevin Galway, Head of Business Change at Onecom


Great idea - what does make a good client?

We've all probably seen the funny emails about clients and agencies > clients making a designer's life hell and wanting things done in 5 minutes.

In all seriousness, there is always much emphasis placed on agencies and their deliverables & costs - but clients play a MASSIVE part in this.

@Chris - potentially worth thinking about?

over 6 years ago


Kyly Bird, Digital Marketing Officer at Make

My pet hate is receiving a proposal that is littered with typo's. If you can't be bothered to pay enough attention to the proposal you are putting together for me then I assume you won't pay enough attention to my project! Kindly show yourself to the door.

over 6 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Hilton - Absolutely agree, otherwise you get into Chinese whispers territory.

@Dan - I love people who have strong attention to detail but I know what you mean. Avoiding bureaucracy is generally a good idea.

@Vanessa - Great idea! I'll need to crowdsource that one from agencyland!

over 6 years ago

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