If you've looked into hiring an agency for a web project recently, they've probably tried to sell you a "discovery;" in fact, they may have even required it as a condition for working with them. At Empower Ideas, we refer to ours as a "context briefing." But what is a discovery and why is this "add-on" mandatory?
The simple answer is because it works, making the project team work more efficiently and likely increasing your satisfaction. But how and why? We can dig a lot deeper than that.
Let's begin with an acknowledgement that I used to agree with you. A discovery seemed like an unnecessary waste of time, particularly if it was so structured that it felt like we would be simply going through the paces, reciting a script. I used to work for a different ad agency and at one point I was informed that for an entire week the whole agency would be doing zero client work; we would be closed to all projects. Instead, the agency attended training on conducting a discovery. I begrudgingly went into work that week knowing that the rest of the world wasn't standing still for us and watching the work pile up as clients continued to send in emails all week. But something happened during that training: I started to realize just how valuable the process actually was. By the end of the week, I had shifted from being an opponent of a new process to an advocate. I ran the agency's first discovery after the training on a project that I was managing. The client gave us great feedback on that discovery, and it made the project run infinitely more smoothly. I became an even bigger proponent and eventually pioneered using online white board applications to run discoveries remotely and gather some of the same benefits even when it wasn't possible for the client and project team to be in the same room. Over the course of just a couple of months, I became a discovery evangelist, and I consider it to be one of the greatest takeaways from my time with that agency.
While discoveries will vary somewhat across agencies, the idea is usually similar; the goal of the process is to determine exactly what the project is going to entail (and, crucially, what it will not) as well as to quickly on-board the project time onto the new brand.
Consider this: agencies often work with many clients simultaneously and flip quickly between brands as new clients sign. It can be very challenging for creatives to get a good grasp of a new brand when they're flipping between so many, so often. So the discovery carves out time specifically for everyone to deep dive on a single brand, helping to uncover nuance that would otherwise take much longer for the project team to understand.
While clients may understand the on-boarding angle, another common retort to the idea of understanding what is and is not in scope is that clients already know what they want; after all, that's why they hired the agency. "So can't we just skip that phase?" they ask. "The team can learn about the brand nuance as they go."
But here's one dirty little secret: it helps the agency better estimate project time.
For a simple start-to-finish project (as opposed to a long project with an indefinite end or a maintenance retainer) you likely pay a flat rate to the agency rather than an hourly cost. The agency is probably paying its employees a salary that stays the same no matter how much work those employees do. But they are still converting everything to hours to measure the health of the project. After all, if more hours are being consumed on your project than planned, then that leaves fewer hours available for other projects; and when this happens continuously it can lead to the agency having to turn down work due to a lack of available resources to actually execute, and that really is a loss of real dollars as opposed to merely a hypothetical hourly wage. Further, miscalculations that cause higher hour utilization than forecasted could delay projects, causing missed deadlines and potential monetary penalties, depending on the contract. It could also overwork the project team, contributing to the notoriously high turnover within agencies. In addition, many agencies use subcontractors to perform specific parts of project work that are outside their typical realm of expertise; often, these subcontractors are paid hourly even if the rest of the project is set. In order to understand all of these metrics, project managers seek to set up their initial time estimates as accurately as possible so they can quickly compare the actual execution numbers to the context of the plan and understand how the project is proceeding.
For all of these reasons, it's to an agency's advantage to be as accurate as possible with their early estimates, and a discovery helps make that possible.
But if the discovery is helping the agency, why does the client foot the bill? Well, the project team is actively working on the client's project, time that could otherwise be spent doing other activities. That's therefore time that's ultimately billed back to the client whether it's itemized out or averaged into the cost of other line items. There's another reason though that we alluded to earlier; the discovery also does in fact benefit the client.
The next key reason that many agencies require a discovery phase is for creative alignment. For projects that involve design (e.g. website design, ad design, logo development, etc.) it's important that the agency is on the same page with the client in terms of what the client is envisioning in their mind's eye. A client may not think of everything to tell the agency or which direction to go in, which could mean that the agency needs to re-work a design to meet the client's needs after the client sees a draft and begins to articulate their ideas better. The discovery is a very structured way for clients to share their creative positions; this means they don't leave details out. It also creates conversation that lets clients align between all stakeholders if there are differences in the design goals, perhaps differences they hadn't even realized. That means the client will see better work, closer to what they're imagining, more quickly.
At Empower Ideas, we plan for our discoveries to run for roughly half a day. In the grand scheme of a multi-month project, this is a very small amount of time. It's a minimal investment but, as you can see, there are massive returns for both agency and client. This is the reason that many agencies require a discovery period for most large projects.