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2nd January 2015

Over the last year or so there have been a number of what could be described as high profile agency buyouts in both the UK and the US.

This has fuelled an ongoing debate about the future of the agency model, with many outspoken people foretelling the death of the agency.

I recently participated in just such a debate at Design + Banter with Andy Budd, Nick Marsh and Utku Can. The debate ranged across topics including start-ups, mergers and acquisitions, business culture, recruitment policies, learning and development, capitalism, and client services. There were no shortages of opinions.

What’s fuelling the debate?

In addition to high profile mergers and acquisitions in the agency world, we are also seeing a surge in UX teams either being bought or built up client-side, in management consultancies, technology giants and marketing conglomerates. History tells us that some of these will be successful, some will fail, and some will destroy the culture that makes user experience design successful. Equally there will be some who choose not to buy or build due to a lack of resource or choice.

The agency’s not dead

I believe we will see history repeat itself. In the 20 years of my career I’ve seen this same pattern repeated with ergonomics in the late ‘90s and then usability in the 00’s. Furniture resellers and architects tagged ‘ergonomics’ to everything they designed or sold and claimed to have these skills in-house. Some managed to hire ergonomists and build their capabilities, while others continued to use consultants (I personally provided this service to a few). Today we have seen these consultancies evolve by adding outsourcing to their list of services and computer based training for example.

Similarly the usability industry evolved. It moved from being a tick-box activity at the end of the product development lifecycle to turning into a strategic input into the design of user experiences and combining the power of user research, design, development and measurement. Today we can see a handful of successful user experience design agencies that are continuing to grow and prosper, of course there is Foolproof and to name few, Clearleft, Nile, Webcredible, Akendi, Cyber-duck…

There are many perspectives on the future of this industry. The debate touched on which model is best; in-house teams, bought in expertise, freelancers or agencies. I won’t go into all of these arguments here, but there are a number of benefits of working in, or with an agency, which I believe will continue to secure the future of the agency model. OK, I have to agree with my fellow panellists that some agencies will die. But this will most likely be due to being bought, growing too quickly or not responding to market conditions.

The advantages of working with an agency

Regardless, the demand is high for our expertise. So why do I believe the agency isn’t dead? Because there are many advantages to working with an agency:

  • Broader perspective: we work across sectors, and in the digital world we know that your competitors don’t just sit in your sector.
  • Multidisciplinary expertise: we have a variety of skills and disciplines to draw upon, ensuring you get the right team for the job (strategy, planning, ethnography, ergonomics, psychology, interaction design, visual design, product design, service design, analytics…)
  • Team work: we truly collaborate with you and your teams across the life cycle of a project. Not only do you get to see first-hand your work coming to life you also get to learn from experts in the field.
  • Insight: not only can we uncover insight about your customers, we also understand your competitor’s customers. We also invest in our own proprietary insight to understand the wider context.
The advantages of working for an agency

If you’re looking for a job in experience design, there are also many benefits in working for an agency which will ensure the future of the agency.

  • Variety of work: you will hear many advocates for #agencyisdead try to squash this benefit. Although you do get more variety client-side or in start-ups than ever before, you still don’t get the opportunity to work across different brands and explore a wide range of industries. Working in an agency means you do get to this.
  • Skills development and knowledge sharing: agencies attract a broad range of people from a variety of disciplines and they’re all working across multiple sectors. This allows for knowledge and skills sharing to help you grow and develop. You also have the opportunity to delve deeper into topics with our proprietary insights.
  • Deeper business understanding is not just for client-side: some have also argued that you don’t get the chance to work with brands and understand their business. If this is the case, you are not working with the right agency. We do work collaboratively together, often onsite which breaks down any barriers and builds trust.
  • Sense of accomplishment /seeing it live: we work in multidisciplinary teams, so you get the opportunity to see your research turn into concepts, concepts into prototypes and designs into pattern libraries and finally the analytics or KPIs once live – affect real improvements to end users and brands.

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