Why can’t my digital agency deliver my project on budget?


The way clients and agencies communicate at the beginning of a project can have a lasting impact on the bottom line.

13 Jun 2019
Jump to article



Melodie Ash - Senior Project Manager



It’s frustrating when you realise your web project is running over the original budget, balancing expectations against the original scope is always challenging. That moment when you ask your agency project manager a query such as “I wanted this to be CMS editable” or “I expected this to animate” The reply you receive is  “You didn’t ask for that” but you’re sure that this was discussed somewhere along the line. They’re sure you didn’t. You brandish the technical specification in your defence. ‘No, no,’ they explain with an infuriating amount of patience: ‘That’s not what that means.’ Your stomach drops. You’re going to have to ask your finance director for more money to get this project done.

Rough sailing

This is when emotions run high, and partnerships falter. Somewhere along the course of your project there’s been a miscommunication. And the result is a real monetary cost. Everyone is going to look for someone else to blame. But whose fault is it, anyway?

The uncomfortable answer is that everyone is responsible when a web project isn’t delivered on budget. And because any digital agency operating above board is working very hard for you, they dread telling you about budgetary issues probably even more than you dread telling your finance team. They want to give you everything they think you want and need for your website, and they want to deliver good value for you. Otherwise, what kind of business are they even running? So why does it seem like they’re always adding to the bottom line?

Knowing the ropes

Even with nearly 20 years in the business, and a very good reputation for financial risk mitigation, we at Quba consider this an ongoing learning process. And we’re sharing what we know to help you reduce risk on your own projects.

The fact is, most issues to do with budget on web projects can be sorted at the very beginning of the project if everyone took a more thoughtful approach to getting started. But it’s exciting. There’s lots to talk about. New people to meet and capabilities for your organisation to think about. It’s easy for everyone—including the agency team—to get carried away.

But there is one principle that must run through the whole process like lifeblood: building a web project is not just a transaction between two businesses; it’s a collaboration. Both teams have to work continuously together over the course of the project to make it come to fruition. If that’s understood from the outset by both groups, then asking for what you need from each other should never become an imposition. It’s teamwork.

Most of the iceberg is beneath the surface

To that end, one of the earliest rumblings of trouble comes just as the agency is accepting the work, and the client is greenlighting the plans. Everyone is saying yes to everything. It’s exhilarating. At this stage of the project, however, the initial brief or tender from the client rarely indicates the full extent of the work required. It’s not for any untoward reason; it’s just because the talk is focused on the big picture, the strategic goals of the project. Or it may be that the client assumes that certain things will be included, so they don’t ask for them explicitly at the outset. As a result, the agency pretty much always presents their first quote based on somewhat incomplete information.

But in the discovery phase [text link: https://www.digitaldoughnut.com/articles/2017/april/what-is-a-discovery-phase-and-why-do-i-need-one-fo], the agency often finds that the situation is more complex than originally presented. At this point, they really ought to go back and say, “We have to amend our quote in light of all the new information”. But often they don’t. Often, the agency instead takes a big gulp and breaks out in a light sweat and cracks on with nary a word. Then the moment the client wonders aloud about including something that wasn’t in the original plan, the agency has to push back or risk their own financial stake. That causes early friction in the relationship. The problem here of course is that the client doesn’t know why the agency is feeling so frustrated so soon.

The fact is, it is the agency’s responsibility to be more up front about the realistic costs at the outset of the project when new information comes to light during the discovery phase. That’s the whole point of the discovery phase after all! To drill down into the project’s goals to determine its scope, so that the agency can properly scope and plan the delivery of the project. If they are clear about why they’ve had to change their costs, then the client can make a confident decision about how to proceed.

All hands on deck

Once a web project has kicked off, clients are sometimes caught off guard when the agency stops being quite so interested in what strategic stakeholders have to say and want to talk to more junior team members. Web projects, especially big ones involving enterprise level CMS builds, are so often strategic in nature that it seems obvious that executive management should have a voice in the process. But actually, it’s the day-to-day website and application managers who are going to fill in much of the practical detail for the developers and designers. In other words, the agency needs access to your marketing team, HR and finance people, data and content managers—and anyone else who is going to be interacting with the finished product regularly.

When those people are left out of the build, and are simply presented with the finished product, it’s often not fit for their ways of working. Integrations with the applications they use may not have been properly thought out. As a result, the agency may be asked to redesign or rebuild components of the site to accommodate the reality of the department that is actually using it. That has an immediate knock-on cost that could have been avoided by planning to include those users in the project plan from the very beginning. Ensuring that the initial strategic conversation evolves efficiently into pragmatic project management without communication barriers can help prevent those additional costs later down the line.

Pressed into service

It may be tempting mid-project to try to speed the process up—and ostensibly save money—by putting more people onto the job. But what usually ends up happening is that lots of tasks get duplicated or else lots of time gets wasted in handover. One person or team has to spend ages explaining to another what they’re doing so that the next one can pick it up. Or else people have different ideas about how to achieve the same end goal, and they keep undoing each other’s work.

In the end, too many cooks in the galley actually delays things. By keeping the team lean and focused on your project, each person really gets to know it inside and out. Individuals are going to build and design whole components of it, which means the end product will have no redundancy in its value. It will be just exactly what you paid for with no extra time costs. Shipshape and Bristol fashion.

Dragging the anchor

When decision-making gets tied up at the outset of the project, it has a knock-on effect later on as the project plan slips. It doesn’t really matter why the delays happen, there may be a shift in focus for the end goal that causes early design ideas to be scrapped, for instance. In any case, the result is that there is time to make up later on. And time is money, of course.

With the same final deadline to meet, the agency will look to cut corners, for example running the frontend build and backend build concurrently instead of getting sign-off for the frontend before they start the backend. The problems begin as soon as there is any delay in the client signing off or changing the frontend. Then the processes get out of sync. Anything that’s been built on the backend that has to now be redesigned is going to have to be rebuilt as well.

Agencies have to resist the urge to overlap tasks that are best done consecutively. And clients must have robust decision-making matrices in place right from the beginning so that office politics doesn’t unnecessarily pressurise the project timeframe.

Safe harbour

Quba’s promise to our clients is to always strive to be our best, authentic selves, not only by relying on years of past experience but by learning from each new one. We always try to inquire directly about the information we need using plain language. We’re working hard to eliminate tech jargon and endless acronyms from our project documentation to make it clear what we’re delivering. We’re opening our ears and minds to think more carefully about our clients’ needs and concerns about overspend. We know the money isn’t endless, and we’ve got to be pragmatic about what we can do for you if we’re going to build a great relationship for the future.

Do you have a web project that you’re worried about? Want to talk more about getting it back on an even keel?

Get in touch with Senior Project Manager Melodie Ash hello@quba.co.uk or 0114 279 7779






Melodie Ash

Senior Project Manager
I am the Senior Project Manager








Listed in:  Strategy