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Insights / Blog / Business

Full-service- vs. specialized web agencies

January 28, 2015
Alain VeuveAlain VeuveManaging Director, AOE Switzerland

The term “full-service agency” has experienced an inflationary use within the industry as of late. But, as with any buzzword, the average customer and nearly every agency has a different definition of the phrase. Interestingly enough, a full-service offering is always a compromise. In this article you will find out under which circumstances you should not agree to such a compromise – and why not.


The phrase “full-service agency” describes the capability of a web agency to be able to provide all services that a customer needs. At the beginning of commercial web use the term was doubtlessly justified. After all, most of the time the issue was just creating a website in the first place – meaning that design, content and technical implementation were in one hand. If the customer created the graphical aspects together with an advertising agency beforehand, then a technical (IT) agency was needed for the actual implementation. This created a disadvantage for the customer – he had to negotiate with and coordinate between two agencies at the same time. Using a full-service firm provided the natural advantage of being able to procure all services from one source.

Since then, the bandwidth of Internet services has increased dramatically. Whereas websites at first were mostly created manually, today we use numerous CMS solutions, each with its own specific advantages and disadvantages. Completely new disciplines such as SEO, SEA, E-Commerce, social media and newsletters, and many more have since been added to the mix. And each of these disciplines requires a vast amount of know-how. It was and will become increasingly difficult to meet the demands of a full-service offering.

For a long time I was a proponent of full-service offerings, simply because they made the lives of their customers easier. However, through the years and considering the developments within the industry I came to realize that it is virtually impossible for an agency to provide a full-service offering. Why? It's simple; many employees are needed to provide the services at an acceptable level of quality. Here's a simple equation; let's say an agency provides:

  • Strategic consulting (3 persons min.)
  • Conceptualization (4 persons min.)
  • Graphics execution (3 persons min.)
  • UX /CX (3 persons min.)
  • Project management (4 persons min.)
  • Architects (3 persons min.)
  • 3 Dev-Teams (5 persons min. each)
  • Testing / QA (2 persons min.)
  • Support (5 persons min.)
  • Content / Editorial (3 persons min.)
  • SEA/SEO (3 persons min.)
  • Newsletter (2 persons min.)
  • DevOps (3 persons min.)
  • Overhead: Management / Administration (4 persons min.)
  • Marketing / Business Development (2 persons min.)

Therefore, the minimum requirement for personnel is approximately 60 employees. But, this amount of personnel can only support two products (e.g. one content management- and one E-Commerce solution) that are based on the same technology (e.g. PHP or Java). If additional products, or several new technologies, are added, then the personnel requirements are rapidly multiplied. Agency representatives will argue that services can be provided with less personnel, since certain functions could be combined and provided by one employee. Popular examples are: support and dev., sales and management, project management and conceptualization, architects and dev. as well as content and support. Of course, this can work and is put into practice on a daily basis. However, as soon as an employee gets ill, fluctuation increases and/or projects fail, most such organizations compensate either in quality of work or through their employees, or both. Specifically, project results are of poorer quality and employees are required to work overtime. Only very few agencies actually cover the costs of a too-lean organization themselves.

" A truly full-service agency must have a minimum of 100 employees in order to consistently deliver high-quality work, keep up with technological and methodological developments and be a reliable and stable partner for its customers."

Does this mean that every web agencies with few employees offers dubious services?

Such an assumption would be presumptuous. If, however, an agency offers the entire bandwidth of services and also implements the complete portfolio itself – then, yes, I would have serious doubts. Fortunately, virtually no agency operates like this and those that do usually don't last long. Today, smaller agencies that advertise with a “full-service” portfolio usually offer full-service in only one segment (e.g. CMS or E-Commerce with one product) and refer to partners or competitors as soon as the customer inquires about services in other disciplines. They are, therefore, specialized in a specific way and interpret the term “full-service” as an integral part of the small area in which they are active.

From a customer perspective: When full-service-, when specialized agencies?

The chart shown above shows different criteria needed for a decision. Those criteria that have the most impact are surely resources and the professional know-how at the customer. If these are extant, then using a specialized agency tends to make more sense. The reason for this is that the quality of project results increases through the use of specialized agencies, as specialists have more know-how. This advantage naturally has its price; as a rule, specialized agencies list higher daily rates.

Increasingly, we can observe service provides that offer project management, controlling and web project management. In my opinion this is a good way to strengthen the internal organization and make projects more secure. However, the assumption that the customer can now delegate the role of product- and/or project owner is an illusion.