I’ve been doing this for just about twenty years now. And not even once have I found a client that takes this subject seriously enough. Imagine for a second that the people who design your brand, who make and maintain your site, who manage your social media, just disappear. What do you stand to lose?
Over the years I did come across people who worried about this, but even those who did never really knew what precautions to take to ensure that the day I’d disappear they wouldn’t end up crying like a widow. Most of the times they just regurgitated things they read or heard somewhere, without the slightest clue of what they were talking about. In the end they'd all let themselves become dependent of a particular provider.
So, in no particular order, here’s a list of precautions I believe every agency’s clients should consider, and every agency with a sense of ethics should cater to.
Say no to proprietary
In 2016, I rebuilt 3 sites for companies who had bought proprietary platforms. Eventually you want to add features, to fix a bug, to integrate something and realize your site’s code is locked down, undocumented, a dead end. In these 3 cases they wanted to add features, but they ended up having to migrate their site to a new platform to do it.
Now, these clients have a CMS that can be easily extended, and if for whatever reason I’m not available, it will not be that hard to find someone else who can work with what they have.
So if your site’s platform isn’t free and opensource, there better be a damned good reason. And that reason better not be security, because that’s an outright lie.
Oh if I got an Euro for each client I found in distress, locked out of their own site. In order to publish your site, you’ll need to host it (rent a space on a web server) and you’ll need to register a domain. This is usually something the agency does for you, and sometimes they register these on their own name. Then relationships go sour, you don’t have access to the space that holds your site, and become a hostage to their good will.
This is why you should always ask to be registered as the official owner, while making them the managers. In fact, I would argue that even the agency being the tech manager is something that should only happen when there is some kind of service they are providing that either requires or is made easier if they are the official managers. But that rarely is the case. Usually you’ll be paying 10x what the actual provider charges just to have an agency in the middle, with no actual advantage for you.
Also make sure you own the Google account that owns the analytics, the Facebook page, the YouTube account, Twitter… EVERYTHING!
Get the source code
Ok, excuse the nerd talk. There is source code and there is compiled code. The fact that you own the hosting and have access to your site’s files does not mean you’re in full control.
As a mere example, let’s see the difference between source SCSS and compiled CSS:
This is the code that controls design, or layout, of your pages. This is what tells the browser what fonts to use, what color, what sizes, etc. Many, if not the majority of web developers build this using SCSS, which is a language that is not understood by the browser, but allows the developer to keep it organised, sane, and manageable. The SCSS is then compiled into regular CSS, which in turn the browser can read. This process will squeeze all the code into a single dense chunk that is quicker to download. Give this to another developer to work with and they’ll immediately down a shot of whisky and start questioning their carreer decisions.
So make sure you ask if there will be compiled code on your site and demand that in the end they give you a copy of the source files, and whatever is needed to compile them.
The same goes for everything design related. Before your website is coded, it will be designed in a software such as Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketch, or my favorite, Affinity Designer. You probably don’t own any of these, but you never know when you may need to give these files to another designer to pull resources out of them.
Also, don’t forget font files and any high resolution stock photos that may be bought in the process.
And if you make business cards, brochures, or any print materials, you need to know what paper was used, and you need to have the final artwork files that were used to print them. Otherwise the next batch will not look quite the same.
That’s about all I can remember, at least from the perspective of the services I provide. Hopefully this will give you a better idea and some pointers for a conversation the next time you’re hiring someone to build a site or design a logo.There is absolutely no reason to become dependent of an agency. Your agency should never be afraid of giving you an open door to leave whenever you want. These relationships are built on trust and value. It’s as simple as that.