Agency vs SaaS: A Guide

In this article you will learn some of the key considerations when trying to choose between an agency for your next project, or doint it yourself through a SaaS product

Published 21st May 2018


By April Kwong, Digital Project Manager, FunctionEight


Nowadays there are many low-cost (and not so low-cost) SaaS (software as a service) based options for your website/online application that promise to remove the need for the agency and give you control! Some do a better job than others, and ultimately it depends on what your website/app does, but there are still scenarios where you might find an agency leading your implementation is the best option.


Here are a few things to consider when thinking about choosing a SaaS platform over an agency-led implementation:


  • The restricted template approach with limited customisation adopted by most platforms will mean your site may end up looking similar to most other competitive sites using the same SaaS platform, giving you reduced options for unique branding – will your marketing team be happy that all their work (and expense) creating a unique brand goes to waste?
  • If you need something custom functionality that does not exist in the product, you probably have limited options: make a feature request and wait (a long time) for them to put it in their roadmap, pay them a lot of money to do it for you as a “bespoke” request (which they’ll likely then sell on to other users and keep the IP), or adapt your business process and work around the custom requirement. None of these options is ideal from a business perspective.
  • Support must be good (and come with a sensible SLA), otherwise you’re at the mercy of the provider in the event of an outage – are you really ok with telling your stakeholders that you have no idea when the site will be back up? The likely answer is no! Be especially careful of providers that do not have a 24×7 support or where they host the data outside of your country.
  • You’re likely handing some level of control of your data over to the provider – at minimum they’ll be taking responsibility for hosting it, or in some cases, you might actually be granting them approval to make use of your data for their own purposes, particularly if you’re using something like an event booking tool. Particular care needs to be taken with their security preparedness. Just because they are providing the hosting does not mean you are not responsible for the security of your database. If they get a cyber breach and all your data is compromised what will you tell your stakeholders.
  • Ask lots of questions about their business continuity and disaster recovery procedures, and think very carefully about what would happen if the provider unexpectedly stopped trading – do you access via the platform to make regular comprehensive backups in a standard file format? Can you access your data if they are no longer trading?


If you’ve weighed up the pros and cons of “doing it yourself” and decided that actually, it’d be much better to get an agency involved, the following points will help you set your project up for success:


  • Scope – your agency project manager’s favourite word. Do you actually know what you want, in a reasonable amount of detail? Can you clearly define it? If not, you’re probably not yet ready to appoint an agency. Giving an agency a one-page brief to cost against is going to mean one of two things: you don’t get what you really need, or when you and the agency have worked out what it is you really need, you’re going to be hit with a revised scope and cost! This brings me nicely on to the second point.


  • Cost – this is where agencies and their clients can often disagree. Neither is necessarily in the wrong, but often expectations can be different. Agree up front with your agency how they will charge, what is included in any fixed price cost, and how you’ll agree on any additional work and associated costs, any reputable agency should have a solid process for managing change, rather than just hit you with a bill at the end for work you didn’t realise was extra!


  • Team – one of the reasons you’re likely choosing an agency is because you want to work with experts, and hopefully those experts are also nice fun people you’ll enjoy working with. Make sure that when agencies are pitching to you, you meet the team members who will actually be assigned to your project. The reality is that many agencies will send in the “A-Team” to pitch, made up of the Heads of XYZ, and then when you award the project, that team is never seen again. You’re never going to completely avoid this, but make it clear to the agencies that you expect to meet at least some of the team who will be working on the project before you award the job.


  • Agile – most agencies now will be operating some form of Agile methodology to deliver their projects. The general consensus is this is much better than the waterfall approach to projects, but it can often be hard for senior stakeholders to grasp what they are signing off. Work closely with your agency early on to help manage these expectations and avoid any last minute panics when your boss expected to see every page of the site designed up in Photoshop before he will sign off!


  • Responsibilities – it may seem obvious, but be clear up front on who is doing what. This is particularly important when you have multiple parties/agencies involved. Make sure everyone is clear on who is doing what, and who is expected to take the lead in managing the project. If your chosen agency is not managing your hosting, make sure you agree early on who has responsibility for things like deploying the project, making sure the hosting is suitable etc – this is one area things can very quickly go wrong if not dealt with early on!


  • Understanding your business – work with an agency that really understands your sector, and will understand the way your business works. Part of the reason you’re choosing an agency is likely for their specialist knowledge – don’t be swayed just by fancy creative ideas, your users won’t be! Pick the agency who really gets your business, or convinces you best that they will be able to work to do this – it’ll give you much better long term results.


  • KPIs – on a similar these to the point above, the success of your project shouldn’t be measured on things like “my boss loves the new design”, “the site is much quicker now” etc. Choose an agency who will work with you to define clear KPIs that are SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound). Also make sure that you are setting KPIs that are actually within the scope of the project – it’s no good agreeing you’ll increase visitors by 50% in the next six months if you’re not giving the agency any scope or budget for marketing to attract new traffic!


  • Support – be clear at the start what your expectations are once the site has launched. Do you expect to be able to pick up the phone to your agency and have changes done within 4 hours? Do you expect to be able to call them at 8pm if the site went down? The reality is project fees rarely include these kind of things, so make sure you agree before any launch what support will be available, and if necessary agree a support retainer so you have the coverage you need!


  • Intellectual property – make sure you agree who owns any intellectual property produced as part of the project. Commonly, you’ll want to own the IP so that if in future you move away from the agency, you don’t have to start from scratch. This can get more complex if the agency is building you something using an in-house tool they’ve created, so make sure you cover this before signing any contracts.


  • Disaster recovery – make sure you know where your data is being stored, how often it is being backed up, who has access to it, and what policies are being adhered to. Your data is valuable, give it the attention it deserves! It might seem unlikely something will go wrong, but if it does, you’ll kick yourself for not having asked the questions and just making assumptions.


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