If you run an advertising agency or design firm, or manage an agency creative or production department, you’re undoubtedly finding that most of your deliverables now are digital marketing elements. Welcome to the new reality. As you scurry to re-train your existing staff with digital skills and hire new talent to onboard new digital expertise, you may be tempted to hire back-end developers. My advice: think twice.
First, briefly, what are front-end and back-end developers? A short answer is front-end developers build the HTML and CSS code focused on the user experience and the visual appearance of the website, landing page, email, app or whatever you are building. Often, good art directors and designers have these skills. Back-end developers write the code the makes the site or app function: databases and data connections to the front-end design that use business logic to deliver dynamic interactive experiences — complex, rich, user-specific experiences such as e-commerce or other transactions.
After over 15 years of agency experience building sites that require back-end development on platforms like .NET and ColdFusion, I’ve learned that it’s best for the agency to focus on what it does best (strategy, creativity and content) and leave the technical heavy lifting of the back-end development to specialists.
Why? Here are my reasons:
1 If you decide you want to hire a back-end developer, what specialization will you choose? The best back-end developers that I’ve known are experts in one specific programming language (.NET, ColdFusion, etc.), and often even one application platform written in that language (SiteFinity, DNN, etc.). You might think that if you hire a back-end developer who is fluent in LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) that you will be able to handle everything that comes your way. But what happens when a client dictates that you build their site on a Windows platform like .NET? What if you hire an iOS developer and the client dictates Android? Either your PHP developer tries to get up to speed on .NET or Android, or you end up outsourcing the back-end development anyway. If your on-staff developer is learning on the job, that’s not really fair to your client. If you end up outsourcing anyway, why did you need to hire a back-end developer in the first place? This is a lose-lose situation.
2 Outsourcing is a more responsible way to be good stewards of your client’s dollars. That’s because if you outsource the back-end, you can choose a small group of perfectly-suited partners and have them bid for the project. As with all outsourcing, the bidding process will uncover not just the best price but also the best-suited partner (which is not always the lowest price, of course). This is analogous to bidding printing out to three vendors who are the best match for the job. It ensures the client gets the best quality and the best value. And it helps make the agency the hero by being interested in safeguarding the clients dollars. It’s a win-win.
3 Coding is fast becoming a commodity. Often it is now outsourced to India or China. Competing with developers in those countries on price is nearly impossible. For agencies to survive and thrive, they must focus on services that cannot be outsourced overseas, namely strategy, creative and content. (I’m not promoting the idea of agencies outsourcing back-end or app development overseas, but I know some agencies will consider it. There are plenty of smart, competitive developers in the U.S. — but they are all feeling the pain of competition from coders overseas. Not a situation agencies should be eager to jump into themselves.)
There are always exceptions
Some front-end developers are capable of handling some lightweight back-end development using off-the-shelf components plugged into frameworks like Drupal. Those skills are a bonus and, when relevant to the situation, they are certainly services that can be offered to your clients. But when it comes to the heavy-duty back-end coding, leave it to the specialists.
An alternative to outsourcing to a development partner is bringing on contract specialists. Through technical talent search firms you can sometimes bring in back-end developer for on-site help building a big project. Then when the project is finished the contractor leaves and you don’t have the overhead of a back-end developer waiting for the next gig. This solution doesn’t address point number two, but it helps a lot with numbers one and three.
We all have a lot to learn as we go headlong into the world of digital everything. I hope my advice can help your agency continue to focus on what clients want most from agencies — thought leadership, strategy and creativity.