April 2009
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Which Comes First: the Crew or the CMS?

Well, Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, they were the best of friends.
So when Frankie Lee needed money one day, Judas quickly pulled out a roll of tens
And placed them on a footstool just above the plotted plain,
Sayin’, “Take your pick, Frankie Boy, my loss will be your gain.”

Corruption in Tech Paradise?

Janus Boye recently posted a thought provoking article on his blog (Is corruption an issue?) which highlights various activities in the online industry which he considers extremely dodgy. He gives some examples of some goings-on which sound pretty shifty. After listing these issues, he goes on to say:

I’ve seen many examples of contracts being signed with a vendor that was not actually the best fit for the project. As my old mentor always used to say: “The best product never wins”. Perhaps he was referring to the fact that many buyers are corrupt.

This got me thinking. He is, of course, correct although the “influencing” happens at many different levels. At one level, the corruption and kickback can get rather big. About two years ago, the US Justice Department sued Accenture, Sun and HP for fraud relating to exactly this. Many technology companies were also looked at (including a few vendors I deal with), and IBM and PWC have each coughed up more than $2 million. I’ve got no idea if the case has ended, or still going on. EMC are being investigated at the moment for similar things, although the events in this case are 10 years old.

But I digress. Before I get to the dilemma, here’s a bit of background. I work for a “full service” digital agency. I’ll write a post on what the hell this means at some point in the future, but in a nutshell the client hires us to do everything. This includes strategy, branding, research, media, creative design, user experience work and a whole lot more. Importantly, it can also include vendor selections, site build, rollout, hosting and support. There are many good reasons to want to have a single supplier perform all of these tasks for you. There are also many reasons why it might be a terrible idea. Maybe another blog post on this later too. I strongly believe that in most cases the positives outweigh the negatives – or I wouldn’t be working where I do – and for the purposes of my argument I’ll trust you to humour me.

A Hypothetical Project

Phase 2 (the implementation) isn't defined yet

Phase 2 (the implementation) isn't defined yet

Picture the scene. Client X has an idea for a large public facing web site, and engages a full service agency. At the risk of horribly over-simplifying, someone needs to do the following:

  • Step 1: Firm up the requirements to an appropriate level, help with a business plan and plan the project
  • Step 2: Perform some user research and testing to ensure the idea is a valid one
  • Step 3: Design the user experience (UX), and do the creative work
  • Step 4: Pick the tools (for example WCMS, Search and Analytics) that will satisfy the requirement, design and UX
  • Step 5: Build and launch the site, which includes integrating the selected third party products
  • Step 6: Continually support and improve the site post launch

Now this seems like a sensible order of events to me, with the vendor selection exercises being performed as late in the project as is sensibly possible. The more information we have at point of vendor selection the better. On all large projects, these exercises are formal and involve the customer’s Procurement department, who exist partly to combat the very corruption mentioned by Janus.

The Dilemma

So here is the dilemma. Even assuming no vendor kickbacks, no bribery and pure hearts everywhere, how can the agency/systems integrator that is going to do the build possibly be impartial?

Regardless of size, all implementers will be more skilled with certain products. As it is highly unusual that only one of the candidate products in a vendor selection exercise is fit for purpose, the deciding factor will often be which can be implemented in the most low-risk manner. Which boils down to selecting a product that your implementer is confident enough to guarantee delivery on. If using a formal scoring system, and Product A which I know well and have implemented many times scores 86/100, while Product B, which I’ve never heard of, scores 90/100, it will be better for everyone if we pick Product A. A different integrator would correctly select Product B if they have the appropriate skills. Experience is everything in the CMS implementation game.

So does that mean it isn’t ethical to select the implementer before selecting the tool as the “best product” may not win? If that’s the case, many projects are going to suffer horribly. And full service agencies like mine wouldn’t be able to offer the full service with a clear conscience. We’d have three options (referring to the simplified steps earlier):

  • Perform Steps 1-4. Do the upfront planning, research, requirements and design. We’d help the client select the objectively best tools for the job (which I believe we can do), and walk away. The client would need to find an expert in the tool(s) we recommend for the build, who’d we would need to work closely with. Even if it was a tool we knew very well, we still couldn’t build as is it may look like the tool was selected for the wrong reasons.
  • Perform only Steps 5 and 6. Build the site only once someone else has defined the solution and selected the products. We do a fair bit of this, but this isn’t full service so the client still might end up with all the issues associated with The Agency Finger Pointing Game.
  • Perform all Steps except Step 4, and pray to all that is holy that the non-corrupt, impartial vendor selection exercise decides on a tool we can actually use.

In the first two cases, we aren’t performing our “Full Service”. The third case simply wouldn’t work. So if you can’t select the implementation team before selecting your tools, how do we take heed of the advice of one of Janus’ Web Content Management Inconvenient Truths:

It’s the crew and not the tool – forget about finding the best CMS, but do work hard to find the best implementation crew

A Little Crisis of Confidence

Wait a sec. What does this actually mean? I’ve always taken it to mean you pick an Agency/Systems Integrator (the Crew) first and then let them pick the tool (the CMS) for you? And tell Procurement to look the other way? Is this ethical? Maybe it doesn’t mean that at all. Do you pick the Crew and the CMS as a team, using another consultant with no ulterior motives to help you? If this is the approach you choose, you need to select the CMS very early in the process. It certainly isn’t a workable model for an agency like mine. Or do you pick the CMS first (maybe just flip a coin?) and put the real effort into the selection of the crew around that CMS.

Hmmm. Confusing. I’m starting to wonder if we (agencies and systems integrators) should offer formal vendor selection exercises at all. And which does comes first: the Crew or the CMS? Answers on a postcard. Help. Somebody. Please.

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255 comments to Which Comes First: the Crew or the CMS?

  • I do agree with you that there are situations where the best product does not get picked. The difficulty is that the crew usually consists of the folks that are best suited to choose the tool. If they are “comfortable” with a previously existing tool (aka too lazy to learn something new), then the best tool sometimes gets shoved to the side in favor of the incumbent.

    Implementors often have their preferences for a product and choose them because of their experience with the tool and/or comfort factor with the vendor. Sometimes, however, this self-interest on the part of the crew is not the best for the organization and they’re left holding a tool that is unsuitable for the job and difficult to manage.

    Just my $.02…


  • Rory Bernard

    Surely the fact that the agency has got involved implies that the client has already, to some extent, made the choice based on the agencies past experience/size etc? Therefore they are already making the crew choice as they picked you, the agency. The agency, ideally, then will need to come clean and say that we have experience in A,B and C CMS systems and would prefer to pick one of these three as it means your implementation will be faster, cheaper and more reliable. Do a vendor selection between these 3 based on the clients specific requirements. I think the agency should be involved at step 1 and there should be sufficient trust between the agency and the client so the client is happy the selection is above board based on the information I mentioned earlier.

    However, warn the client that there are many more systems out there which may or may not be better for your particular project but we do not know about them and therefore are not included. At which point they may want a full vendor selection exercise to take place and the agency is likely to be competing against other agencies/PS teams again.

    Or alternatively, do what ever the client wants, hire some contractors and hope your project and client management is up to scratch – I am sure none of the agencies do this though :)

  • Yep, Rory, I agree with this and would love to do it. But at the moment we don’t. As you know, we could only honestly call ourselves “experienced” with about 8 or 9 CMS products, so the choice becomes somewhat limited. We can increase this by reaching out to the other offices in our network, but for a purely UK based engagement, it gets expensive to get a few experts from the other offices, or to hire contractors or vendor PS (which is risky too).

    I’d split our engagements loosely into two camps. Really big and medium. For the really big ones, often there isn’t a CMS vendor selection exercise anyway. They have an incumbent and a set of IS principles which makes change very difficult. Which is why we have quite a lot of experience with the larger systems – we implement many of them as we need to.

    For the smaller engagements, we intentionally don’t try to gain expertise in many competing products. With a tech department of 100 people, we can’t become experts in everything. If we get to a selection with criteria like “Must be a Mid Tier .NET solution” or “Must be an Open Source Java/PHP solution”, we’d probably only be able to put two vendors onto the short list in each case. Assuming, of course, we were to implement it relatively risk-free.

    Don’t get me started on the ethics of vendor PS teams competing against their partners when the going gets tough on the margin front. This CMS Watch post from Tony Byrne is well worth a read though: Is your vendor becoming a fine young cannibal?

    And surely you’ve never heard of an agency or SI claiming to have skills that they don’t, hiring an entirely contractor based project team, and hoped for the best ;-)

  • Here’s a postcard length answer from the customer perspective:
    - if you want the best CMS, then select the CMS first and select it based mostly on product criteria and less on intangibles such as community and partners. Select agency afterwards and hope for the best
    - if you want to reduce risk, involve agencies early and trust their advice on system and select CMS as late as possible
    - if you want to save money AND reduce risk, build your own skills and do as much as possible yourself. Challenge agencies to reveal if they get any commission from vendors and exercise appropriate judgement. Exchange experiences with other customers to keep all your vendor honest and get the best deals.

    • Janus,

      Of your three options, the second and the third work for me. Re: option 3, the more the client knows, the better it is for everyone. So I agree 100% with the “build your own skills” piece. I don’t always agree with the “do as much as possible yourself” advice though. If all clients did that, I wouldn’t have a job. They should use their knowledge to challenge their partners, not replace them. I think.

      I also like option 2. Trust the agency and select late. When we propose this to our clients in a project plan, we do call this piece a “Vendor Selection Exercise”. That’s the bit that has been bothering me though as there is a reasonable chance that the best one won’t win. Next time we do this, I might try to frame this exactly as others have suggested. “Here are the products that match your major requirements and with which we feel confident of a successful delivery. Forget the matrix. Let’s see which ones the editors like the most”.

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  • Hi Jon. You probably hit a dilemma before step 4. At step 2, you say you’ll test to ensure that the idea is a valid one. What happens if the testing says that the idea won’t fly? Will the agency walk away from all the potential revenue of steps 3-6? Many agencies will have a lot of internal pressure to fudge the test results and continue taking the revenue. (And the test results will rarely be definitive — there’s nearly always room for interpretation.)

    As Rory suggests, the client has a role here as well as the agency. The client is responsible for understanding what conflicts of interest the agency has (there will almost always be some somewhere) and for ensuring that these don’t pollute any decisions made on their behalf. If they don’t have the internal skills to do this, then they may need to buy in independent expertise to help with it. (As an agency, I believe you should be open with the client about where these potential conflicts of interest lie.)

    In terms of the dilemma at step 4, the resolution partly depends on what the client is seeking to achieve. If, for example, they want a turnkey solution that is then going to undergo minimal ongoing evolution, then they may be happy with a “good enough” tool that the agency can implement well. If the solution is going to be handed over to an internal team for ongoing development after the initial solution goes live, then they may have more interest in the selection of the “best” toolset. In each case, a different approach to tool selection may apply.

    • Hi Graham,

      You’re right. There can be a dilemma at Step 2. But I do believe that most agencies would Do The Right Thing and tell the client that their idea wouldn’t fly. This isn’t purely altruistic though – of course there are always revenue pressures. But if you build the client a useless piece of crap, you can grab a few months of cash and that’s probably the end of the relationship. If you’re honest, you might lose some short term revenue, but the relationship will continue and we can milk work together to find other ways to channel the budget. There is also the fact that the team working on the account aren’t going to enjoy themselves very much if they know the project is a Dodo.

      Re: the Step 4 dilemma, I guess my main point would be that I don’t actually believe that there is a “best” toolset, especially for the smaller projects. The main differentiator is the implementer. Any project can go south if it isn’t done properly. Here’s a question. If you were forced to choose, would you rather have a) the best CMS in the world with an average implementation team or b) an average CMS with the best implementation team in the world? I know where I’d go every time.

  • Jon — what I’m missing from your step 1 – 6 is *how will your clients manage content*. Content management is foremost a process (and a CMS is just there to help). It annoys me a great deal that that part is often left out of the equasion; it’s one of the top-3 reasons people get fed up with a CMS (either it just doesn’t match their process, or worse, it tries to enforce some theoretically ideal process which wasn’t in place, which makes it something like trying to wear the wrong size shoe because it looks better).

    The biggest challenge in web content management is matching the process (back office) to what visitors need from the site (front-end website) through the CMS that’s in between (and a large role in that is: how it is implemented). But that gets very little attention.

    From a customer’s perspective (i.e., the one that I write for and has my main interest) you need to align the back office needs to the front end needs in increasingly specific cycles. (Be that from a long list to a short list or in smaller steps). And yes, they need independent advice there. Not too many people have experienced more than two or three selection processes (and not too many people know more than a couple of systems).

    Part of that alignment is zooming in on a combination of CMS and integrator that works — not just one or the other.

    I’d say a large, full-service agency that has mastered 8-9 different systems would be ideally suited to solve the process vs site paradox and be relatively free to pick the best choice (rather than the most lucrative one). But, from my experience I haven’t seen a lot of them that actually do.

    I’ve never worked with your agency, so I wouldn’t know if yours is different — purely the fact that you’re actively blogging about the technology makes me hopeful it might be. But just ask yourself this: 1. Do you design the visitor UX, then use a CMS as a tool to build it? Or 2. Do you consider the process of building and maintaining the lifecycle of a site (the actual *managing of the content*) to be as important as the visitor-facing facia of it?

    If 1., and not 2., the CMS is going to be thrown out together with the site it produces like a pair of badly hurting shoes as soon as the opportunity arrises. And it’ll have caused plenty of hurt by then.

    • To answer the “how will your clients manage content” question, that would be covered somewhere in Step 1. Bear in mind my steps were intended to outline any project, some of which might not even involve a Content Management System. On some projects, however, Content Management is a major aspect of the solution and the requirements for the back office should be captured along with the user facing ones.

      When you say “Part of that alignment is zooming in on a combination of CMS and integrator that works” does that imply that the integrator shouldn’t be involved in the selection? An impartial, non-corrupt third party should help the customer pick a vendor-integrator team? Most of the CMS Selection RFP’s I see are directed at vendors, who then choose to partner with an integrator. And this RFP is often the first step of the site rebuild project, which is too early to select properly in my humble opinion.

      I started answering your final question but, after writing 5 long paragraphs, I’ve decided I’ll write a blog post specifically about this at some point in the new future. Suffice to say, for now, I believe we do 1. and 2. in parallel.

      And by the way, I said “experienced” in 8 or 9 CMS products. Not “mastered”. I’d say we’re “expert” in 4 or 5 and “pretty good” for the others. As soon as you think you’ve mastered one, the next version comes out ;-)

  • *Note* – I work with Ektron, a CMS vendor. My opinions however are my own….but they’re obviously biased. Consider yourselves forewarned! :)

    This is a good discussion and it could logically go in several directions with valid opinions on all side. I’m not sure I even have an opinion on what response I fully align with…which means my opinion probably errs on the side of ‘flexibility’.

    As a vendor, my obvious hope is that as many agencies as possible would align their services with my product. Is this in the best interest of the customer, however? Well, that depends. If the product is flexibile enough to handle most scenarios then you’re able to leverage the economies of scale that your services provider has gained with strong expertise in the product (read: save time on money due to their expertise).

    Even the most simple CMS solutions today are complex enough where you would want your services provider to have some level of demonstrated expertise in the product implementation. In cases where they don’t, a customer should rely upon the vendor to provide some best practices assistance with the technical implementation. And no, this isn’t the cannibalization that Tony refers to in his well thought out post…it’s ensuring customer success when the implementation partner doesn’t have the required expertise in a given product (let that debate ensue if it must…)! :)

    I could go on…and I might later. Once again, good discussion point Jon.

    • I’m glad I’m not the only one that isn’t sure what his opinion in on this.

      A few thoughts. Firstly, you say “As a vendor, my obvious hope is that as many agencies as possible would align their services with my product.” I don’t think this is best for the customer but, more importantly, maybe it isn’t best for you either. Imagine a 5-way RFP when 4 agencies/SIs are pitching Ektron CMS800.NET V9, and the final is pitching iCMSWidgeForMac. I presume Ektron wouldn’t actively endorse any of the partners – you’d just sit back and watch the party. If you did support one of the 4, and I was one of the other 3 Ektron proposers, I’d be pissed off with you. Meanwhile Apple can throw all their weight behind the single vendor proposing their CMS product. Although I find the whole RFP process rather stinky when multiple SI’s/agencies propose the same vendor product.

      My thoughts on the Professional Services/Partner Channel debate is pretty simple. I like vendors that are Partner Channel only. Feel free to insist that the partner has X certified developers on the project and/or X days of your time to check things. But that should be between you and the partner. I’m always uneasy when I find vendor techies beavering away in the client’s basement doing things about which I know nothing. Maybe I’m just paranoid.

      • Your paranoia is justified because I’ve seen it done. Having a services component as a vendor is most certainly challenging – but it’s possible to do it in a responsible and ethical way which servers both partners and customers well. Will we (and others) make a mistake in the approach now and again? Of Course! But I can’t point to countless success stores for both partner and customer.

        Point taken in your example (and humorous reference to our product name!), I was simply saying that I’m not going to complain if I have the masses recommending my product. That being said, price aside (which will always be a factor at some level), the primary and almost sole factor that I want an agency to choose my product is because it’s the best tool (features and functionality, with the appropriate flexibility), to get the job (customer requirements) done.

  • *Note* – I work with Vignette, a CMS vendor. My opinions however are my own….but are obviously biased.
    I will go on this later on my website but for the time been i think that we need to take the Selection process and asses Adriaan Bloem comment.
    The selection process even if it is for a case 1 will need to be maintained by some workforce of the client. so the vendor selection should be at least reviewed by the current team of the client.
    Preferably that part of the sales will include some introduction training over the product to enable assessments of the primordial capabilities of the product.
    This assessment should not be a Business case assessment but a technical one since the product UX is not available at this stage on the demo product.
    After this assessment the client will be much more aware of the products and their matching capabilities to the IT requirements they have. i have seen too many projects been pushed on the IT department as a finalized solution without their approval and making them support something they are unfamiliar with and unable to do so.
    The Agency should do its own math as for what product is more suitable for the implementation of the UX and the success of the client and be focused on that.
    Later in the process there should be a discussion over the best product matching both the Agency analysis and the Clients departments analysis, the product of this should be a ranking of products.
    at this point the price should not be discussed and information should not be available to the teams.
    Next there should be a discussion over the price and some fondling with the sales guys.
    This will result in a product selection based on 3 criterias:
    1. Implementation ease.
    2. Matching to clients needs.
    3. Price is right.
    Now regarding the corruption
    Since not everything is money in the world and we are dealing with people, my personal belief is that the Agency and the Client are both pushing for the easier path that will either pay them more or be safer or both.
    Coming to see that will in fact reduce the corruption allegations to the ones that are at court at the moment.
    It could be that some of the licensing deals have hidden agendas and friendly handshakes but not everything is money.
    John thanks for the platform and the opportunity :-)

  • Yuval,

    I hear you. We need to include IT and make sure they’re cool with anything we suggest. But the agency User Centric Design approach puts the user before IT. Which is probably why we end up hosting and supporting many of the sites we do.

    I really hate it when people go “Off Platform”. For example, if we standardise on SVN for Source Control and some developer unilaterally decides to use VSS, I will kick him or her in the nuts. But a lot of our clients with marketing budgets really want to go off platform because they can get things for a third of the cost in a third of the time. Another ethics question, I guess. My approach here is to warn the client of the long term problems with going off platform, but if they decide to do it we’ll take the work happily.

    I do think your proposed selection process, while probably fair, it too complicated for us and won’t fit into our process very well. In that process, we’d probably only be engaged after the selection is made.

    Simple is the new black.

    P.S. While you hear, any official word on the future of the Autonomy/Interwoven search engine embedded inside Vignette? Any how is the little one doing in Sunny Australia?

  • Pie

    My company assists with Vendor Selections. When we do that, we typically excuse ourselves from the implementation. We will stay on to assist with Project Management and vendor neutral activities like process definition, but we won’t implement.

    As for which should come first, we typically like to identify the key vendors that we think can meet the criteria and then put out an RFP asking for joint vendor-integrator responses. We look for bids that have the tech that can do it, integration teams that have done it, and integrators that understand the business area.

    One approach that does work is selecting the product and then have a separate process for the Implementation. The risk there is that software can sit on the shelf while the implementation process is under-way. That can be one heck of a cost, but what is the price of a successful project?


    • Hello Mr Pie,

      I think your model makes perfect sense, and is one of the workable options. However, it doesn’t gel with the model of the Full Service Agency as we’d like to be involve early to help to define the requirements and the solution. We see many RFPs like the ones you mention, and we always wish we’d been involved in the process earlier. Sometimes it just doesn’t feel right for the first thing that the vendor and partner sees is an almost fully defined solution. A big part of our role is too help define it!

  • Hello mate,

    Interesting discussion going on here. You say your agency is “experienced” in 8 or 9 CMS products. Wow, many agencies I worked with barely had any knowledge on 1-2 CMSs. SIs often reach out to a vendor’s PS anyway due to the same lack of knowledge about a particular system.

    What’s wrong with engaging a vendor’s PS resources/experienced contractors? Isn’t that the ultimate source of knowledge about a specific product? There are cases when partners don’t have the same level of expertise as a vendor’s PS team. What do you do then?

    Or would you rather keep advising/implementing Vignette cuz you know it best?

    I understand an agency needs to make money, but what value does it really provide to a customer?

    cheers :)

  • Hi Jon,

    “An impartial, non-corrupt third party should help the customer pick a vendor-integrator team?” Yes please! That’s one of the ways I make my living. ;-) But even I’ll admit that this is only appropriate in some circumstances. It adds to overheads, so is hard to justify for smaller projects. And even on large projects it’s often obvious whether to lead with tool or integrator, so the expense isn’t justified. Like you, I make my living from relationships (and referrals) more than one off transactions.

    “would you rather have a) the best CMS in the world with an average implementation team or b) an average CMS with the best implementation team in the world?” I’d choose team over tool any time. But which team? On a recent project, I was helping a client choose a CMS onto which they intended to migrate approx 100 websites. They wanted a partner to help with the first 1-2 sites, but thereafter their internal IT & editorial teams would work together to build and migrate each site. In this case, ease (and willingness) with which the internal teams would adopt the CMS is a primary consideration — we’d then choose a partner who can help with the chosen CMS. This is very different to a project where a client wants someone to build and run the CMS for a site, with the internal editorial team “just” maintaining the content. In this latter case, the client may not even care which CMS has been chosen, so long as it supports their editorial processes.

    “But I do believe that most agencies would Do The Right Thing and tell the client that their idea wouldn’t fly.” I don’t know what the proportion is here. My experience of working with medium to large SIs, however, suggests that it’s not that simple. In a typical SI, there will be several players trying to influence the decision — an account director who may have targets around both immediate and long term revenue (with the former dominating on all but “strategic” accounts); a project manager who is probably targeted primarily on margin for the current project; a “solution architect” of some sort, who is targeted on client satisfaction with the solution. These targets don’t always align and so there can be an awful lot of pressure to interpret the research in a favourable way. And there are power imbalances within this team — the account director is often more senior than the solution architect, for example.

    This pressure doesn’t in itself create corruption. I agree with you that most teams will indeed try to do the right thing. But teams are also awfully good at fooling themselves: if the research results are a little equivocal, then they’ll tend to lean in the direction that reduces the internal pressures. It’s not that they consciously don’t tell the client about the trade-offs: they don’t even let themselves be fully aware of the trade-offs. (This is a big reason why very large programmes fail.)

    Clients can help themselves by being aware of the account structure within their vendors, and of the pressures this is creating. They can then ask questions that help the team clarify the trade-offs. But you need to be a pretty savvy client to do this. (This is one of the reasons good teams generally like to work with savvy clients — the client pushes them to do work they can be proud of. Poor teams OTOH tend to prefer to work with clients who don’t push them too hard.)


  • And a hello to you, Irina.

    I guess we’re quite a big agency then :-) But yes, 8 or 9 is too many. With a tech team of only 100 (out of over 400 people in the UK), we’re spreading ourselves a bit thin. On one hand, we’d like to lower the number. On the other, we do want choice.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with an agency engaging the vendor’s PS team when they need help. We do it all the time, even on the systems on which we consider ourselves experts. Did I imply otherwise somewhere? I did say that I don’t like it when a customer engages with an agency and a PS team independently, and sometimes they don’t know what each other are doing.

    Here’s a recent example: We won a pitch with CMS X. The IT stakeholder (let’s call him Bob) we spoke to were happy with CMS X. After the contract was awarded, however, it turns out that Bob hadn’t spoken to the right people internally, and it transpired we had to build it with CMS Y, which we’d never used before. So we had vendor PS people living in our office for a while. But now system Y is part of the 8 or 9.

    We certainly don’t keep advising any one particular product, especially not on the larger projects where each CMS has bigger differentiators than the more entry level products. The smaller the budget, the less choice we’ll offer. It isn’t practical, using mid-tier .NET based as an example, for us to keep training/knowledge/certified developers/attending vendor events/case studies/lab environments/hosting capabilities/managed services support skills for all of SiteCore/Ektron/EPiServer/Alterian Immediacy and RedDot OpenText. I think we need to be honest and just pick one or two from this list.

    I’m trying not to talk about the specific products we use on this blog, but let’s just say at the moment we have more active projects using the CMS that pays your salary than the one you mentioned :-)

    I like to think that the reason we exist is to provide value to the customer, and part of this is picking the tool that will ultimately provide the best solution. Not many techies would stomach the idea of intentionally picking the wrong one just for a kickback if it meant hours of pain and an unhappy client.

  • If I was going to pick my top ‘inconvenient truth’ about the CMS industry, and Web Content Management in particular, it is that it will never be truly standardised, commoditised and interoperable because there is too much vested interest for all parties – vendors, customers, implementers and even analysts – in avoiding doing this. Where a lack of standardisation, commoditisation and interoperability exists then there is considerable scope for customer confusion and money making opportunities. In turn, customer confusion and a lack of transparency leads to the opportunity for the type of corruption Janus has cited – which I have no doubt exists.

    I remember a collective sigh of relief going around the industry after the much hyped MOSS 2007 finally launched and there was the realisation that the WCM bit was a ‘bit rubbish’ and wasn’t likely to lead to a sudden commoditisation of the public web space that SharePoint has been achieving steadily with collaboration and intranet environments.

    Speaking as a CMS customer, we have invested in a system and approach to managing our websites globally in as efficient and effective way as our budgets will allow and I really don’t want it to be easy and straightforward for competitors to do the same. Wherever possible, our approach to creating and managing our public web presence is designed to give us competitive advantage and we have used both the choice of the system itself and the experience of the implementation partner to do this.

    Many analysts advise sticking to the out of box capabilities of the CMS and not to bespoke their implementations unnecessarily, but customers are always going to want to differentiate their public web presence from competitors and will prefer to bend the system to fit their ways of working rather than the other way around. Given that these two key requirements aren’t going to change any time soon then I would say that even if the customer has a strong idea of which CMS to use it will be the implementation crew that really make the difference rather than the system itself. I have seen CMS implementers bend and twist a system to such a degree that it makes the core system largely irrelevant.

  • I’ve seen both sides, agency-side and client-side in UK government. My instinct now is that the people matter more than the tool, when you’re looking at a heavyweight CMS. CMS demos are almost misleading, because the UI you see in a demo is such a small factor in the overall success of the implementation. Write a good brief, define your must haves/nice to haves, and grill your integrators well (and cross your fingers you get a good developer to implement it). Spend enough to get a decent product, but let them work with what they know and trust.

    • Steph,

      Thanks so much for the comment, and I couldn’t agree more. When you were in the UK government side, how did the procurement normally work. In my experience, it tends to be the CMS first, then an ITT to the implemetation partners. Which, according to both of us, might be the wrong way round.

      What do you think the sensible order to procure a new CMS and implementation partner is?


  • Selecting a technology based on an ITT and a presentation is not for the wise or feint hearted. Why? Scoring matrices, weighting, being *fair* and all those famously English attributes of being a jolly-nice-bloke amount to little more than a flimsy facade. Often (not always) decisions were made even before the games commenced. And the beauty parade is played-out to appease consciences, to facilitate post-rationalisation and to generally kick tyres and poke around the also-ran offerings.

    The only way to really make an informed choice is to run a full pilot. Not popular for many reasons: expense, project velocity, vendor adversity and, for good measure, expense. But the cost of getting it wrong far exceeds that of a pilot. The losers are the thought leaders; the analysts and the vendors that lean heavily on their *watch the birdie* presentations. They all have skin-in-the-game!

    Proof? Well it can’t but proven, that’s the problem. Ask yourself this; how come emerging vendors offer beautifully crafted applications at modest price-points and are rated as mid-tier? Why is it accepted that many heinous old monolithic WCMS applications are top-tier and yet they offer less stuff? (stuff == speed of deployment, ease of integration, ease of maintenance, ease of extension and 3rd party development)

    I don’t see this stuff in ITT’s or in demo scenarios. Why? Because life’s too short. Yet the problem with pilots is the same — not enough time! Of course you’d have to select your pilot from a list….

    Procurement rules frequently prevail over common sense. Digital media folk are often expected to detail their digital media strategy for the coming months and years and to condense this into a few design/development phases. These requirements inform the contents of the ITT and the ambitions of marketing, while IT want toys! Big toys! Actually, on a serious note, IT and Marketing departments seem to be converging-ideas and cooperating well these days.


    1. Don’t waste time seeking a solution that’ll meet ALL your ambitions out of the box.
    2. Do work with a trusted Digital Agency.
    3. Don’t customise to extinction, you will crash and burn at upgrade time.
    4. Do stick to the basics.
    5. Don’t get toys fever.
    6. Do follow-up customer references and even do a site visit — speak to people!
    7. Remember how you can tell when a salesman is lying. You’ll see his lips moving :)

  • I’m with you on all of this, John. In fact, most people who have commented on this thread agree with you. Based on what I see, however, this means that either a) I’m really unlucky with the tenders I see or b) many people are doing it the way we all think is wrong. Do you see many processes in which common sense prevails over the procurement rules. As I said earlier, one of the main reasons the procurement rules exist is to ensure things are fair.

    Do you have any ballpark guesses to the cost of the “ITT and presentation(s)” approach. In the worst case, assume a process to pick the CMS, followed by a second process to pick the implementation partner. 10% of project cost? More? Less?

    And any thoughts on the cost of a “full pilot”? How do you select the product and the team to build this? Or maybe you need more than one pilot running at the same time if time is of the essence. I’m a firm believer in the Fail Fast, Fail Cheap mentality. Failing fast is easy. Failing cheap often isn’t.

  • Putting a cost on the process (buyers side) is tricky, instinct tells me >10% of total phase 1 project cost. I do know clients spend more time defining *what is wanted* than on validating that a product and it’s associated vendor can meet these. The process of validation is that of implementation in most cases. Obviously this is not such a cool practice.
    A possible alternative:

    1. Ask a vendor to create a sandbox environment — you’ll need it for 3 months. You’ll also want access or full cooperation to change stuff like themes/templates, add CSS, configure plug-ins and so on. If answer is no, move on.
    2. Engage vendor or vendor partner to build some templates. Circa £3k-£5k. (This is about what can be achieved not what it looks like. Assume wire frames and UX will follow later)
    3. Create, modify, workflow, archive some content etc.
    4. Play, experiment, socialise the WCMS to stake holders. Have a clear set of objectives and work to these.
    5. At this point you’ll be able make some informed decisions based on comparisons of products and crews.
    6. It’s counter-intuitive to spend money on something just to throw it all away. But this is what it means to fail cheap.
    7. Weed-out the losers, WCMS and/or crews. Go deeper into pilot with remaining CMS/crew combo, remembering that you might select crew a, product b providing competencies fit.
    8. Check that objectives have been met in pilot project.
    9. Define phase 1 requirements.
    10. Agree costs: fixed or T&M.
    11. Complete legals.
    12. Commence project, re-using bespoke developments where possible but accepting that pilots are rarely industrial-grade; some things will need re-factoring.

    Pilot projects may cost slightly more. Achieving target delivery dates, likely the same. I think this approach takes a fair amount of client engagement, and therefore commitment. But it’s less abstract and therefore a more practical way that is ultimately fair too.

    It’s also curious that clients have a slew of hidden expectations. Many political conflicts, a.k.a turf wars are expected to be resolved with the acquisition of a WCMS. Reality: these must be resolved first.

  • Nice discussion, I agree good requirements and then testing against them throughout is critical (Jon’s step 1, 2 &3). I also think organizations need to place a big chunk of investment into this process – before they meet a vendor with all his shiny distracting toys.

    I agree with John, although I think the wireframe stage could come before the vendor is engaged to get a visualization of what is being achieved and to give everyone something to focus on and something tangible for people to ‘touch’.

    I represent a vendor and good, well understood requirements are good for everyone – better still if you can find business ownership and justification for why this particular requirement is mandatory. It can also start a conversation, rather than some anonymous question on a form from some long forgotten geek in IT that thought it was a good idea. The customer could gain from the SI/Agency/Partner/vendor having a different experience that can be applied to that business problem and the vendor gets a truer picture of their fit.

    A vendor will always be trying to “re-engineering the vision” to fit their USP’s – a strong, consistent sets of owned requirements keeps the procurement process on track, keep it honest. Getting stakeholders owning stuff is also a great way to kick the project off with some momentum with the business engaged – how many RFPs get binned at the shortlist stage, when they should be being revisited and forming the back bone of the project.

    The more touch points you have, with the vendor engaged meeting the business owners, the better you get a feel for the cultural fit. The point I think that Jon kicked this off with – the crew, are these the people that can take us through the inevitable highs and lows of this project? We’ve won deals where the customer has told us that we didn’t score the highest in every category, but the team was the differentiator and so I completely agree with Jon.

    Why do I, a vendor, think that a rigorous requirements are good? Surely the only good process is the last one where we won? There are two things that we hate, investing in an engagement we lose and failed implementations. If a prospect has put some investment in this process before they meet you and run a good procurement, you know early if you are a good fit, you are in a fair fight and have a good feeling about putting more investment into this relationship. The more everyone puts into this engagement the better, a trusted partnership will form.

    Trust. A great place to start for a successful project.

    • Yep, all makes sense. Unless you’re a full service agency like LBi. Half of the work we do is the user research, writing the requirements, doing the wireframes, clickable prototypes, testing these, iterating these, continually liaising with the technical teams to ensure the output of the wireframes and requirements make sense and reasonable within the implementation budget. If we get engaged after the wireframes have been done, it’s too late for us. Hence the dilemma I was talking about towards the end of the post.

      I also find that if we are engaged after the requirements and wireframes are complete, the focus is often far too front end, and the back end usability requirements and content model definition are sadly lacking. Which is sad as these are the areas that affect the CMS selection more to than the front end. I tried to explain this (badly) in the post Oh CMS, Deliver Me

      Referring back to my numbered steps, I am pretty convinced that the CMS vendors should only be engaged at Step 4 after the wireframes. That’s almost the definition of our User Centered Design process. But which steps would you think an Agency like LBi (or Avenue A/Razorfish, Sapient, Conchango and our other competitors) would be involved in? Which, if any, of my 3 options are viable?

  • We kinda sit right in the middle as we develop a supported open source platform called MySource Matrix and essentially provide professional services around this.

    I dont understand why agencies need so many cms products and from feedback puts the living fear of god into the client when forced to engage with such a choice, ( cms overload totally ).

    I would look at open source cms platforms and build your platform on a product that is constantly evolving & take out a support / SLA agreement to provide your organization warranty / peace of mind with minimal costs with the archaic license models out there.

    This debate is spot on and I would welcome any non agency / vendor individuals to come to a upcoming event to network with 150 of UK leading industry professionals on this very subject.

    There is a free 1/2 day seminar / debate being held at Australia House July 2nd with networking event afterwards.

    ( sorry no agencies, vendors ) a panel hosted by Gartner,World Health Organization & eConsultancy entitled “The Future of Web Content Management”.

    To read more how to bring this topic to a wider audience feel free to register at:http://tinyurl.com/qsyne4

    Great post


  • Jon – I think you may have been unlucky. Agency-side, I think most briefs we saw were open-minded about CMS except where the client already had an established site in place. Within govt (where my experience is more limited), I’d say the two are often procured together. But there’s still a big emphasis on the CMS and its functionality, which is probably excessive. As I said in my original tweet, bad implementation of a sophisticated tool probably lands you in a worse position than good implementation of something more basic (and probably cheaper). I know from working with good developers just what pain and negative motivation can come from fighting against a supposedly easy to use but badly engineered CMS.

    • Maybe you are right. But then I’m still unlucky. I’m currently involved in 3 (all started in the last few months) where step 1 is to select the CMS. With a CMS vendor that is partner channel only, sometimes we then have to help by doing CMS demos, filling in matrices and more. Should the CMS we are pimping be selected, then we are fortunate enough to get an ITT to compete against other partners of the CMS vendor that haven’t had to spend anything on the processes up to that point. Such is life, I guess.

      It might be because most of our clients/prospects are quite large organisations and so their procument is very rigid. They have many procedures for product/vendor selections that kick in. The smaller companies often just let us pick the CMS.

      I’d love for us to just say no to this kind of process, but it seems we don’t say no enough these days if the prize is juicy.

  • @Ian Truscott, @Jon Marks. Can we discuss the difference in project delivery methods and style between Vendor PS team and Vendor Partner (Digital Agency)?

    It’s my experience that Vendor PS teams exist to facilitate sales. They don’t usually offer UX as an intrinsic component of their delivery.

    Are we clear about the difference? The reason I ask this is that as a digital agency we’re often rated and categorised by WCMS vendors. Some just want to monitor, control and accredit competency. Others want to take it further. I wonder how well equipped vendors are in measuring and categorising their partner organisations?

    I also worry about how many clients know the difference between a Digital Agency, an SI and a Vendor PS team etc and when to select one from this or any other list?

    Many of the players in this space have smudged boundaries. Clarity helps to determine the importance of *crew* selection. Ordinary folk may appreciate your comments….

  • @Jon Marks -My point was about when to get the vendor involved, not a partner like yourself, as you point out organizations really benefit from experienced help putting together requirements/wireframes and getting someone in to do that stuff and can cut through @John Goode’s point about internal politics. After that it gets muddy, which I think is your point.

    @John Goode – I think for both end customers and vendor partners there needs to be some model of proving that this relationship is more than a logo on a website, we used to see too much of “partnerships” being based on a couple of alliances guys having lunch. I am not sure I am qualified to comment beyond that really, I’m a product guy that likes talking to people – the mechanics of the partner economy is probably a minefield I should be cautious of in this company!

  • John – I think you’re right. I’ll try to write a separate post outlining my views on Digital Agencies/Systems Integrators/Vendor PS and various hybrids. They’re starting to merge and overlap, but defining them and agreeing a common definition will be useful for taking this forward, and writing a book ;-)

    Anyone else want to write their views on it first. I’ve got a raging hangover today …

  • Jon,
    I largely agree with your process, but I still remain unconvinced overall.
    We’ve all worked on projects that have been painful in extreme because the product didn’t do what it was supposed to. That to me is a clear indication that you need to do some significant work selecting the right tool. And you can’t always trust your supplier to do that for you, as they have a vested interest in more services.
    Fundamentally, if you’re trying to improve how you manage content you need to pick the right tool. If you care little about those operational aspects, then just pick an agency who’ll build you a great website.
    A few further thoughts here: http://contentedmanagement.net/blog/people-or-software/.

  • This discussion is hard to have without specifics on the exact business case. However, I believe:

    - Both CMS vendor and integrator bring their own biases. It’s critical for the end client to understand these biases going in. An integrator can steer you just as astray as a CMS vendor.

    - The biggest mistake organizations make is thinking a CMS project starts with the technology resulting in selecting both cms vendor and integrator based on tech competence alone.

    - Having multiple partners is OK. A neutral strategic partner can help you select the right technology and an expert integrator can help you get it done right. This is often the approach that works the best.

    - CMS aside, most organizations need a strategic web partner that is looking at the bigger picture. CMS is only a part of an overall web infrastructure and web strategy. You can do a textbook technical CMS implementation and still completely fail. This is something vendor pro services have a hard time understanding.

    We just wrote a post on CMS selection. Would love to hear any thoughts.

    Jeff Cram
    CMS Myth

  • Building a custom CMS implementation is a process; a conversation; a relationship. The customer should have a list of criteria to start from, and good vendors will ask questions to the customer clarify their needs. In this process some CMS options will fall out. At that point, you probably have a short-list of vendors who you resonate with. Often times vendors work in a specific CMS, so the vendor/CMS choice are often intertwined. My recommendation is to perform your initial technology choice filtering based on clear criteria. Based on those criteria you may be equally comfortable with multiple technology choices. Once you’re narrowed your technology choices make your vendor choice based on communications. Which vendor listened better? Who asked better questions? Who was a better communicator in the scoping process. That’s the vendor to work with.

  • Intriguing dialogue taking place the following. You state your organization is actually “knowledgeable” within 8-10 or perhaps 9 CMS items. Wow, numerous agencies I worked with hardly experienced any kind of understanding on 1-2 CMSs. Sister usually reach out to the supplier’utes Ps3 anyhow because of the same lack of knowledge of a certain program.

    Exactly what’utes incorrect along with interesting a supplier’azines PS resources/experienced contractors? Isn’capital t that the best way to obtain understanding of a specific product? You will find cases when companions don’capital t have the same level of expertise as a vendor’azines PS team. What do you do after that?

    Or even can you somewhat retain advising/implementing Sketch as you know it best?

    I realize an agency needs to make money, but just what benefit does it really provide to some consumer?

  • My partner and i’m currently associated with 3 (all pointed in the last few months) exactly where 1 is to select the CMS. With a Website cms supplier that is companion route only, we occassionally after that must assist through carrying out Website cms demonstrations, filling in matrices plus more. Should the CMS we are pimping end up being chosen, after that we have been lucky enough to get receive an ITT to be able to compete in opposition to additional lovers of the Content management systems vendor that haven’t needed to invest anything on the processes as much as that point. This kind of will be life, I suppose.

    It might be since the majority of individuals clients/prospects can be large organisations and thus their particular procument is very rigid. They’ve several procedures regarding product/supplier options in which start working. Small businesses frequently merely let us pick the Content management systems.

    My partner and i’n fascination with us all to simply say no to the kind of process, but it appears we don’capital t point out absolutely no adequate today if the winning prize is juicy.

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