A Brief Rant on Proprietary CMS Platforms

Agencies, quit roping clients into homegrown platforms.

Published on September 10, 2018


No really, stop doing it.

I’ve had this conversation more than once, wherein a company describes an agency’s attempt to sign them onto a proprietary CMS: “Their team built this platform from the ground up, so they can make my site in half the time!”

That may be true, and at the outset, it sounds pretty good for that client. But now:

  • That client is locked into that agency’s walled garden. They’re dependent on that agency for any code-level change—a reality that’s likely codified in a maintenance retainer that stretches on in perpetuity.

  • The progress of the platform core is limited only to what the agency can dedicate to it. An agency’s business model is very different than a product company’s business model, and that economic reality can make it challenging to consistently justify that time.

  • If the client wants to ultimately build their own technical team—or transition to a different agency—they’re prevented from easily doing so because they don’t actually own their technology. Instead, they have to go through the arduous process of migrating their content off-platform, and reinvest to rebuild on a different CMS. That negates any efficiency that might have been gained on the initial build-out.

For these reasons, the idea of an agency building and selling a general-purpose CMS platform feels deeply irresponsible to me, a bit hubristic, and even a little predatory. By design, that choice tethers an agency’s clients to them, and limits the ability of those clients to mature past the walls that have been built around them. All those maintenance retainers may be good for short-term business, but they will invariably breed client resentment and frustration.

So, clients, if someone tries to sell you on that approach, run. Agencies, stop trying to sell clients on that approach. If you want to gain project efficiency, build yourself an extensible WordPress theme instead.

(A P.S. for clarity: I’m not talking about custom software development here. If I build somebody a Laravel or Rails app, they own that platform, and at the end of our relationship, they can take it to any other developer they want. I’m speaking specifically to the fad of agencies building and maintaing their own CMSes, and selling access as part of larger design/development projects. That’s what needs to stop… so quit it.)

Currently Listening: Saba, "CALLIGRAPHY"

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