Tame Agency Chaos in 4 Quick Tips: Part 1

March 22, 2017 Marcus Varner

In a recent webinar, marketing experts Lee Odden and Heather Hurst shared their four key solutions for producing great creative work efficiently. What follows is the first in a three-part recap of the webinar. If you want to watch the entire webinar on demand, click here.


Lee Odden:  Awesome. Agency life, right? It’s glamorous. I know when I was at university many, many—one more many—years ago, in my graphic design classes I used to imagine how amazing it would be to work at an agency or even have my own, making cool projects, making cool stuff or cool brands, and just generally having a great time.

Heather Hurst:  We all dreamed of that, right?

Lee Odden:  Yeah. But, of course, a lot of the agency cool ideas are promoted elsewhere—right—like on TV.

Whether you’re a fan of Mad Men or The Crazy Ones, media often romanticizes what working at an agency is like: pitching big brand clients and always working on amazing projects.

Everything goes great—almost. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen shows—maybe you’ve seen them too—where an underdog agency executive has to overcome insane obstacles traveling across the city with a portfolio to make it to a pitch meeting and then actually win the deal, win the gig.

Heather Hurst:  Yeah, and then all of that creative will go live the next day.

Lee Odden:  Yeah, and then they present it on a flip chart. Yep, okay. This sort of idea is propagated in the movies too, right? It’s all romantic. It’s all planes, trains, and automobiles. It all runs perfectly.

Well, maybe not. I think it’s not all roses when it comes to agency life. We know that, and the drama has a whole different meaning when the rubber hits the road for a lot of agency work environments.

Maybe it’s even sometimes a little more like a horror movie. I’m sure people can relate to the idea of changing workloads, too. It’s not just deadlines and trying to get so much stuff done and attack the mutating workload.

The workload takes on a life of its own. Darn that PTO guilt. You know that person who just won’t go on vacation ever? They stay so long in the office.

Heather Hurst:  Yes, too well.

Lee Odden:  You wonder where they live. They’re at the office. Wait a minute. That’s me. Sorry.

You’ve got to have a balance, really. Some individuals do live on this stuff, but most normal human beings don’t, and so we’ve got to keep those workloads in check. We know this is a major, major concern within agency life, right?

And there’s another one. There’s another one of these kinds of scary scenarios that’s almost too taboo to talk about when you’re at an agency like myself, but this is just between us. It’s clients—and it’s demanding clients, to be more specific.

Whether it’s a large company that’s used to leveraging their weight, their brand weight, to push the bar on scope creep, all the way to companies that have never hired an agency before and they get their unrealistic expectations from TV, just like I had those romantic ideas about what agency life would be like way back when I was in college.

And you might have heard this sort of situation from a prospective client if you work at an agency: “Okay, what we want you to do is we want you to show us that you have some skin in the game by developing the creative strategy for us for free, and if we like it, we’ll hire you."

Heather Hurst:  They’ll give you that privilege.

Lee Odden:  Yes, yes, it happens. The thing is, if you are successful and when your agency grows, good luck with resources that are stretched too thin because it’s inevitable.

Depending on your labor market it might be tough to find new stuff. It might be tough to do a lot of things, especially with being efficient with how you do what you do.

Busy and focused is fun. It’s fun for a while, but it’s not fun if that’s the way it is all the time. There’s a lot we have to deal with obviously, and there is one thing that does stay the same when we work at an agency. That, of course, is the fact that things are going to change.

On our next slide there’s a really good poster about that, where what we’ve got to do, obviously, is not only be good at our job, but we also have to stay on top of what’s going on in the world around us in our area of expertise.

Not just as a designer or a copywriter or a project manager or art director, but we also have to stay on top of what’s current in our client’s industry as well. And that’s a lot. That’s a lot to stay on top of. So another thing that can be a big issue in our little collection of horror movies, so to speak, of agency life is approval processes.

Operationally, things can get so convoluted that it’s hard to see whether you can make any progress. There are all these roadblocks, and that happens for a variety of reasons. You have individuals who are human bottlenecks, or you have processes that just aren’t very effective.

So it’s kind of like you have a bunch of holes in your bucket. You know what I mean? Hamster in a hamster cage, you just can’t quite get things done in a way that we can meet deadline. It can be a really big challenge.

So there’s a lot of challenges in terms of problems with agency life that we can solve though, and that’s the good news.

Heather Hurst:  Yeah, absolutely, totally agree with you, Lee, and at Workfront we did a survey last fall asking about the state of marketing work. There were a few startling statistics that we took away.

One was that marketers' days are honestly getting shorter.

When we asked the respondents how they spend their time each day, they said that only 38 percent of their time was spent performing the primary duties of their job. 

I think you can look at this through a couple of lenses.

First, you can say there’s stuff coming at them from everywhere, and, the other thing, they said the rest of their time was on admin tasks, wasteful meetings, interruptions. It hasn’t helped that 8% has been on interruptions, and it becomes really complicated also to think about how we’re defining our roles today.

Because if 17% of our time is spent on email and we don’t consider emails to be part of our primary job duty, there’s kind of a complication there overall. 

So then you would naturally ask, “So what else are marketers doing?” Just to hit at the top three of this list because obviously there’s a ton of distraction going on, marketers are in meetings that have no point.

I think a lot of those are status meetings where you’re doing a round robin, and only one person is listening to the updates being given by each of the 20 people in the room.

Excessive oversight is something that marketers definitely don’t enjoy, and then we see emails, once again, are coming up that this is where we’re spending a lot of our time.

The good news is that there is hope.

Again, looking at the top three, we asked the respondents what they could do to improve their overall productivity to get them out of those meetings and to get them out of email and to have more time on their job.

Twenty-nine percent said, “Uninterrupted blocks of time,” which takes no cost. This is of no expense to an agency. This can be as simple as having a quiet room where people can go to work where you can’t talk—you can only be in there working—down to having meeting-free chunks of time, whether that’s an entire day or just blocks in people’s schedules.

Then they would like to see better qualified people and resources, which we’re going to get into later here, and more accountability, which we’re also going to talk about a little bit more.

So it’s definitely time to stop living this grind that we’re living in today, where I think most of us who’ve spent any significant time in agency and you find somebody else who’s worked in an agency, you sort of almost have this support group mentality together.

It’s definitely time to turn around the way agencies are being run today, and Lee and I are going to break it into these four core topics.

We’re going to talk about how you can find balance, how you can have better communication with both clients and internally, how you can manage expectations, which is a big part of things that can lead to burn out, and then how you can provide the right level of service for your clients, as well as service to your employee base.

Lee Odden: Excellent, great introduction to that, Heather. I think it’s an internal conflict for creative work at scale in finding the right balance. 

You have to have balance. It’s essential to sustain both the quality of work at an agency and the quality of life for the people that are making the work.

Obviously, without it the work will suffer, and when work suffers, you have a domino effect. It affects all of the things in the agency, especially profitability and client retention and all those other things.

So we’re going to talk a little here about how we can bring more balance to our agency life.

First, you have to decide. Where are you going to put your time into solving this first? Are you going to put it into creativity? Are you going to put it into structure?

A good example that I’ve experienced myself is a production team member who wants a better process to help them create their best work, but there’s no time to create a better process because of the inefficiency of the current processes. Crazy, right?  It’s a circle of hell is what it is.

Heather Hurst:  Nice and frustrating.

Lee Odden:  One of my favorite people, of course, is John Stewart, and he has this great quote about the role of creativity and structure and process.

As he implies, structure and process can play a very important role with great, creative work.

Management has to understand that creatives can’t just be turned on and off like machines, and at the same time, left to their own devices, they’ll never get anything done.

So there’s a certain amount of structure that’s necessary to provide folks direction and an environment where there’s also enough creative freedom for them to produce great work on time.

This is good for companies, too. There’s actually a study done at Columbia. Rita Gunther McGrath studied 2,300 companies, and she found that 10 of them grew by over 5% over 10 years.

The common characteristic that she found is that these companies that were so successful possessed characteristics in common. Speed or speed of innovation or rapid innovators, I should say, and stability both existed within those companies. 

So they could adjust and readjust their resources very quickly, and they had a stable environment in which to do that.

There was another study by McKinsey that showed companies—and this is where speed and stability come into play—with both speed and stability had a 70% chance of being ranked in the top quartile by organizational health.

So this is an important indicator of the need for balance not only for producing the best work, but also for having a great company.

Heather Hurst:  I completely agree with you, Lee, and I think speed and agility definitely work best when they do have some structure put around them, so that you know that you’re working toward an end goal. And you have a process that supports it, and that will help you to get there a lot faster. 

One way that you can do that—one way that you can help to strike that balance—is by documenting your workflow, which sounds really simple.

But you would be surprised how often—if you think on your career or past projects you’ve tackled—how much a lack of a documented workflow, or a lack of a process in general, can really be a limiter to getting things done.

1. A few things that you would want to have in that documented workflow are first a process to receive work requests. So that can be anything that works for your company. That can be an inbox that’s workrequst@companyname.com. That can be a project management system that has a request queue. That can be a shared Google form - some way that requests come into your system.

2. Then, once you get all these requests, and I think this is where we can run into issues is, how do you prioritize those requests? I know a lot of companies, a lot of agencies, will rank requests by the person who’s screaming the loudest, the client who pays the most.

Really, it comes down to how are you going to move the needle on the business? How are you going to be impactful for your client? How are you going to help their business move faster? That’s how you can put the most priorities in place. 

3. Then, of course, you have ad hoc requests, and unfortunately in the agency world this probably exists more than anywhere else. So how do you rank and how do you tackle ad hoc requests? Because the solution can't be that people work late every single night forever in order to tackle those requests. So what is your protocol?

This is harder in the agency world because you have to live up to client expectations, which we’ll get to here in a minute, but really having a process will help to mitigate some of that. 

4. Lastly, having templates for your production, this is a really key piece to ensuring that you don’t miss steps in anything you’re creating, whether it’s a small social media campaign or a massive, huge event for a client.

Having a process and a template for that process will help to ensure that you don’t miss anything. It could be as simple as at the beginning of a project you need to have a signed SOW from a client, and if you don’t have that, you can’t kick it off. Well, if you miss that step, you could get into trouble later. So having all of that documented will definitely help.

Lee Odden:  Templates, I agree.

Templates are absolutely critical for consistency for quality, and also when you have new people coming on board when you have established process and templates, it gets them up to speed more quickly.

Heather Hurst:  Totally agree, yeah, absolutely. Well, and it’s surprising how many steps you miss when you don’t have it written down. You could be doing something like writing a press release that you’ve done a billion times in your career, but every single time it can have some little nuanced differences or some little step that you forget.

That can derail your whole timeline or at least derail your evening. As part of those templates, creative briefs are a really big part of this.

I love this Far Side because I think that the horse that this guy’s riding is indicative of how projects can turn out when you don’t have a well-defined creative brief at the beginning of your project.

Yes, everybody hates them. Yes, they’re a pain to get approved. Yes, everybody will say that you have way too many lines to fill out, but they’re a must-have to ensure that you accomplish your end goal and it ends up being what you wanted it to be.

Lee Odden:  I was going to say what’s great about a creative brief is it really gives you all the answers to why.

And if there’s one thing that causes scope creep and some of the other distractions is not knowing why. People don’t have the dots connected, and the creative brief is instrumental in taking care of that.

Heather Hurst:  I completely agree. In fact, an agency that I worked for, one of the principles there, he would say, “Of the amount of time you’re going to spend on a project 50 percent of it should be on getting the creative brief right and the other 50 percent on actual execution.”

Because that huge amount of time spent on the brief will ensure that that second half of the project goes like clockwork. And then it’s not all about billable hours. Again, going back to the balance, you can’t just come in and slog through the day, all day, working every second unless, I guess, you’re Dwight on The Office who was able to pull it off.

You’ve got to have some balance in the time that you spend in the office, which means you need to find time to innovate. You need to find time to think about new things that you could bring in to your clients or bring to the agency.

Having time to cross train and learn and connect with your peers can be really critical in building skill sets and improving the overall quality of life your employees have at your agency.

One great way to do that is by having special projects that you take on with your team, whether that’s doing service outside the agency, which is what I did at an agency I was with, or if that’s coming up with creative for a client that you don’t even have but something that would stretch your creativity. Looking for special projects is a really great way to go.

Lee Odden:  Yeah, I agree. You have companies taking inspiration from Google’s 20 percent thing that they used to do by allocating a percentage of time for people to work on special projects within the agency.

It might just be agency development. It might be cross training. It might be furthering their own skills through doing lunch-and-learn kind of things where anybody can give a class that others can sign up for.

Heather Hurst:  Yeah, which is a great idea because it’s also building a skill set of public speaking and documenting your ideas. It all can end up benefiting everybody involved.

Lee Odden:  Everybody wins.


To watch the Agency Life: 4 Tips for Producing Great Creative Work Efficiently webinar on demand, featuring Lee Odden and Heather Hurst, click here.

To see Part Two in our recap of the webinar, check out our March 29 post or subscribe to receive our newsletter.

About the Author

Marcus Varner

Marcus is a content strategist and producer who loves helping brands craft content that improves customers' lives, builds brand credibility, and demands to be shared. For the last 10 years, Marcus has worked in every type of content—from writing to video production to design—and is currently a senior content marketing manager at Workfront, where he oversees all corporate- and awareness-level level content. When he's not producing content, he's consuming it, in the form of books, movies, and podcasts.

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Tame Agency Chaos in 4 Quick Tips: Part 2
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