Tame Agency Chaos in 4 Quick Tips: Part 3

April 5, 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 second in a three-part recap of the webinar. If you want to watch the entire webinar on demand, click here.


Lee Odden: Another big part of our overall solution to creating our best creative work has to do with expectations, and I think we can all agree that setting expectations is probably one of the most valuable and important things that a consultant can do.

Clients can set expectations as well, but when it comes to the agency, it really is critical for a great client-agency relationship.

Not only do we need to set and manage expectations according to the work that we’re going to do, but agencies need to figure out how to do this equitably across their portfolio of clients so everyone gets the same love.

You have to ask, “How do you manage client expectations and your team’s workload?”

People tend to understand things in terms of what they’ve already experienced. For example, sometimes you’ll take on a client who hasn’t worked with an agency very often or ever before, and their expectations are based on previous vendor relationships that just don’t sync well with agency work.

In that case, it’s essential to set expectations immediately during the pitch, the proposal, and even onboarding. Like I said before, it’s not just clients that push back on expectations. Internal staff can do this too.

An example is when people who are in charge of managing a process aren’t sure of all the turnaround time for all the interdependent tasks.

Without that certainty of how long things take, it can create friction between the account team and the production teams and result in pretty unreasonable client expectations as big promises are made, and the client expects that’s the way it’s going to happen going forward.

So to manage expectations and team workload, project managers are going to have to have a very clear understanding of the project and visibility into team workflow so that expectations can be managed with the client as well as with the team members at the agency that are working on the project.

One particular way to be effective with setting expectations is understanding what clients want, and here we have results from a study reported by Soto Report about what clients want.

Project management was listed as one of the top challenges of working with an agency, and I wouldn’t be surprised that the fact that 68 percent of agencies are still using spreadsheets for project management isn’t part of the problem.

The inefficiencies and opportunities for error especially are hugely risky when agencies are using spreadsheets. As convenient as Google Sheets are, you know, use at your own risk and at your own peril.

Heather Hurst:  Maybe not the best way to go, right? Spreadsheets also are often kept on a desktop, and they really don’t give the level of visibility that clients want into what the heck you’re doing every day to support their accounts.

Lee Odden:  Exactly, especially if you have versioning problems and people copying and pasting templates with bad data or bad formulas. Trust me. I’ve seen it. We lived this at our agency in the past, and we are moving to the wonderful Workfront platform so no more of that.

Heather Hurst:  I remember a client that I had when I worked at an agency. I had just gotten a big win for them. We had our next meeting, and he looked at me and said, “Well, Heather, what have you done for me lately? What are you going to be doing for me next?”

I think it was at that moment I realized, number one, clients always want more, and number two, having an ongoing plan that you’ve made visible to the client is really, really important to show that you know what’s going to come next.

It can’t be like when at the end of Indiana Jones when they store the Ark of the Covenant and they did it in such a way that nobody would be able to find it again. You can’t do that same thing with your work and your planned work with your clients.

Find a way to open your work queues, whether that’s going to a formal project management system that you can give access to with your clients or having a shared document or some other shared repository where you’re constantly updating your clients on what you have done and what you’re doing.

Digital review and approval helps a lot to ensure that nothing is missed and nothing falls through the cracks, although that can get a little out of hand.

I was just talking to an agency where on one piece of creative they had 900 review comments, and almost all were actionable. So I guess also kind of keep it in check a little bit to whatever extent you don’t want to be murdered.

Lee Odden:  You mean like, “Hey, can you move that period over a couple pixels? No, wait. Can you move it back a couple of pixels?”

Heather Hurst:  Yeah, and I think it was a lot of just, “I agree, yes, what they said,” that kind of stuff. So, yes, definitely within reason and then status updates are necessary, and status meetings are necessary when you’re talking about strategy and what really needs to come next from a bigger picture standpoint.

But you can get rid of a lot of that just by providing more visibility into your upcoming workflow.

Then coming to our fourth key point here is service.

So maintaining consistent client service by retaining your best employees is really, really key because nothing is more disruptive to an account than losing a member of your account team that had been really, really great—really key to driving success—who knew the client extremely well.

That can be extremely disruptive, and the last thing you want to do is lose them because of any degree of burnout or the fact that they didn’t like what was going on at the agency. You really need to find ways to maintain those employees.

One thing that you can do—sort of going back to communication—is just talk to your team members.

Have open lines of communication where they can come and tell you if they’re getting burned out or if they’re being overloaded. In our 24/7, “I can work from anywhere,” sort of society that we’re in now, you actually can have employees that are contributing a lot in the off hours working from home, working late at night.

And you may not actually see it. The clients might be seeing it, but the management may not see it, which can be really critical to a breakdown of communication between an employee and a manager and can result in a less than healthy, happy, and engaged employee.

Lee Odden:  One of my account managers told me she generalized the scenario, but that kind of fits here.

Heather Hurst:  Things were changed to protect the innocent.

Lee Odden:  So the account manager gets out of the meeting and says, “Oh, wow, what a great opportunity to upsell a particular client on this thing that they really need and that we could deliver for them.”

So they go get some planning tasks on the team’s plate and to the team’s queue so they can rock and roll on this new thing. And it looks like the copywriter only has two tasks on their plate today, and so the account manager says, “I’ll just squeeze it in this afternoon.”

Then the copywriter goes, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa! I already have an eight-hour day with all my meetings. Now we have all these additional tasks? How can they manage all that?”

It gets crazy. Without visibility, chaos ensues.

Heather Hurst:  Absolutely, and you make a good point. There’s not only visibility into the workload but also visibility into that assigned workload.

Which resources have been assigned to execute against any given task? And where else are they being—distracted is the wrong word—but where else are they spending their time? In meetings or working on other account projects? Yeah, definitely.

Lee Odden:  You said before, “Only 38 percent of people’s time is actually spent on work.”

Heather Hurst:  Sometimes that’s on a good day. And it really does matter because we’re losing billions of dollars to absenteeism, tardiness, burn out, all of these things that result in work related stress and people leaving.

I don’t know if this is even longer on the agency side, but the salary cost to train a new employee can be huge. And there’s also this impact to the consistency with your clients.

Lee Odden:  We do experience that. The standard is very high at our agency. We’re very innovation focused, so the talent that is necessary to deliver on that kind of promise is pretty significant. So therefore there’s the top ranked marketing way, if you will.

You know how those people, they learn all those ways of doing things, and now they need to learn the right way, so to speak, or a more innovative way.  And it takes a long time. It can take a lot of time.

You invest a lot of time and resources—and I know we do—into training folks up only to lose them because of something that could have easily been solved.

It is heartbreaking. It really is not only to the agency as a business but also to their peers.

So, really, I couldn’t agree more on the importance of keeping your best talent, and there’s some fundamental things you can do.

I’m sure we could do a whole HR-ish type presentation on about what you can do to keep talent, but I think you’ve got to document first what typical work thresholds are. What’s reasonable so people’s time can be managed and adjust as necessary?

If you don’t know what’s normal or typical for the completion of a particular task, then you’ll have people who may not have experience with that sort of thing assigning those tasks and then not having reasonable internal expectations on their completion.

And that can create a lot of friction; nobody’s happy. When you amplify that over time, that can lead to an exit.

You’ve also got to focus on or do one to ones. So there’s got to be an upstream manager who is responsible for the work of an individual or a group of individuals, and they need to have those one on one meetings so they can reconcile work and get people back on track.

I’ve seen it happen often where, especially a really talented person, they’re getting requests like crazy because they do such a great job. And all of a sudden their queue is just like it’s insane.

So it’s important. If they don’t have the self-awareness to go reach out to their upstream supervisor and go, “Hey, I got 12 hours booked every day for the next three days. Can you work with me to reallocate these tasks?”

Then the supervisor has got to be managing or monitoring that person’s workflow to see that kind of thing happening and then be able to have that one on one and reconcile their tasks and then readjust work tasks and reassign things so they have a normal, human, friendly workload.

The other thing is to make sure there’s a constant feedback loop with individuals and teams about their performance so that you have some insight as to whether processes are working well for both individuals and for the team at large. These are all very, very important components to keeping your best talent.

Obviously, I’m a big fan of recognition, when you identify goals as individuals.

It’s just a part of management of staff: identifying specific goals for them as individuals, as a group, as a team, as a company and then having really good feedback mechanisms to deliver progress reports and also to recognize people for their contribution to helping achieve those goals, again, whether they’re individual goals, team goals, or goals for the company.

There’s an expression I’ve stolen from someone else. I don’t know who. But people will work for a living, but they’ll die for recognition. So it’s really, really important to have that part of your communications mix.

Heather Hurst:  I completely agree with you on that one, Lee. It’s amazing how far it goes when somebody is recognized, and it’s amazing how sad it can be when someone will say, “No one’s given me a pat on the back at work,” for some ridiculous amount of time.

Lee Odden:  Yeah, work until you die. Good job. No, no.

Okay, well as we kind of wrap up this part, there’s some takeaways. 

These four key areas contribute to helping agencies do their best creative work efficiently, right, and those were: Balance.

Obviously, we’ve got to focus on creating a balance within our organization and for individuals. A balance of process with structure that allows for creativity as well as consistency, quality, and growth or scale of work. 

We’ve also got to focus on effective communication both with clients and our team members, especially the hard conversations. Just don’t do it in the bathroom.

Heather Hurst:  Never, never, never in the bathroom, never, ever.

Lee Odden:  There could be an emergency, right? No, okay.

Heather Hurst:  No, no, still not.

Lee Odden:  Still no.

Okay, and focus on setting expectations so you can set your agency up for success with a client and manage time with those clients equally.

And finally focusing on service not just to do a great job for our clients and deliver a great work product but understanding the role that retention plays in your company’s ability to continue to deliver a great work product, to deliver great service.

You’ve got to retain your best staff, and that’s the only way you can continue producing the best work and providing that best service possible.

And, of course, if you watch Mad Men, you’ll appreciate this observation from Tiffany Allen from my team, “Don’t let your project management system be a Pete Campbell when it can be a Joan Holloway.”

So, thank you, Tiffany, for giving me that quote.


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

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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