Regardless of economic conditions, agencies need to ensure a quick, accurate workflow. Those agencies forced to adjust to lower billings, fewer projects and leaner budgets during a downturn need to update their daily operating systems so they are ready to “rock & roll” when their business increases. And those who are fighting to best their rivals and gain new accounts in a strong economy must operate at peak efficiency to compete. Here are a number of workflow issues you need to review and fine-tune to create a top-notch workflow system.
Is Your Agency Workflow Ready to Roll?
Agency Workflow Must-haves
A Solid Traffic System – Traffic systems are difficult for many smaller agencies to wrap their heads around. You start out small—one or two people with just a few clients and projects to cope with. But as you grow, take on more accounts and more personnel, you’ll arrive at a tipping point where the lack of a defined traffic management system is going to be sorely felt. And when your agency restarts, there will be more projects, so having an efficient and effective way to move workflow through your agency will be essential.
Why do we recommend this? To have a fast, smooth agency workflow, agencies need a specific system to open jobs, build creative briefs, create estimates and timelines, organize daily efforts, post workers’ time to projects, issue purchase orders to vendors, record miscellaneous expenses, and create invoices. Along the way, agencies also need to communicate input and changes to projects in progress, and be able to watch estimated job costs against actual costs as they accrue. Also, agencies today rely on efficient operations and accurate time-billing to earn revenue. Relying on commissions and markups to make up for daily workflow deficiencies is no longer a viable option.
There are many digital traffic management systems, some of which are very good and compatible with standard accounting software. Many agencies still use customized traffic systems, or even manual systems. However you manage agency workflow, a traffic system is a necessity once an agency grows to handling more than about fifty jobs at a time.
A Traffic Facilitator – If you don’t have a traffic manager or project management system, and your workload increases, you could find your agency descending into chaos. Too many jobs, too few people to handle them, overlapping schedules, ramped-up stress—it’s a nightmare in the making. A good traffic manager can smooth out the process with better scheduling, spotting when and on what projects outsourcing might be needed, insuring deadlines are met, and keeping account service people and agency management informed if schedules are in jeopardy or personnel are overloaded.
Precision Job Scheduling – Many agencies find it useful to have “typical” schedule templates for different kinds of projects that can be used to roughly schedule new jobs with similar attributes. Many of the traffic management systems on the market today allow you to customize scheduling templates. Regardless of whether you use standardized or custom scheduling, every job you open needs some form of “critical path” scheduling. A critical path sets deadlines for completing key phases of a project, allowing the traffic manager to “fill in” other interim dates leading up to those due dates. Templates make the scheduling process more efficient. Every job should follow a defined procedure:
- Each project has a specific, detailed “critical path” timeline.
- The traffic manager compiles all active projects in a master grid where agency personnel can actually see what work is “in play.”
- Changes in timing are posted immediately, so the grid is always up to date.
- The traffic manager publishes a daily task list showing projects needing immediate work and critical due dates.
- The agency has a fifteen-minute, stand-up meeting each morning to get the troops moving forward.
- Managing daily workflow means every job, every day, every step of the way.
A Time-Recording Process - Because the advertising and marketing business has become predominantly fee-driven, time is more important than ever. You’ll want to capture every billable hour to ensure you are fairly paid. Enforce employee recording of hours against their assigned jobs; make sure your hourly rates are aligned with the marketplace going rate and your own overhead needs. Monitor projects to ensure hours are staying within estimate. Better oversight during a project can help agencies avoid overages that cannot be billed.
If you’re able, move away from time-based billing to value-pricing, where you bill based on what a job is worth to the client, not what it costs. Even using value pricing, you need to have a good estimating system and sense of how long it takes to complete various functions to ensure you recover costs plus make a profit.
Collaboration Diaries – One thing your agency needs to do well is produce client contact documents, change orders, meeting notes, add-ons, subtractions, research, client conversations, conversations with their customers—just about anything needed to make the project better, more accurate and more on-target.
Today’s best agencies do this by using online collaboration tools. These tools allow you to post a note and “push it” to all the folks in a work group or account service team. Think of it as email on steroids, since you can file, retrieve, converse and organize specifically around a project, and store all entries with project records. Most available agency operating software systems offer some sort of collaboration function and there are plenty of stand-alone options available.
POs, Estimates and Ownership – Document everything. Issue formal agency purchase orders for every outside purchase, including freelance/outsourced art and design, production and copywriting. Always estimate jobs, either using a “quick estimate” system based on past projects (update these reference estimates regularly!), or by quoting jobs to two to three vendors to get a ranged estimate. Cover the issue of artwork/file ownership at the beginning of any project. Does the client want full ownership? Adjust the estimate to cover a buyout. Do you need full ownership of freelancer-created art or files? Spell this out up front. Clarify file transfer and ownership with clients; ensure that vendors know that digital print/production files cannot be reused without your written permission.
Core and Freelance Staff – Agencies need a mix of core staff and valuable “outsourced” partners to complete the complex mix of projects clients demand today. Build a stable of freelancers and independent contractors from your “creative community,” and define procedures for working with them. Freelancers should:
- Receive a pre-priced purchase order from the agency.
- As independent contractors, release their rights to artwork ownership, in writing.
- Be required to sign a non-circumvention agreement, prohibiting their working directly with agency clients.
- Attest to their status as independent contractors; i.e., affirm that they assume responsibility for paying their own taxes and other employment deductions. If they don’t, you will be held responsible for their taxes.
- Perhaps be paid a small monthly retainer by the agency to be available when needed. The retainer counts against real projects, but gives the freelancer comfort that they will have a regular income.
Aligned Vendors – Most agencies develop relationships over time with a set of trustworthy vendors—those you use repeatedly because they are reliable and quality-oriented. Your production manager should proactively meet with these preferred vendors at least annually to review pricing, negotiate volume discounts, review artwork/file ownership policies and address any other issues. These relationships can stand the agency in good stead when the chips are down—when you need a rush job or special price consideration, for instance.
Use any current downtime to make adjustments and upgrades to your agency workflow process. Look for ways to reduce wasted time and build more efficient operations. Make sure your personnel have the tools to achieve greater efficiency. Ask employees for ideas to tweak the system so that it runs more smoothly, ways to cut unnecessary steps or just plain “do it better.” Workflow adjustments made now will put you a step ahead of competitors whatever the economy looks like.