Years ago, an agency wasn’t a real agency unless there was a designated, skilled person for each specific position. Then, as the agency reached a critical mass (15 to 20 people and approaching $1MM in billings), you needed a take-charge production manager to control the flow of work through the agency. This individual needed the ability to retain volumes of job-related information; communicate effectively with all vendors, clients, account execs, creatives and financial people; keep management up to date; and maintain sanity across the board…all while juggling priorities like a Peking Acrobat.
In many agencies, the production manager continues to rule the various agency fiefdoms, but there are changes afoot in the agency kingdom. Some of these changes are due to compressing overhead and capturing more non-billable hours. But software tools enable everyone to view online the progress of jobs through the agency; the information is at everyone’s fingertips. This spreads the responsibility for managing the workflow system across the entire agency, and allows individuals to take personal responsibility for their parts in the process. Everything you do leaves a digital trail, and everything is available in real time. Production and workflow becomes the responsibility of the entire team.
Here’s a very general outline of the changes in agency operations:
Years ago, agency production was a step-by-step process:
- Production manager received job and input from the account executive.
- Production manager opened job, created an estimate, developed a critical path and assigned work.
- Production manager and traffic manager managed day-to-day process:
- Pushed the creative team for completion
- Moved work through the system
- Contacted vendors (photographers, freelancers, etc.) for “outside” work
- Made sure staff recorded time
- Traffic manager ensured creatives completed work on schedule.
- Traffic and production managers acted as go-betweens on approvals with account service and creatives.
- Production manager ensured changes and AAs were completed properly.
- Traffic and production managers gathered all pieces of work and information for account execs to present to client.
- Production manager collected all necessary billing information and passed to accounting for invoicing; traffic manager ensured all billable time was submitted and entered in the system.
- Production manager made sure vendor billing matched estimates.
Today, agency work is more synchronous, as digital systems allow transparency and better collaboration:
- Account executive and project manager receive job from client; project manager opens job in agency management software system; agency team members are alerted via email of new job.
- Project manager creates a production estimate and schedules the job; estimate and schedule are approved by client, then posted for all participants to see.
- Account executive and project manager meet with creative director to discuss strategy and assign work.
- Creative director and project manager meet/communicate with vendors, freelancers and in-house creative people, and coordinate resources to ensure that the job proceeds as directed and on time.
- Creative director, project manager and account executives collaborate to ensure changes are kept to a minimum and are made in a timely manner.
- Project manager gathers all work as job is completed; s/he and account executive present to the client. Creative director may participate in client presentation (if needed).
- Individuals enter and track their own hours against the job estimate; accounting tracks billings (daily, weekly) as the job progresses; project manager watches actual billings against estimate.
- Accounting issues progress, milestone or monthly bills, and a final invoice.
This structure for managing workflow essentially eliminates traffic and production management in favor of a project manager, and disperses many of the workflow functions across the entire agency team. Depending on your staffing setup, you may have account executives who cross over into project management, or vice-versa; or you may still have a production manager in-house, and traffic is managed by that person in tandem with account coordinators.
More automated systems have allowed many agencies to phase out the traffic manager position, perhaps reassigning that person to project management or account coordinating responsibilities. However, agencies may still need production managers to oversee internal production, help determine how to accomplish a creative execution within budget, select the right vendors at a cost that allows the agency to make a markup and still deliver a quality product, etc. This is especially true in agencies where workload and billings volume require personnel to support creatives and account executives so they can focus on their primary functions. In smaller agencies, project managers may do schedules and estimates, or art directors may be responsible for production functions on assigned projects.
Agencies currently use a number of software products; any of these may enable your agency to accomplish production work as a team. We highlight these merely for your consideration, not as endorsements for the products as such. There are other customizable products, as well, that may better suit the needs of your agency.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of the team approach to agency workflow: more eyes on the job to ensure errors are caught, changes are picked up, and jobs stay within budget. This allows the agency principal to only step into a project as a true troubleshooter. The principal may also develop or maintain a better handle on the capabilities and strengths of each individual on staff. How can that be a bad thing? He can keep his helicopter and still view everything from above, just electronically. But it’s easier to land that helicopter when he can see what’s happening on the ground.
As your agency continues to grow and evolve, consider how you use all resources, human and electronic, to accomplish the work at hand. Moving production into team-effort mode can be a long- or short-term goal to improve efficiency, accountability, and embed a tightly managed digital workflow into your agency culture.