Working with agencies to build productive daily traffic systems, we always end up advocating that agencies keep a master grid. “After all,” we say, “if your agency is not committed to tracking every job, every day, every step of the way, then there is essentially no true traffic system.” The moment any job is left to chance, or worse, to last minute pressures, is the exact moment all semblance of order breaks down.
What makes agencies any different from the typical company involved in project-oriented production? If you walk through a client manufacturing facility, you will find a fairly sophisticated system of production control, usually run by a production control manager using some sort of master tracking system to schedule and guide work through the shop. For years, manufacturers have been committed to precise scheduling of customer orders. They enter a job order, assign a critical path schedule and track the work at every step, taking into consideration changes, additions or cancellations.
Be Creative, But Run Your Workflow Like a Factory Manager!
Agencies need to treat projects like the factory manager above. Create an agency workflow master grid so that everyone can view open jobs, and every step needed to complete those jobs. Everyone in the agency should also be able to track the status of work promised. And any changes to the schedule need to be approved by the “next level up” manager to enable planning beyond the account executive independently making a promise to the client.
As we all know, agency software has limitations. There are few, if any, specific agency traffic systems that work for every agency, or every agency’s specific functions. In particular, updating the system has historically posed problems. Agency traffic systems generally work well for recording jobs, establishing critical paths and initial schedules. But few of them automatically update functions and re-date from the point where a schedule change has taken place.
This is a major problem. Everyone who has worked in the agency business for even a few months knows that the status of any given job changes constantly. Work is promised for Friday, and then the client wants to see it on Thursday. Or you need photography by Tuesday to have it retouched by Thursday so that the client can approve it Friday and send it to the printer Saturday to be printed on Sunday so the client can take it with him on a plane Sunday night... you get the picture.
Can You Avoid “Going Manual”?
Systems that don’t help good traffic managers play the updating game more effectively actually slow the process. Even a highly motivated traffic manager committed to keeping the system up to date can become bogged down when each change has to be posted manually. This becomes very labor-intensive and slows the process, leading to the traffic manager “fudging” the schedule, not tracking each step. Eventually the agency is back to the old habit of running the show by “emergency scheduling.” Whoever screams the loudest gets the mostest.
Now, we know what you are thinking. If there is no perfect traffic software system to help with the sheer volume of job traffic, and we want you to commit to track “every job, every day, every step of the way,” do we expect you to do it manually?
Yes, we do.
A Case In Point
We learned the hard way that a successful agency needs to control the daily schedule. We were fortunate to once be part of an agency that grew dramatically in a relatively short period of time. When we began our upward move, we were handling about thirty jobs a month in a very casual, “no walls” atmosphere: the only traffic system needed took the form of yelling to whoever would listen.
Suddenly we “bagged an elephant.” Our job count went from 30 to 230 in about three months. We tried to manage those 230 jobs with the old “yelling” traffic system and it nearly did us in. Then we had the amazing presence of mind to hire an experienced traffic manager whose credo in life was “every job, every day, every step of the way.” Life was good again (after a few months of breaking our staff of the “yelling” habit).
There comes a time in your agency life where you have to put the “Hey kids, let’s make a movie” style of operating behind you, and step up to the next level. Certainly it takes a little discipline and a great deal of extra effort to run a step-by-step traffic system; but if you are growing quickly and adding numerous jobs each day, someone needs to be tracking job progress. And the most important part of this system is making sure all your people stay informed on the status of their jobs… each and every day.
Try the Sample Grid
Look at our copy of a sample Job Scheduling Grid. On the left is space for you to record all active agency jobs. Across the top are preprinted headings covering the possible steps a job can go through. In the squares, the traffic/workflow manager establishes a dated critical path for each job and monitors those dates. Each time there is a schedule change, the traffic manager crosses off the old dates and simply pencils in the new ones. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It is, when you look at the schedule horizontally for any single job. But the key is to have a peripheral view of the schedule and be able to establish relationships between jobs. A good traffic manager can track hundreds of jobs simultaneously, and keep a few account executives in line at the same time. Workflow and agency management systems can usually generate digital versions of the master grid, but you may find it as effective to use a centrally-located white board.
One more thing: As you can see, this grid is far too complicated for most mortal advertising agency people, especially owners and account executives ( ;-). Have the traffic manager extrapolate the pertinent data from the master grid and publish it in a concise daily schedule. See our Daily Agency Job Status Form. Again, most digital systems include daily schedule functions.