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The New Ad Agency Digital Workflow:More Compression, Greater Efficiency

Time is still money, no matter what anyone says to the contrary. And given today’s client procurement mentality, advertising and marketing firms have to be as aware of time, agility and budgets as they are of creative quality and superior client service. This means that agencies rely heavily on internal operations and workflow systems to mine every penny of profit from compressed schedules and tighter budgets.

So what is the state of today’s agency digital workflow? Here are some thoughts:

Custom systems no longer exceed software-managed systems. Agencies have fully committed to digital agency management and workflow systems across Second Wind’s membership. The top three software systems used by those surveyed are Workamajig (50%), Clients & Profits (6%) and Advantage (6%). Eleven other software brands were also listed by respondents. Overall, 55% have committed to a single digital AMS/workflow package, with a large number using compatible project management, workflow/estimating and accounting programs; again, Workamajig dominates for both workflow and accounting.

Other players in the workflow software arena are Harvest® (a time-tracking and billing ASP compatible with Basecamp Project Management and QuickBooks), and Intervals® (web-based project management, task scheduling, time tracking and reporting; also QuickBooks-compatible and with a growing list of integrated application providers). We saw an increase in use of Wrike and Asana for project management, although 19% of agencies say they use Basecamp.

All-digital systems have many advantages— the biggest benefit is online archiving of client communications, input, schedules, estimates and change requests. Ease of updating and the ability to alert key players as updates happen is the second benefit. The biggest drawback continues to be built-in inflexibility in scheduling; many systems still refuse to allow a final due date to “hold” if interim dates are changed. And as we all know, no matter how many changes occur along the way, most projects have fixed due dates.

For this and many other reasons, many software users remain unhappy with their digital systems. This is why so many agencies continue to use their own custom traffic or workflow management tactics.

Agencies have moved away from highly structured, linear workflow, to more flexible and fluid workflow models. No longer can projects wait while one individual completes a single element and sends it for approval. Today, multiple tracks within a project advance simultaneously. Workflow has to flow, or client expectations for tight turnaround and rapid response cannot be met. Agencies have adapted to this more fluid approach, but must be vigilant to avert production or quality-control issues resulting from speed-at-all-costs operations, especially where agencies lack an experienced production team or a well-defined project management process.

The cloud is helping to create a faster and more flexible workflow. Web-based traffic, project management and collaboration tools help expedite turnaround on all aspects of workflow, especially job input, approvals and changes. Today, schedules do not come to a grinding halt because a key participant is out of town or on vacation. Providing agencies and clients have access to technology and the Internet, they can “meet” online and keep projects moving forward under nearly any circumstances. The one drawback is that clients now expect agency staff to be available even if they are on vacation… another symptom of our always-on lives.

Workflow leadership is critical to employee adoption and support. If agency principals and managers do not use and promote use of the workflow system, employees will follow suit and ignore it. Agency management has to drive workflow processes and enforce penalties for non-adoption. No time sheets? No paychecks. Someone ignored a scheduled due date and didn’t let anyone else know? Call them on the carpet and demand a public apology to the team. Train, and back up the training with action, cheerleading and some occasional whip-cracking. Take every opportunity to explain how and where your employees can grow agency profits (and their own profit-sharing) by harnessing the power of an efficient workflow system.

Agency workflow is too critical to agency margins and profits to allow casual management or non-participation to undermine your goal of greater efficiency. As you review your internal operations, call your staff together to brainstorm about where you can tweak your system to become faster, produce tighter estimates, leverage vendor relationships, adopt “agile” best practices and simply be the more efficient—and profitable—agency of your dreams.

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