We hear often about the thankless job known as traffic management. Traffic managers are the people in an ad agency who get stuck with most of the dirty work—scheduling, timesheets, collecting sign-offs on work in progress, making sure deadlines are doable as jobs progress, checking that staff are working on the most critical projects day to day, etc. Usually, we hear gripes about being bugged for timesheets, ensuring jobs pass through the hands of the TM (or that the TM is at least notified), or that traffic-managing is a process that now happens almost exclusively online.
Historically, AEs were the culprits, circumventing the TM and undercutting scheduled work, or disrupting creative groove time. So we were somewhat surprised to hear from a smaller agency that recently hired its first traffic manager. Prior to the traffic manager’s arrival, the creative department generally ran their own show; they handled their own scheduling and dealt with related traffic/workflow demands along with their daily creative chores. Now that the agency’s workload is at a point where they really need someone to schedule and track jobs full-time, the creative department is resisting the need to let go of their self-managed process.
The Only Certainty Is Change
No one enjoys change. It means abandoning old habits (and maybe admitting some new ones would improve things). It means letting go of how we’ve always done it, and learning new processes. Change in this particular case also means releasing control of stuff you don’t really need to be managing in the first place. And that is a good thing!
Yes, it can be annoying (and initially jarring) when that newly minted traffic manager gives you a nudge now and then to stay on deadline or re-check your revisions. But it should also be freeing—creative people don’t need to worry about scheduling, or getting the AE to return client proofs, or even checking to see how they’re doing against the approved estimate. The traffic manager gets those less toothsome jobs, leaving the creative team free to focus on their strong suits—producing great ideas, great copy and fabulous visuals, or the perfect strategy, or the best insight to help the agency’s clients achieve their objectives.
So why complain? We have no idea. Maybe there is a personality clash between the creative director and the traffic manager. Maybe the agency principal has not made it clear that that the TM holds sway on some matters, and creatives need to get in line with the new program. Maybe they need a short air-clearing meeting where everyone gets to vent about the new system and the principal then explains “how it’s gonna be.”
Traffic Must Be Ingrained in the Creative Process
As a former art director, I can speak without prejudice when I say that creatives can be pains in the butt about schedules, time sheets and working within a defined process. Independent-minded creatives like to believe that their short-cuts and end-runs around processes get the job done better than sticking to procedures. But they may not understand how their end-runs make life difficult for accounting, or the account management people, or the production manager. If an agency is to grow in people, workload, and to serve bigger, more profitable clients, some system is needed. Creative people who want to forever work for a small agency may have to choose if they want to change and grow with their current agency, or seek the “perfect” small design shop environment they crave. Agency principals must accept that as they grow their business, not everyone will be comfortable with the changes. Some people may leave. That is life in the ad agency business.
The key is to be as flexible as you can… while still making it clear that some procedures are essential, and some changes will be enforced because you’ve decided they will benefit the agency as a whole.
The bottom line is, NO FINESSING THE TRAFFIC MANAGER. The TM has a job to do. Creatives, AEs, production, media, PR, et. al., must accept the TM’s role in your growing agency and do what they can to help that person do their job. Obstructionists need to be called on the carpet and asked to decide if they are on board, and if not, why not. If people are deliberately sabotaging the system, the entire system will fall apart. That hurts the agency as a whole, not just the traffic manager.
Identifying the Sticking Points
Agency leaders and managers can help employees adapt to and embrace change by laying the groundwork before introducing changes. Before you launch new processes or bring in new people, carefully analyze the following factors in creating the right environment for effective change.
Agency culture – Look at how your agency currently functions. Are you collaborative and supportive throughout the agency? Or are you “siloed,” with departments waging petty turf wars over who is most important to agency success? If your people see new processes and greater organization as intrusions on their autonomy, engage your people in the planning process. The more they “own” the decisions you make, the more likely they will be to support the rollout of changes.
Personalities – Bringing a new person on board can be disruptive if you haven’t done due diligence on matching the newbie to your existing team. Consider personality testing for your existing team, as well as testing job candidates to find those well fitted for the traffic manager job. Also hire for values; you want people who are aligned with your culture and goals. Values alignment can reduce friction between existing and new employees.
What’s in it for me? – Understand your audience. Just as you do for clients, consider what issues are most important to affected employees, and figure out how to explain how changes will benefit them. Detail how having a traffic manager will help everyone in the agency be more efficient—and the agency more profitable. What is the impact on each employee (bonuses, profit sharing)? Frame the changes by emphasizing the pros, not the cons of change.
Leadership – Unless leaders support and enforce change, no new procedures or processes will succeed. Make it clear a) why you hired a TM, and b) why everyone needs to get on board. Then invest time to ensure the traffic manager is accepted and supported (calling out resisters if necessary), so everyone understands that you expect collaborative effort. Also, consider assigning a mentor—a manager with the respect and clout to help the TM gain acceptance—to guide the TM through their first few weeks in the job.
Orderly processes can boost your efficiency and profits. That benefits every person in the agency. Growing agencies need traffic management to prevent the slow slide into the chaos of perpetual rush jobs, missed deadlines, costly errors and lost materials. Imposing order on chaos is the job of agency leadership—don’t just bring in a new person and let them wallow as your people fight back against their own, and the agency’s best interests. Be the enforcer. Change is hard, but success comes only if you are willing to do what is needed to achieve your goals.
See also: Traffic Rules to Live By