Working Miracles In Agencies

It’s time to call in Anne Sullivan. You must sit at the table and mind your manners.

After the scene below is one of my favorite movie lines. It’s from The Miracle Worker, Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) just finished breakfast with Helen Keller (Patty Duke). By the way both won an Oscar® for their awesome performances.

“She ate from her own plate. She ate with a spoon. Herself. And she folded her napkin.”

I used to think it was just an anomaly attributed to ad agencies – creatives and account – arguing, fighting, avoiding, circumventing the system. Unfortunately, this can, and does, happen anywhere – even in your local holistic peace-loving organic market. Or bank.

But this is about advertising, marketing, interactive, branding agencies. Where creative and the business of creative intersect. Or clash.

What are they doing? Basically making everything much harder than it should be.

Why? Because everyone has a valid point of their own. The rules don’t apply . . . to them. They don’t “have time”. It isn't their job. And they don't care. Or they know better.

We’ve all heard it over and over.

I have worked with a lot of agencies that call in a peacekeeper. A peacekeeper in the form of a Process, or Tools such as software (oh, yes, it’s technology now), to better track what’s going on – and each other. Sadly, often used as punitive measure just to prove one’s point.

Having worked in and with many agencies, I’ve witnessed it.

First, software doesn’t fix lousy attitudes. It provides structure. You need structure in your rainbow-hued creative world.

Process is discussed ad nauseam – and is never really clear, much less followed – and is always the object thrown in the road like a tack strip to catch a felon.

You didn’t follow process.

So sophisticated ad folks resort to what they know best. They fight. Like kids.

Sometimes, fixing an agency isn’t changing your clients, submitting your magnificent creative to Cannes, or adding to your stable of most sought-after ad men (or women).

Sometimes it’s just looking at how people [don’t] work together.

It should never be that hard to do a day’s work.

Sometimes it takes a little tough love. Everyone needs to know their place, work together (it is, after all a collaboration), and have just a little empathy.

When everyone is at each-other’s throats; at Coffee Bean complaining; working from home (way too much); getting into your stuff and messing with it – it’s time to take a step back and look at what’s really going on.

It’s time for management to put on their big boy Fire Hose Work Pants™ and bring everyone back to Earth. 

Yes, you need a clearly defined process - documented. And yes, you HAVE to have a good, comprehensive (and user-friendly) agency management tool to track work. But not dealing with the people factor will kill every great attempt at implementing process and software.

And sometimes, you just have to be an adult and fold your napkin.

I leave you with this. And yes, you do look like that.

Nothing Will Ever Change

I spend a lot of time with folks in agencies who are dealing with their fair share of grief.

Well maybe it isn’t fair. Or are they getting what they deserve?

Things aren’t going well: things are late, over budget or wrong; disagreements, arguments, or the ever-popular passive-aggressive collaboration.

Finger pointing. Blame game. No one accepts responsibility for anything.

Email folders brimming with CYA and little bombs you or a coworker are just waiting for the right moment to drop.

Stop it. What a waste of time.

I will tell you what’s wrong. Lack of leadership. Lack of clear direction. Mixed signals. And a staff that has become so jaded that they. . . Just. Don’t. Care.

My ex used to say, “Not to decide is to decide.” Awesome insight from someone who didn’t have much initiative. And yet, so true. If you don’t make a decision to act, it will be done for you – in one way or another.  

If there’s anything I have learned in all these years is that things will change. If you’re not part of initiating change, then what you are about to experience is a result of it. Then you feel like a victim of it.

You have no room to bitch. Sorry. 

When you sit back and wait for everything to get better, it won’t. Your days at work will remain shitty. And you can just sit there and keep on complainin’.

So, when an opportunity comes along to do something to improve how things work, get off your chair and give it a try.

Do not tell me that it’s too hard, too much work, it’s been tried before, it won’t matter anyway. . .

And tell your manager to get on the stick. They have a job to do too.

Things will never change is a lament for losers.

And truthfully, nothing stays the same way forever. Be a part of making things better. The alternative is that you get fired for being lazy or the agency goes out of business because no one cares.

There, it was decided for you.

Hiding Like a Clam or the Joy of Mediocrity


I read this piece in FastCompany yesterday about the worst-performing employees who are usually ‘happy as clams’, and it calls to mind the use of agency tools/technology/software to manage work.

One of the huge benefits of these tools is the ability to see all the work that has been assigned; and some tools provide deeper information on resource/capacity planning. So in an instant, you can review how busy everyone is – what they’re working on, how many hours they’re allocated by the day/week/month, vacations, etc.

Handy stuff. And in my experience, imperative for truly managing resources.

The flip-side – and I’ve experienced this too – is that employees can feel we’re watching or controlling them. Oh, please.

True. And not true. I am not Big Brother, and I’m certainly not your Mother. But I am here to make sure stuff gets done on time. That also means staying on budget as well as meeting the criteria of the brief.

What using these tools diligently will reveal is one of perception versus reality. Some people appear really busy, and don’t turn out a heck of a lot of work. Others just plow through one project after another.

And most of the time you cannot tell one from the other. Therefore you set expectations, and then you review the results.

As the article states:
"Mediocre performers can do a really good job of hiding under the surface. Most are experts at busywork, which they bury themselves in to appear busy.”

This isn’t spying, but rather getting a clear idea where every client (or agency) dollar is going.

And these tools reveal a world of other things as well. Is everyone an ace in Photoshop, Illustrator or html? Some are better (and faster) than others. There can be hardware or software issues that can bring even that ace to a grinding halt. Maybe they’re disorganized, or simply screwing around too much.

When time estimates (therefore budgets) are consistently blown, you need to investigate further. As a manager, it is your job to find out what’s going on – or your part of the problem. (More on that later…)

If you have a well-trained staff, have super hardware and software and some still can’t cut it, then it’s time to have a chat.

It could be something as simple as too many distractions – or perhaps they just don’t want to work all that hard and this is an easy paycheck. The clams. The ultimate in mediocrity.

Get organized, get on top of your projects and let the clams drift to a tide pool elsewhere. 

Setting Expectations in Your Agency

So now that you have the client on track, you, as the client-facing individual – which for simplicity I’ll call the AE – are charged with getting the ball rolling by outlining your own set of expectations inside the agency. (I know that in some agencies the client can have contact with anybody – I can’t even go there.)

So it should go like this: I want X (defined in a brief or at least a job order), by Y specified date and time, there are Z dollars to get this done. You have just set your expectations. What. When. Budget.

In my world, the PM would review the specifics, get you an estimate and confirm resources – right away – and notify you whether it is a GO or a NO.

But you would know that already, because you checked with the PM first. Can we do X by Y date for Z dollars? You are my favorite AE already.

If you have fulfilled the troika of essentials, the job is good to go.

But, alas – how many times have any of the three essentials been either tweaked, violated or completely ignored in your agency?

If you have good agency management tools in place, and people are playin’ by the rules (aka compliance), the deviation is quickly detectable.

As I mentioned here before – no one has a right to spend agency money without approval. That means, scope, timeline and budget are not defiled by an individuals’ decision to tweak a project.

If there’s a better idea, better anything – just have a discussion with the AE and PM – that’s all it takes to ensure there is room, or time, and/or budget to give the client…more.

Expectations can be the minimum, but when we’re dealing with what the client asked for, what we agreed to – exceeding them – especially in a creative environment – does need advance clearance if it affects scope, timeline or budget. It’s a quick conversation. Got it?

The dark side is not setting expectations. No regard for time or budget – and you walk over to someone who’s busy and you’re giving them direction – verbally – bypassing your PM.

Because it was faster

Well this causes grief, confusion and additional cost – jeopardizing the projects with expectations.

Have you ever noticed how well that usually works out? Rarely cost effective.

Be a good citizen. Set clear expectations. That means, do your paperwork, and engage your PM. You will get what you want, when you want it, at the specified budget.

How easy is that? Be my favorite AE. 

Open a Job for Every Project – I’m Not Going to Nag

I just re-read this article in AdAge Small Agency Diary, "Beware Those Tiny Daily Decisions: They Can Come Back to Bite You". It speaks to the creative-side, but there is another side – and it comes down to resources and cost.

Call me a control freak – or a nag if you don’t get it – but I like to know what’s going on in my agency. As I said yesterday, a hundred little things really add up. Even ten little things add up. One little thing can trigger a chain of events that will throw all projects – and your fabulously creative staff – into chaos.

Chaos is bad. And very expensive.

Actually, I’ll change that paragraph – I need to know what’s going on in my agency. Because someone has to pay attention. If not, you have a bunch of people running around asking who has the latest version of X, and upon locating it, wondering if it really is the latest version. Such a waste.

You need a few rules to keep life orderly and just a little predictable.

So those rules include writing a job order (job start, ticket, whatever you call it) for every project that comes in the door. If this little quickie is part of a Bigger Project – like a campaign – was it factored into that plan or are you just sneaking it in under the veil of the Big Project?

Sneak it in and you just gave away something for free. I will find out, hunt you down and make you fill out a form. Dang. You just screwed up our planning, time allocation and budgets – not to mention the potential to make a little more money. So we can stay in business – and get bonuses.

I’ll explain. The purpose of a job order is to outline your direction on the client’s desires. In other words, it is the plan. We will know what is expected, and when – in writing. Other than someone’s weird interpretations – it should be pretty clear what the deliverables are.

Now come those small deviations (from the original job order) and justings (just do this or that).

Document the deviations and the tweaks – through a collaborative app like BaseCamp,  or at least on the file or proof - or better yet, invest in agency management software. Email is NOT collaborative software, sorry. Remember that game of telephone? Projects go the same way. Who made this change anyway?

When it’s time to send that little job back to the client, you’ll know why project X now looks completely different than the original job order. It’s documented. Further, when you check the accrued hours on the project you’ll know exactly why the Quick Little Job is now in the thousands of dollars. And late.

Of course, in my perfect world, I’d have you do a change order.

You’d be amazed at how ridiculous some changes are when you actually have to write them out. The mere act of articulating a change makes you think about it. Speed doesn’t equal efficiency.

If you don’t find documenting changes compelling, there is this: It will become crystal clear the origin of all those little things that send a project into the stratosphere of time and cost, or delayed to the point it is no longer relevant. A client who has become creative director; an AE who can’t say no; an AD who just wants to do a little more; a studio that has to re-work the file because it has morphed into something unrecognizable.

You get the idea. And by the way, never work on anything without a legit job number. We can all be gatekeepers of profitability. 

managing projects is like being a custodian...sometimes

Remember Carl the custodian in The Breakfast Club? He was the sage who knew everything about everyone.  There were no secrets. Always there to clean up the debris of the day. He went through everyone’s lockers.

A project manager, traffic manager, producer is important. We keep everyone’s work moving along. We have to know where everything is – all the time. Beside being a custodian, it’s also like being Mom. “WHERE ARE MY (insert item you can’t find but Mom miraculously knows exactly where it is)?” If you were organized this wouldn't be an issue.

Well, we’re all adults, right? Most of the time as project managers, we have all the answers. We know where we stand on the progress, budget, alignment with the brief – always on top of everything. Because we're constantly bugging you for updates.

But when you’re not around to provide an update, produce the item that was due an hour ago, or a change has just screamed into agency and must-be-done-now – we have to rifle through your desk, files, whatever.

Personally, I feel that your desk, your file system on the hard drive of your computer is your personal space. However, it becomes mine when I have to know what the status of a project is – NOW.  I hate going through someone else’s stuff. It’s a violation of space and makes me feel weird. But I’ll do it.

So, like a custodian, or a Mom, we find what we need and get to see what a disaster your personal space is. Compelled to clean it up for you, we do not. It is your job. We get what we need and leave a sticky-note on your monitor as to what had transpired.

Therefore, if your agency or marketing department has a centralized system for managing projects, updating information, communicating updates – USE IT. If you don’t have a central system – or if you feel that email is the end-all to organization, I recommend you do a Google search and find tools that bring everyone into the loop. Need help? Let me know.

Email is not a project management tool. It is not a database and requires a lot of sorting, searching and filing. Your IT department will love you for cutting back on the clutter and resources needed for bloated inboxes and terabytes of storage.

A little guidance from your Mom…Centralize your information. Provide updates as you move along. And clean up your files because one day, someone will need something and have to search through your debris.

It will all come down to you – whether you’re at your desk or at Starbuck’s. And by the way, let your colleagues know when you’ve stepped out for a sec. If we know you’ll be right back I won’t have to look in your locker.

organization = love / hate

Everyone has some sort of New Year’s resolution… until they have to maintain it.

Like exercise: I will get up at 5am and go to the gym five days a week. It takes 40 days to create a habit. And commitment is easier because I have a partner to motivate me.

How does this relate to your agency or department? A commitment to getting organized, creating a process that everyone follows is like a resolution – with benefits. You just have to do it, stick with it, and get over the grief you will surely get in the process.

I have been hired by firms and worked with clients that were in the midst of chaos. I proposed a logical process solution, built it, trained and rolled it out – they loved me.

Let’s face it, a CEO, VP, partner, owner or manager hates it when simple things go wrong. Things that should have been routine. I completely agree, and when I see something going sideways, my first reaction is to fix it. I am a hero and they love me.

So, fixing it requires a process that is workable for the organization; tools that are solid and collaborative; people who are willing to put forth the effort to become the solution; and management who will NOT BACK DOWN.

That last point is for you – the C-level guy or gal, owner, partner – because someone (or more than someone) will complain.

You now have a choice:
- Give in because complaints (whining in my book) are too much trouble, and your team is so brilliant
- Tell them to buck-up, and a little structure won’t hurt anyone

I have been on the other side – when the complaints come in, they hate me. Then management wonders why they hired me.

So the bottom line is this:
What do you hate more – expensive errors, missed deadlines, creative that has gone off the rails and requires complete rework over a (holiday) weekend – OR – a bunch of whining (but brilliant) staffers who don’t like to follow some basic structure.

For my paycheck, profit sharing or bonus, I’ll take the second choice and tell them all to just do their jobs. Culturally (and I’ve heard this just about everywhere I have worked) structure just doesn’t fit them. They have to be free to create, collaborate, and move as fast as possible, and logging into a central system to note something, or notify someone (not in email!), what’s going on is…too hard. (All this, and timesheets too?)

I can guarantee that when you have a little structure, and a centralized place for everything related to a job, things will actually run smoother. You can find stuff, you know what’s coming up, there’s a budget, and a schedule! No one will admit it, but they will love me.

It can be done in forty working days. I am the partner to motivate you.