Efficiency In An Agency

I just read Ad Contrarian’s blog about the move to data over value in an agency. About how the big holding companies are sucking the life out of agencies and the amazing creatives who put in the hours to do great things that sell ordinary things in simple but extraordinary ways.

It got me thinking.

What do I do? I preach being efficient. But definitely not at the cost of great creative.

That got me thinking of something else.

Where do inefficiencies lie?

Bottom line, an agency that creates value for its client must make just a little profit so they can keep the doors open … and … afford a few of the perks that nurture an inspirational work environment.

Yes, I know inspiration comes from the work, and even more so from inspirational creative leaders. The environment comes from both of those. It’s often called culture. And no, culture isn’t a foosball table or Beer Fridays.

It’s that place you love to go every day. It’s the people you love to work with.

My efficiencies lie in ensuring everyone has what they need – when they need it.

Access to information like – where is the copy? When are we presenting to a client?

Shepherding so creative energy isn’t wasted on figuring out what’s next. Basic schedules. Basic budgets. Managed for you. The Creative.

Efficiency is flexible (and never confuse that with Agile). Knowing what’s next is invaluable. Ensuring an agency runs smoothly. That’s efficiency.

Great creative can be done well in an organized environment.

Cheap money is keeping the big holding companies afloat. They can afford 180 days to get paid.

Another bubble.

Underwear and Deferred Maintenance and Your Agency

This story in MarketWatch caught my eye: Buy stocks when men buy socks – Socks and underwear sales may be an economic bellwether.

Ok correlation does not imply causation. You learned that in school. I suggest that sales are going up because of deferred maintenance.

I should create the underwear index and base all my plans on the economic bellwether of men’s underwear sales.

OMG! Too late. Wow, and Alan Greenspan followed this index. There’s food for thought.

To look back on the efficacy of this idea, take a look at this article from the Washington Post written in 2009, it states:

“The growth in sales of men's underwear began to slow last year as the recession took hold, according to Mintel, another research firm. This year, Mintel expects sales to fall 2.3 percent, the first drop since the company started collecting data in 2003.

But the men's underwear index -- or, conveniently, MUI -- may also have a silver lining. Mintel predicts that next year, men's underwear sales will fall by 0.5 percent, and as with many economic indicators, a slowing of a decline can be welcomed as a step in the right direction. Retailers are reporting encouraging signs in the men's underwear department. Sears spokeswoman Amy Dimond said stores are beginning to see more sales. At Target, spokeswoman Jana O'Leary said sales of men's underwear have been stronger over the past two months and multi-pair packs are moving.”

That – was 2009. Four years ago. Multi-pair packs. Sears. Target. How are things going now?

Oddly (to me), this is the Men’s Underwear Index. Do women cherish their unmentionables more and are willing to put rent money into a new thong or two? If we included women’s underwear-buying-habits would that skew the data?

I don’t necessarily see this as an upturn. I’m not a pessimist, I’m being realistic. I live in Las Vegas. The turnaround here is s – l – o – w.  A 12% up-tick in socks at American Apparel doesn't say anything to me about the economy. It’s conjecture. I place my bets on actually seeing people getting back to work.

In my enlightened opinion, it’s due to the fact that it is simply deferred maintenance – at some point you just have to buy new stuff.

That knock in the engine, the leak in the laundry room, the stomach ache that won’t go away. Or that mix of old and new – now redundant systems in your agency, that you haven’t realized, are too much work and producing very little data or efficiency. (See – I did get agency matters in there.)

No matter how well – or poorly – we’re doing, sometimes we just have to get a repair, fix a leak or go to the doctor, even if we don’t have insurance (yeah I know about Obamacare) – or search out a stellar system for getting your agency under control. (Did it again)

I think that the economy has been in a rut long enough; people have been un- or under-employed long enough that they just have to buy a new pair of socks.

Your agency is in a rut too, if you haven’t reviewed your processes, tools, and staffing (that includes a healthy review of ROLES) in a long time.

Keeping your head down and working is a good thing. But have you given any thought to the fact that all that mind-numbing stuff in-between – the forms, schedules, estimates, collaboration tools, email, spreadsheets, all that stuff – should be reviewed?

It’s 2013, Spring is here, time to face that deferred maintenance. Take a look in your sock drawer, organize and toss out the old, worn, and mis-matched.

If you can’t face the idea of throwing anything away, old socks, a bad process – call me. I’ll be happy to help. 

Does your Client Require Collaborative Software?

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Is your client asking for better access to information? Real-time updates? File-sharing?

Are you pitching a client that requires a collaborative system to be in place – and functioning – before they even consider your agency?

Clients want a better working relationship with their agencies. They don’t want to wait for updates, and feel (either right or wrong) that more collaboration leads to greater efficiencies.

For an in-house department, you need to work closely with your ‘internal clients’. Often, they feel you work for them and they deserve to know – right now – what’s going on with their projects.

I know, sometimes you want them out of your hair so you can work. But read on. This is good for you…

In comes…ta da! Collaborative software.
It’s a common space to not only share, but aggregate information that provides all users with real-time data and reduces redundancy, errors, and captures that basic stuff that can fall through the cracks.

These days, more and more clients are requiring their agencies to provide an increased level of collaboration – through systems that document progress and share files as you work through a project.

There’s a lot more transparency with these systems. Therefore, everyone needs to be on their ‘A’ Game and…best behavior. That means – you must use the software as it was intended – entering updates, uploading files, or whatever your defined process requires. And I mean diligently.

We’ve all done a version ‘collaboration’ through email for years. There are servers full of terabytes of old CYA email – a lot of it with attachments. Time to put that data in one place that was designed for collaboration.

With these programs, there is no need to search through email; documents on your desktop or server; or in one or more ‘systems’ you currently use. What a waste of time.

A Forbes article says this:

“Apparently most of us prefer to communicate via email rather than face-to-face or over the phone – the average employee spends 28 hours per week writing emails and searching for information mostly contained within emails. Choosing a tool that facilitates natural interaction among individuals instead of the static nature of email is the first step to adding value and driving efficiencies in managing everyday tasks…” (emphasis added)

28 hours. Way too much time. And I know that email is THE hardest habit to break.

But get with the program and reduce all that extra work. Get everything in one place – and make sure everyone with [appropriate] access contributes. Collaborators from Creative to Accounting are entering data relevant to the project. From specs, to schedules, to estimates and updates – all the way through to billing.

Whether it’s an internal or external client, collaborative tools make the exchange (and tracking) of information more efficient, and more….collaborative.

Are you using collaborative software? I’d love to hear from you.

Inappropriate Tools

No, this isn’t some guy who hit on you at a bar.

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This is about taking something that was meant for a specific purpose and using it to perform a different task.

Like using a knife as a screwdriver. Or the heel of a shoe for a hammer. Or Excel for everything.

I like Excel. Heck, I love Excel. But it has its place.

There are plenty of agencies and in-house marketing departments out there using Excel for everything from Job Forms and Briefs to Schedules, Budgets, and Reports. This creates a lot of redundancy – and therefore, a lot of data-entry.

That’s fine if you have a couple clients and a few jobs. But it’s a nightmare with dozens of clients and hundreds of jobs.

Worse yet, everyone is using their own version of forms that you originally created - with a lot of time and consideration - for the purpose of consistency.

Yet many agencies still turn to Excel for most, if not all, of their daily agency management.

Imagine a solution where you – and your team – input data that’s relevant to what they do every day (all that stuff you have to track and measure – like timesheets), and it’s all gathered in one place.

Reports gather all that data in one place, and you can search or slice-it-n-dice-it any way you want.

There is software out there that does exactly that. If you need some help researching solutions, I can be of assistance.

If you truly feel that Excel (or any office / Google Docs / cloudware program) is the solution, I can help you build a better process.

No matter how simple or complex the solution you choose, you need structure (that means process), a little bit of training, and compliance to make it really work for you.

Oh, and that guy at the bar. He is inappropriate.

Fixing Advantage – or Just About Anything

It doesn’t matter what you use, from Advantage to Workamajig, I can predict that if the agency management software you are using isn’t ‘working’, there’s more at issue than the software itself.

Blame the software. Always the first response.

In my post a couple days ago, I asked for questions/issues that you are having with Advantage, in particular. I happen to know the software very well – that’s why.

But the lessons here apply to any technology solution you are using.

I received an email from a project manager in an agency who is doing ALL of her updates after work. And these updates take her two to four hours a night. She’s really sick of it, and looking for a different job because she wants her life back.

What? Advantage is a database program, and everyone in her agency has access...that is specific to their role. She should be able to see, from her computer, the progress of her projects and make adjustments during the course of the day.

So we chatted, got online and I took a look at how she was using the software.

In her project schedule, every line entry was unique and required direct input; tasks were assigned to some employees (not everyone was available to assign); no time per task was allocated (therefore no automated resource planning). She input due dates only – manually. And only key dates.

Everything was straight data-entry.

Then she prints out her schedule every morning and during the day, hand-writes changes. After work, she spends her evenings updating everything from her hand-written notes.

This is one person in a 200-person agency. There are eight PMs. Each uses the technology differently.

They reduced a comprehensive database to an Excel spreadsheet.

Training on the appropriate use of the technology; developing a process to use it; and compliance in its use. That’s the magic formula for successfully using agency management software. 

someecards.com - It's more work to complain about having to use the new software than it is to actually learn how to use it.

We then went where she had never gone before – how to use the software – appropriately.

Schedule templates, allocated hours for tasks, assigned employees (this required getting HR to set up everyone in their proper role). Pushing tasks out to employees – and requiring them to use their task list – plus having staff update it themselves (Gasp! which means they mark it ‘complete’ – no, that is not hard). Now, this PM wouldn't have to update everything. Herself. Every night.

Wow, they’ve been paying for this technology for years, and never used it as it was intended.

Here are their next steps: Review the setup – which really needs an overhaul. Nothing had been done since they installed it – seven years ago. Review roles and designate them appropriately. Set up appropriate tasks for the schedule (and condense it down from the 700+ that had been created) and build templates. It makes for fast work of getting all projects (large or small) in the system.

Then last, but not least, train and enforce compliance. You need management’s full support here, because this is where the whining comes in. You will actually be asking your colleagues to be a part of the solution. It’s only a mouse-click for crying out loud. Not any harder than an IM to their friends about lunch.

And I only covered project schedules here. Think of what you can do when you get the entire agency on board?

Closing the Great Divide – Or Integrating Your Agency

I am actually going to go down this slippery slope...

I have worked in and with agencies that have severe silo problems. Digital and traditional (online and offline – or whatever description du jour) work separately – but in a parallel universe.  Wasteful.

In my personal experience, I found the digital folks think that those on the traditional side have no way of EVER understanding their world.

Conversely, the traditional folks think the digital know-it-alls are way-over-stating it.

What I have also witnessed in the digital world, is that there are either extremely stringent producers/project managers who control every-person’s every-move; or they’re extremely loose and kind of shoot from the hip to get work done – they just run around asking where’s this or that.

Traditional producers/project managers are in their groove and with the exception of some technology advancements, have pretty much the same parameters in managing work as they’ve had for years. Life is good and what’s the fuss?

Digital and traditional are different. And I get it.

Well, knowing that nothing is insurmountable, and most employees are capable of learning, I believe we can actually integrate digital and traditional.

And that’s good for an agency.

I don’t need to learn to code, and you don’t need to learn how to put ink on paper, or edit video. But we all need to know what it takes to get those things done.

There’s a big bonus when knowledge is shared: Communication with your client is clear and accurate (sure we can do X in Y time for Z budget – it's not a guess, or worse, over-promised), better utilization of resources and assets, and consistency in brand and message. But I shouldn’t have to tell you that.

So we travel to an agency in Sweden called Honesty and they’re going for their version of agency 2.0. The belief is that everyone should understand how to produce digital as well as traditional – even getting rid of their specific titles – wow.

I agree with this – and hope the great divide between disciplines is actually bridged – because I’ve seen too much of holding info close – not letting others in because it’s so complicated.

In an article in AdAge, the agency’s CEO, Walter Naeslund says:

It just doesn't make sense anymore to have separate staff to handle a separate area which is inherently impossible to separate from anything else…To achieve speed we attack organizational overhead and inertia by putting all our efforts into integrating strategy, storytelling, design, advertising, PR and production under one roof, one strategic account director and one creative team...To our clients this will mean better results in shorter time and at better prices. To Honesty it will mean a lot of new learning, more creative control, better output and further improved profitability.”

Control, better output and improved profitability.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Implementation Fail

I have worked with many agencies that have implemented agency management software and found that it doesn't work…for them. Often, rather than an issue with the software, they experienced implementation fail.

You invested time and money into fantastic technology. But it can be really expensive if you don’t do your homework beforehand, and don’t implement properly. So read on – there may be some familiar sounding reasons things didn't work out like you planned…

Now I’m all about an integrated solution because – get this – everyone collaborates on the input, and it is compiled in one place. Then everyone has access to the same information. And if you enforce just a little compliance – like requiring that they use the system, information will be real-time. Return on investment.

Imagine that.

Failed implementations usually come down to these often-overlooked issues:

Didn't really define what problem you were trying to solve. Usually agencies look to software because there’s something wrong. I know what it is but I can’t define it. Well you need to do this first step and it takes asking a lot of questions.

There is a lot of single-purpose software, to do schedules, or estimates or manage assets. Give it plenty of thought, and pull colleagues into the evaluation - before you make your investment. Because going back and undoing something creates a lot of unhappy employees. And a lot of extra work. And skepticism for any ‘new’ solution you bring to the table later on.

Management didn’t support the software – and the change that goes along with it – 100%. Staff will complain because routines are different and they may be asked to do something – like timesheets – every day. They will go to the big bosses who must push-back and re-direct issues to The Implementation Team. Without management’s full support change will not stick.

Thinking that software will fix everything. Nope, it takes process and people too - who actively use the software. That means a big slice of change management pie. Be prepared.

Everyone else in the agency is unaware that change is coming. If ever there is a way to completely alienate your staff, it is blind-siding them with the introduction of a New System – which usually includes software.

 The entire agency uses software every day to create Cannes Winners. But put in agency management software and all of a sudden they hate you. And the software too. “It’s too hard and doesn't make sense.”

So to get buy-in and include at least one individual from each department to take part in evaluation, customization and implementation. And then they will take their insight to their colleagues, and spread the good word. While you’re at it, give them some sort of perk for managing these duties – it’s out of their creative sphere.

You didn’t plan who would manage, or how you would implement the software. You need someone to drive the bus of change management. It isn’t automatic and it takes time away from other duties. Someone in your agency who really knows the ins-and-outs of the program will be able to close the communication gap and make it more relevant. As for timing for a comprehensive system, expect three months minimum. Really.

You thought you were buying a ‘plug ‘n play’ system. Pay attention here: Nothing is out-of-the-box and ready to use. You will have some set up to do prior to roll-out so that it operates – the way you want it to. Shame on your sales person if that is what they told you.

There’s a second part to that as well – decide which features you really need to get started, then test out and add new features as staff gets comfortable. Trust me on this – your lovely colleagues will cease to be kind and gentle if you throw too much at them at once.

You didn’t train – or which is usually the case – you didn’t require staff to attend training, and pay attention (e.g. turn off your iPhone). Further, you didn’t supply documentation, like at least a cheat-sheet on how to get from point A to point B. Uh, where do I click? Something as simple as this will keep people on task.

There was no follow-up. A new system needs follow-up. Because there is a lot of change that goes along with a new system, how people end up using the software can surprise you. I have witnessed work-arounds I didn’t know could be done. Remarkable.

People are resourceful if they don’t like change, or if they don’t understand something. So follow-up is essential to ensure the technology is used – as you meant it to be used. Your data is more useful if entered properly. Additionally, your staff MUST let go of old systems. They do not need to waste valuable time doing everything twice. If you can remove / block / turn-off old systems - do it. Or they may be prone to just keep doing things the old way. 

Keep your implementation team together for a few months after going live to check on their respective departments and then report back. Adjustments can be made anywhere along the way if there is something that simply doesn’t work – or if there had been an issue that wasn’t considered. 

There are a lot of little things that will surface when you put new systems in place.

A time of change is when you get to see your colleagues in their best temperament. So plan ahead, get buy-in and learn to take (just a little) flak.

And if you need any help, or just someone to talk to, I'm here for you. I've been there.