So the Client Didn’t Fire You. Start Planning Better.

Yesterday I wrote about an agency that showed a client awesome, and gave them an estimate with a caveat of ‘budget uncertainties’. What’s disturbing to me is that the author of the article works for a major digital firm that shouldn’t make this kind of mistake.

I'll say this nicely – if your budget uncertainties are enough to derail the project significantly, should they turn into realities – where a plus or minus (aka contingency) is not factored in and agreed to by both parties – then you should not proceed on the project.

You don’t have enough information to move forward. You have a fabulous idea with wonderful creative and some numbers. That’s it.

Budget uncertainties will kill your project in one way or another. It can also kill your agency if this is generally accepted practice.

So, do your discovery and research for creative and execution.

Now I’ll piss some people off…I see this more in the digital / mobile area than any other area of advertising. I have reasons to believe this. Inexperience. Fear of clients, colleagues or vendors. Lack of knowledge.

Inexperience
I have witnessed it first-hand. Digital is in huge demand. Therefore, the bar can be set pretty low. Lots of inexperience. So, a person can work in a digital agency, gain some experience, and move their way up the food chain where the demands, budgets and risks are much higher. Someone who knows the lingo may be clueless to risk as it applies to scope, budgets and timelines.

Fear
Those who are client-facing, usually Account or Producers / Project Managers, may not have the depth of experience in scoping, estimating, project management, sourcing, negotiating, arguing, writing a purchase order with restrictions, managing internal deliverables, risk and mitigation planning, and managing client expectations (as well as those of your colleagues). But saying yes is so...easy.

Knowledge
What I am witnessing in the digital and mobile areas is that the demand is high, the staff is young and inexperienced, and everyone is highly driven. I’m not saying you are stupid. You are just making rookie mistakes. Everyone must understand that they are part of running a business - first. 

And by the way rookies, I have also personally witnessed veterans who give it away every day because they think they can circumvent the potholes that will kill their project.

Then there's the ever-changing landscape of apps, platforms and whatever else anyone can dream up – that you have to keep on top of – all the time.

Give everyone an education. Pull everyone into a room to flesh-out the scope, budget and timeline. And make that a mandatory meeting. I guarantee that an hour (or two), in that one meeting, will save hundreds of hours (and dollars) down the line.

What happens in that meeting? Talk about possibilities; flesh out the good ones (that are achievable); everyone must poke holes in the scenarios and execution – and explain why (that is the education part); shout out every issue that can and will affect cost/timeline, and be realistic. Take into consideration what everyone has on their plate during the life of the project – you should be able to see everyone’s schedule (just sayin’).  

Speak up! Here’s your chance to clue everyone in on the pain you endure every day to fix the things they committed you to…without asking first.

And before you fall in love with something, find out if it can be doneCost, schedule, requirements. Bring that back to the group and make sure it fits – before presenting to the client.

I absolutely love great creative and an awesome experience. I hate parsing out the good stuff because someone didn’t do their homework.

Tomorrow, collaboration. The old-fashioned way.

Poor Planning? Your Client Should Fire You.

It makes me crazy when I read things like this – the other day, I found this piece on Digitaria’s blog: When Good Ideas Get Expensive.

For the life of me, I cannot understand why the presented scenario was a surprise to the author. There were so many red flags it was like watching a horror movie…don’t open that door…!

A quick synopsis: The client wants a solution to solve their business challenges, the agency comes up with an awesome, integrated idea, the client loves it…

They start working on the project, THEN they find out that there are problems – here’s the list:
Talent ‘costs a fortune’
Animation is held up to find and hire a specialist
Image licensing is ‘outrageous’
Differences with SEO agency on an app for mobile

What? That list should have been fleshed-out before presentation…

So, the solutions were to be ‘transparent’:
Be honest with your client when you pitch the idea, like ‘budget uncertainties’
Renegotiate budget/timeline or scope
Admit mistakes and have a ‘worst case scenario’ in your back pocket

Okay, transparency = we didn’t actually figure out how we were going to get this done, but please give us more time/money to create awesome.

Sorry guys, but the issues in this scenario should have been researched well before the pitch and presented not as ‘budget uncertainties’. At all.

If you don’t know how you’re going to build your awesome solution to your client’s business challenge, then it’s time to learn your job.

And then, the solutions to the issues were abysmal. Transparency aside, it’s more than honesty – it’s about doing your homework and being realistic.

You should never, ever present a starry-eyed approach to a solution without hard data. And renegotiating budget, scope or timeline after commencing production is asking your client to be okay with to your lack of planning and research.

You have to learn how to provide accurate costs upfront because ‘budget uncertainties’ can (and will) completely undo the effectiveness and beauty of a ‘solution’. Further they can put your agency (and your vendors) at a significant loss – especially when you decide to ‘eat’ those costs because the awesomeness cannot be compromised.

And that worst case scenario? Your client fires you for your inability to deliver on a promise.

Doing Work For Free – Unexpectedly

I just read this piece in AdAge about a web designer who got stiffed on a project.

Has that happened to you?

Okay, in retaliation, this guy took over the client’s website and aired his issues. One section here caught my eye. Well actually, it’s pretty glaring if you’ve been in business a while

“Give a barren advance, rake up a huge bill and ignore every invoice. Rush fees, heavy overtime and weekend work are expected to be free.
You don't get to sleep for days on end, but you do get to wait on your money forever.
It's people like this who cause company after company to go bankrupt.”

Well, whether this guy was legit, or performed badly, there’s a lesson here. And it seems from the comments in AdAge, independent web designers/developers just aren’t getting it.

What it is…good business sense.

I was a freelance designer and illustrator for years. And yes, I got stiffed. More than once.

But I learned.

What is good inside an agency or an in-house marketing department is good for the individual entrepreneur – you must consider it a business. This isn’t some hobby to fill time.

It doesn't matter where you work or what your role is, you have to take into consideration the scope, budget and timeline. And it has to be in writing. And signed-off by the client.

This is so bloody basic I can’t believe I’m saying it. But the parameters of scope, budget and timeline in the creative business are repeatedly ignored.

It’s not just a CEO or partner who should be watching the books – it should be every individual.

So, little one-person-operation, hear this: Get scope in writing. Provide an estimate and get it signed-off – and make sure payment terms are clear. Provide a timeline and stick to it. AND clarify what constitutes a chargeable change and what doesn’t.

If you receive payments incrementally, make sure they’re on time. And be prepared to stop work if the client does not pay. You are not a bank. Here’s a nice little read about sunk costs. You know, you put so much into a project that you think you should keep going.

You are a fool – whether agency or independent – to keep working for a client if you do not get paid.

Send that deadbeat client on a hike, don’t give them assets, and don’t let it get to the point where you’re nuking bridges.

yes you should do estimates

I know another exciting topic, but there are a lot of very valid reasons for doing estimates. Like ensuring profitability through exercising just a little control.

How much does it cost to do the most mundane projects in your agency? I’m guessing you don’t know. Oh, it just takes too much time to do an estimate; it’s part of the client budget; it’s just a quick revision. Sorry, I just don’t buy it. But you always estimate big projects – right?

What percentage of your overall employee hours are spent on mundane projects? Maintenance consumes a lot of hours. You need to know where all those hours go. Every day.

I’m a proponent of the estimating process – which includes breaking a project down to tasks and allocating time to each because it:
– sets expectations
– ensures you remember all the steps that should be included
– gives you numbers to measure against
– data to track actuals against estimates in real time (requires diligent timesheets – do not whine)
– provides historical data that gives you a quick way to answer “how much time does X take / cost?”
– and solid data for reviewing the year, client or project type

Once you get in the habit, it’s actually easy and fast. Templates make it quick and there are plenty of software tools out there to tie-in everything – from estimates, to task allocation, time sheets and all that wonderful follow-up data you can actually see – in real time.

And just a little side-note: remind your colleagues to pay attention to the budgeted hours. Think about it. Budgeting hours is like setting a deadline. If your colleagues are going to be late on a project they should alert you. Likewise, if they need more hours they should let you know.

Right away.

Those alerts are the first indicators that your estimate is working. You could have under-estimated, there could have been unexpected problems, or an individual just wants to spend more time. Address those issues sooner rather than later and quickly revise your estimate, if needed.

When you have those discussions up-front, you can determine a solution and make sure the cost is covered.

Who likes surprises at billing time?