When It’s Time To Replace That Thing

My son and his wife were in a car accident on their way to work yesterday morning. He called at 6:21am, and left me a voicemail. I called back 10 minutes later, and he was just talking with the police and paramedics. They were a little banged-up, but nothing serious enough, thankfully, for an ambulance ride.

No matter how old your kid gets, these phone calls are scary.

The police cited the other driver; the paramedics, fire, police left – and so did the truck with my son’s totaled car in tow. He and his wife had to go to work – too many commitments – so they made their way, and got in late.

Now the fun begins. Life is going along, then, bam!, something happens. You have to change your routine, time and money you didn’t plan on spending, and you just simply move ahead and adapt.

Most of us have been through a car accident and survived just fine. Even though not serious, it changes routines. We become more vigilant, irritated, inconvenienced, and have to pay out in time and money that is always so limited.

What was working just fine for my son – his car – now must be replaced.

Yeah, I know, it’s just a thing, but hang in there for a minute or two. . .

His car was 11 years old, looked and worked great, low mileage, didn’t need anything other than regular maintenance, and he didn’t have a car payment.

So what was a gem for him by all standards, isn’t worth much on the market. He’ll get his check from the insurance company, and most likely for the money, won’t find something as good as he was driving.

Therein lies the issue.

We have stuff, systems, processes – that have been working just fine, then bam!, something happens and we have to change. Adapt to something new. Make an investment.

Then there’s the time, and the cost, and the inconvenience of all that change.

Sometimes you don’t have a choice.

The irony in this was my son got a rental car, covered by insurance until he finds a replacement. Brand new rental car and he said, “wow, it’s so nice.”

Status quo is fine. I love predictability. But there comes a time where what was working stops working. It can be a catastrophic event, or simply a slow decline. At some point there is that bam! moment.

That’s when you take stock of everyone – you ask them, “are you alright?”

Then you construct your plan to move ahead. Replace the old system and map new routes. We find out that with the new stuff in place, we too say, “wow, that’s so nice!”

We can’t prepare for everything, but we can put ourselves in a place that when the unplanned happens, we have the tools to deal with it.

And, you can always call mom.

Collaboration the Old Fashioned Way

This post started out as a primer on collaboration – the old fashioned way. In analog.

Just like all that stuff you do on a computer – that used to be done with pencil and paper on a drawing board – planning and collaboration was done in analog. Index cards on a corkboard / comps taped up, and then the evolution to Post-its® on a wall.

I believe that’s the way it should be done – now. Any big project (read: expensive/time consuming/massive possibilities to final product) needs everyone working together – collaboratively.

As I am a HUGE proponent of getting a handle on the costs and time associated with a project – up front, and getting a client to sign-off prior to start-work, I’m also a huge proponent of awe-inspiring creative.

The other day I wrote (which is probably a Duh! moment for many) about gathering everyone together and fleshing out ideas. As well as taking into consideration – cost, talent, availability, technology – before presenting to the client. But the article I referred to in my post made me realize that perhaps only the creative is being fleshed-out, but not the mechanics of production.

Call me crazy, but as a project manager (or producer) I see my role as one who not only ensures your fabulous ideas get done (along with everything else in the agency), but that we make money.

That’s how we stay in business.

I love great creative and never want to compromise it because someone didn’t do their homework. Or worse, says yes to the client, and tries to figure out execution later.

Sometimes clients – even though the ideas are innovative, original, and truly awesome – don’t have the money to do what you designed.

You spent the time, figured out how to execute, gathered the best minds/talent/tools, and everyone loves it. But it costs too much. Finding out monetary limitations after-the-fact is no way to do business.

Therein lies the problem. You both want it so much. No money. How do you cut a little out here and there and still retain everything you both want?

Who takes the hit? Great ideas need to be funded. You either cut, or you (and your vendors) and your client each take a share of the hit.

Not to mention, as an agency, you have bills to pay and other clients to tend to. And that *other* work may not be as exciting or innovative – but it does pay the bills. And you do like all of your clients.

This is the reality of true collaboration – everyone needs to be in the room. Including me.

Check out this video of a Google Hangout on Agile Creativity. And also check out the Google page on Creativity Insights.

In the video, John Boiler of 72andSunny talks about their workwall, which is exactly what it says. They pin-up their ideas, everyone discusses, then leave/comeback and do it again. (He’s working on a digital form of the workwall.)

The Google page has a simple list of tips on agile creativity. There’s also a downloadable version. I especially like what Rei Inamoto of AKQA has to say about a fast (four hour) cycle of briefing/concepting/presenting. More time doesn’t mean better creative.

John Boiler states that he wants to take their workwall to a 2.0-version - make it digital. I'll have to contact him to see if they are there yet, because I still like the idea of literally being in one room. The interaction is immediate and everyone is hearing what's being said at the same time. How do you get that with an online environment. Is everyone truly engaged in the moment?

The bottom line: we do need to ensure whatever we create can be done, and the client can pay for it, and that there are actually enough hours in the day. And we know that throwing more bodies at a project doesn’t mean it gets done faster – so don’t even go there.

What do you think? How does your agency handle innovative solutions AND ensure they can be done – on time, in budget, and super awesomely without compromise?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

Shortcuts = Disasters

I have this book The Logic of Failure by Dietrich Dörner. Amazing – there is logic to making really stupid decisions. I bought the book because I was trying to make sense of the tragedy that is, Projects Gone Off the Rails.

Since I seem to be on the subject of illustrating the disaster of Deviations and Justings aka Tiny Daily Decisions, I’ll talk about a little something that went completely out of control.

Never had one? Then you aren’t in advertising. Or ever worked. Anywhere.

One word: Chernobyl.

I could have used a million others (there are so many from which to choose), but this is so graphic – and long lasting – like millions of years, that it begs comparison to your Tiny Daily Decisions and their lasting effect.

In the book, the author states, “[t]he tendency to ‘oversteer’ is a characteristic in human interaction with dynamic systems…We regulate the situation and not the process.”1

In a nutshell – or a sarcophagus – a series of decisions to override tested and proven systems (official procedure), in the name of haste (a holiday weekend ahead), caused that irreversible chain reaction – and meltdown. And spewing a radioactive cloud, which wasn't reported until some heads-up folks in Sweden detected it. A couple days later, denial was impossible (they tried – it’s under control) and the explosion was news.

How does a disaster of this magnitude beg comparison to your Tiny Daily Decisions in advertising? Well, because folks in advertising think that every error (or little change the client wants) deserves Level-One Trauma Status and the patient is going to die if we don’t act NOW. Therefore, rather than taking a step back and determining how much of a disaster you have on your hands, you dive in and keep trying to regulate the situation.

If you have a process in place (you do don’t you?), you actually have a set of steps to prevent oversteering – or at least be able to recognize the effect of what you are about to do.

Or, if some numskull decided to deviate, you can actually identify that crafty departure before it’s Too Late.

The problem, like at Chernobyl, is that when things go horribly wrong and you ignore process, every individual who touches that job keeps oversteering.

Voilà! You have blown the budget, delivered it late, and it is unrecognizable from the original plan. Worse, you have no idea when or where it started heading to the path of ruin, much less who initiated it.

But you delivered the job. The client isn’t really happy. And you send a bill – for the original estimate.

Yep, I keep harping on it, but this will keep you from making (too many) stupid, expensive decisions – put a process in place and use it. Think about the action you are about to take, document it so everyone is on the same page, and then make sure it’s covered in the budget.

You start pushing that crap through without a second thought and someone will have a meltdown. And the folks in Sweden will let me know.

If you don’t know how to get process in place, call me. If you don’t want to damage fragile egos with oh-so-cumbersome procedure, call me anyway. Everything will be okay.

1 pp. 30 The Logic of Failure

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.