Growing Your Company

Is Your Workflow Ready to Roll?
by Tony Mikes

All signs point to a rebound in the agency business over the next two quarters. During the recession, many of us have had to adjust to lower billings, fewer projects and leaner budgets, but slower days offer the perfect opportunity to update operations so you're ready for business when the economy picks up again. Here are some issues you may want to address:

Agency Workflow "Must-Haves":

A Solid Project Management System - This is often a challenge for smaller agencies. When you start out small, one or two personnel, clients and projects are easy to manage. But as you grow, you'll reach a tipping point where better organization becomes a necessity. Now's the time to put an effective system in place, one that helps you open jobs, build creative briefs, create estimates and timelines, organize tasks, record time and costs to projects, and develop invoices. You'll also need to communicate with your team about projects in progress, and compare your estimate against actual hours and project costs.

A Great Project Manager - If you don't have one and your workload increases, you could find things descending into chaos. Too many jobs, too few people to handle them, overlapping schedules, ramped-up stress - it can be a real nightmare. A good project manager can smooth the process by keeping tabs on projects that may need extra resources, insuring deadlines are met, and keeping everyone on the team, on the same page. No budget for a project manager? That makes a project management system even more important.

Precision Job Scheduling - Each project should have a specific, detailed "critical path" timeline, and you should be able to post any changes to it immediately, so everyone is always up to date. You'll also need a quick and efficient way to assign and schedule tasks, and meetings - some agencies hold a 15-minute, stand-up meeting first thing each morning to get the troops started.

An easy way to record time accurately - Because the advertising and marketing business is so fee-driven, capturing time is vitally important. You need to record every billable hour to ensure you are fairly paid. That means everyone - yes even you - must accurately record their time against assigned jobs. You also need a way to keep track of every project to ensure hours are staying within your estimate.

A Project Blog - As you gear up for an increased workload, think about how you will track contacts with your clients, record changes to a project, pass along meeting notes, or tell people about add-ons - information everyone on the team needs to know to keep the project on track. Successful agencies eliminate the paperwork and use online project blogs. These collaborative spaces allow you to 'push' updates and notes to all the folks on the team, increasing efficiency, decreasing confusion, and setting you up for success.

POs, Estimates and Copyright policies - Document everything. Issue purchase orders for every outside purchase, including freelancers, and track these costs along with your hourly fees. The more documentation you have, the less opportunity there will be for misunderstanding when it comes time for the client to pay your bill. Always create an estimate for your projects that covers both costs and anticipated hours of work, so everyone has a clear understanding of the scope of the project.

Tackle the issue of artwork/file ownership at the beginning of any project. That way you can adjust the estimate to cover a buyout, establish ownership of freelancer-created art and ensure that vendors know they cannot reuse your files without written permission.

Freelance Staff - As things ramp up, you're going to need the right mix of core staff and outsourced partners. You need to build a stable of quality freelancers and independent contractors and figure out how to work with them effectively. You should:

  1. Issue a purchase order for their services.
  2. Have them track their time (and costs) on projects
  3. Sort out any copyright issues and put an agreement about them in writing.
  4. Have them sign a non-circumvention agreement, so they can't work directly with your clients.
  5. Insure that they assume responsibility for their own taxes and other deductions.
  6. See whether they will accept a small monthly retainer in return for their availability when you need them.

Trusted Vendors - Over time, agencies develop a list of trusted vendors-those you use repeatedly because they are reliable and good at what they do. Meet with these firms annually to review pricing, negotiate "volume" discounts, review artwork/file ownership policies and address any other issues. These relationships are vital when you need a favor (a rush job, or special price concession, for instance).

The perfect time to get started? Now.

Downtime is the perfect time to change or upgrade your project management system, streamline your workflow, and improve communications. Any adjustments you make now will put you miles ahead of your competition when the economy fires up again.

This article was written by Second Wind's former managing director Tony Mikes. Tony is an ex advertising executive who conducted agency management workshops, served as a management consultant to individual agencies, and addressed many advertising associations and trade organizations. He was also an author and contributing writer to numerous industry trade publications.

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