Agency-life

Why systems and processes can fail in their first six months... and how to avoid it

Old habits die hard. And new ones can be hard to form. So when you’re introducing a new system or processes into your agency, it’s important to put some checks and balances in place to keep everyone on track.

Did you know it can take an average of 66 days for a new behaviour to become automatic? That’s quite a long time when you think about it — 13 working weeks. Add in some annual leave and it’s likely to be even longer. And when you’re talking about a new system or process, you’re not only asking people to simultaneously break a current habit but embrace a new one. And all this alongside the pressure and focus of their day job.

So there are some tips and tricks to follow when you’re bringing a new system on board. Think of it like taking up running. You know you need more exercise, you know it’s the right thing to do and it’ll be good for you. But a week in and you’re bored and slip back into your old ways. In your agency, you need to establish how to keep everyone on track until the old habits are fully ditched and the new one is fully formed.

So how do we make sure your brilliant new system and processes aren’t rendered redundant in the first six months?

Constantly reinforce the benefits

Systems and processes are pretty much the opposite of what creatives are passionate about. So you need to explain how it will help in their everyday working lives, how it will improve things for them, freeing up their time to do what they love best. And keep on emphasising this and reminding them. This isn’t another layer of admin for them to resentfully add to their to-do list. It’s there to help make their lives easier and their jobs smoother.

Reporting of any kind is reliant on the engagement and cooperation of end users. So if systems and processes aren’t thought through in the long term they’ll fall down in the first six months and become an expensive resentful mistake. Which nobody wants.

Talk to your teams

Take the process of entering timesheets (a common agency albatross) as an example. Address this as another layer of tedious admin introduced by an internal manager with no prior warning, metaphorically wielding a stick and shouting ‘we want to know what you’re doing’. Nobody will embrace that! But approach it as more of a welfare check, making sure you’re not overwhelmed and are feeling supported and nurtured, and it’s a whole different case.

For your agency, good timesheet reporting can help you plan future recruitment needs or short-term freelance support, visualise capacity on current and future projects and make sure clients aren’t demanding too much of your team’s time. Talking to your teams and putting the focus on supporting them, not spying on them, can really shift the focus to the right place and keep them invested in the new system.

Explain your training

Don’t just land mandatory training on people with no prior information. That’s a surefire way to breed resentment. Instead, explain why they’re being given the training and what benefits it will bring. Automated training isn’t often a good idea, either, as it doesn’t account for personalities within the agency. Taking more of a bespoke approach can help garner more buy-in for a new platform or process.

Offer post-implementation support

Once training has been delivered teams are often tempted to slip back into old habits, as they no longer feel they are accountable. So offer extra support as people are getting to grips with new systems and processes. Help them overcome any challenges and keep them constantly moving forward.

Remember you’ve taken a strategic decision to implement your new system. If you’re bringing lots of processes together in one place it might take your teams some time to get their heads around the new ways. But you know why you made the initial decision, you know what your business objectives are and you know this will help you achieve them. Getting everyone into some good habits will pay dividends in the long run.


Last minute Christmas party ideas for your agency

Christmas party planning season is here. A hugely anticipated time for many, this is where the inside jokes are born, and those unescapable drunken memories made. Only the most supportive colleagues will remind you of that time(s) you spent the night dancing on tables.

As last year the majority of us were locked down and remote, the excitement for a ‘normal’ Christmas bash this year is undeniable. Whilst many agencies have taken their seats back in the studio, some teams are still enjoying, and feel most comfortable, working from home or getting together in an open space. And so, however you plan on celebrating the festive period with your team we’ve got you covered with an array of face-to-face and virtual party ideas to ease the planning stress.

A CLASSIC OFFICE BASH

You can’t go wrong with a simple, end of day get-together in the office/studio. Time for food platters galore, a make-shift bar across the desks, hire a DJ or hand the responsibility over to someone’s Spotify playlist! You could even rent a photobooth and capture the fun with festive props and Christmassy costumes. Without the cost of venue hire or a bar/restaurant tab, you might as well turn the office into a grotto. Did somebody say snow machine?!

A VIRTUAL GET-TOGETHER

A safe option for your team, a virtual Christmas party can remain in the calendar no matter what the rest of the year looks like. Virtually Together create online themed experiences to add some magic to your Zoom call, “totally risk free”. You can book a consultation with their Chief Christmas Party Planner to design your perfect event, from boozy experiences to interactive games and creative workshops – the options are limitless. If you want to keep it simple, you can’t beat a virtual Secret Santa, a personalised quiz or heated game of Pictionary using Google’s Jamboard. It’s best to organise a few fun activities or surprises along the way to give the call some direction but, at the end of the day - just like any other party - it’s the people that make it memorable.

HIRE A PARTY HOUSE

If you’re looking for a go-hard-or-go-home type of do, this one’s for you. Hiring a party house for a night or two is a great way to get everybody together! There’s no messing with venue number limits or herding drunk people to the right place at the right time and you can design your own night. Enjoy your own bar, karaoke or indoor pool and the best bit... no taxi journey or cold walk back to a lonely hotel.

GIN TASTING/COCKTAIL MAKING

You don’t have to head to your nearest bar for this one - this party idea can be enjoyed virtually too and would be nicely complemented by a round of tipsy karaoke to add that extra entertainment value. Just order tasting/making kits to everyone’s door and share the fun over a Zoom call with the team. The Little Gin Company give you the option of either a hosted or non-hosted experience, so you can keep an element of structure or let the team loose with the booze! With Mixology, the only ingredient you’ll need to provide is the ice to your five cocktails, oh and there’s a competitive finale with some ‘mystery ingredients’…

ESCAPE ROOMS

Another that suits both remote and office-based teams as you all work together to crack codes, solve puzzles and overcome mind-boggling tasks either in the comfort of your own home or at your nearest live Escape Rooms (that way you can make a day out of it!). The Virtual Experience Specialists have created a brand-new festive experience for 2021 where you can expect a “high-energy, laughter-filled, festive extravaganza”. ‘Save our Santa’ will see the team lead a mission to save Christmas with Christmas morning only an hour away - no pressure.

A DAY OUT IN THE CITY

Pop-up ice skating rinks, cosy igloos and Christmas markets are an ideal way to immerse yourself in the festive season! Ice skating is an ideal team building activity, because really there’s nothing quite like propping up a colleague from a fall to show you’re there for them. In London, you can take part in The Crystmas Maze – an expertly designed adventure across the capital, with a mix of physical, mental, skill and mystery challenges. This is an ideal way to get the team out of the office and in an open space with some added sight-seeing benefits. To add to your day of wholesome fun, book a team pub crawl and don your worst Christmas jumpers to complement. Nothing feels Christmassy like squeezing past crowds of shoppers in the cold, heading towards your next pint.

So, however you’re celebrating Christmas in your agency, don’t forget to celebrate your people. Having a big bash isn’t key to great workplace culture, it’s recognising the dedication and hard work of the team that you get to enjoy it with that is the real reward.


The timesheet challenge aka getting people to do their f***ing timesheets

Timesheets. For anyone who works in an agency, the word alone is enough to make their blood run cold. There’s already too much to do, and they’re so fiddly and boring. But they are essential. So how do agencies get everyone on board?

How many times have you got to the end of the day or week and thought “F***! I haven’t done my timesheet!” You look back at your schedule, scan your sent emails, log what you can…but it doesn’t add up to a full day.

It’s hard enough to remember to do them when you know the importance of timesheets. But when you’re a creative or developer and don’t fully understand why you have to do them, it’s even harder! Add into the mix that your day is already crammed full of urgent work with painful deadlines and something has to give. That something is usually your timesheet... because you haven’t got time to fill it out.

A common refrain amongst creatives is: ‘Why do I have to do my f**king timesheets? I’m too busy.’

And the answer is that quality timesheets will make everybody’s life better. They provide the foundation for any time-billing business, such as estimating, planning, profits and staffing. And the fresher and more accurate the timesheet data, the better all the above will be.

But really, the question they want to ask is...

What’s in it for them?

As an agency leader this is something you have to communicate. There’s no point piling the pressure on already-pressured people who have very little reason or motivation to fill out their timesheet. I’ve heard of one agency locking people out of their laptops if the previous week's timesheets aren’t done. A tempting idea but not really the right incentive! A carrot — rather than a stick — approach works best.

You need to explain why you want, and need, timesheets doing accurately and as ‘real time’ as possible.

Accurate, up-to-date timesheets are the cornerstone of any successful agency. But, making the conversation about company profit is a waste of time. Why should they care? They need to understand the personal benefits.

You can’t task your teams to put themselves in your place. Rather, you need to put yourself in theirs. Agency work is fast-paced, demanding and driven. A creative’s priority is to create high-quality within often-tight deadlines. You need to always bring it back to them.

Here’s a simple graphic you could use that turns business benefits into employee benefits:

Often, creatives will wait until the end of a week or the end of a job before logging their time, which is virtually impossible. With all the to-ing and fro-ing of even straightforward projects, the odd few minutes here and there soon add up. Getting your teams into the habit of logging as they work means more detail gets noted, and they aren’t scrabbling around trying to remember what they did. And tell them what to log — do they need to include phone calls? Meetings, emails, amends?

As a leader, your priority is about creating a positive working environment that allows the creation of high-quality work, within achievable deadlines, and timesheets are the keystone for this. But you need to communicate the personal benefits of timesheets as vigorously as the business benefits. If everyone understands the “why”, they’ll want to get their timesheets done, and chasing becomes a thing of the past.

Communication, incentives, motivation... however you can, just instill the benefits of filling out those fantastic  timesheets!


Why honesty is always the best policy in capacity planning

If new business lands tomorrow, do you know if you have the capacity to take on the work… or not? The answer lies in how realistic you are in your planning.

You can’t run an agency effectively without planning. It would be very easy to say yes to every job that comes along, but then you’re left with an overworked team who simply can’t deliver quality work. And that’s when you stop being a great place to work and when clients start looking elsewhere.

So first and foremost, you need to get to grips with what your true capacity is. Not what you want it to be. Not what at first glance it appears to be. But what, after careful investigation and planning, it genuinely is.

And you do need to put this time in upfront by looking at your utilisation rates. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. One of the most common questions I’m asked is ‘What’s the average utilisation rate?’. And my stock answer is ‘Why does it matter?’. The truth is, it doesn’t. A good rate for one agency may not be right for another.

Talking capacity

Imagine you have a team of 10 designers and you give each a utilisation rate of 75%. Multiplied by the number of hours they work — that would seem to be your capacity. But there could be a creative director in there who works on new business pitches, which aren’t charged. Or someone who is great at IT so often picks up agency issues. Suddenly, those available hours start to diminish. What you thought was your true capacity is no longer so, and that has a huge impact on delivering projects.

This is why I always advocate having a conversation with each member of your team. Ask them what they do, what’s asked of them, what’s expected of them. Get into the granular detail of their day to day working patterns. This gives you a better buy in from them, as well as creating a clearer capacity picture. You’re not telling individuals ‘this is your utilisation rate’. You’re asking them how you can calculate it.

Having this understanding can put you in a good position to know what projects to take on... or not. You know exactly who does what within each department and it can help you take the right call on what hours to sell. You don’t want teams and creatives so overloaded they burn out. Equally, you don’t want people spending longer on a project than you’ve accounted for, simply because they have nothing else to do. In this case, they achieve their utilisation but you end up with very low recovery rates.

Client budgets can also play a role in capacity planning — and can trip you up if you’re not careful. A lot of the time, agencies reverse engineer from what the client has budgeted. For example, the client says ‘We’ve got a £10k budget’ which could equate to 1000 hours. But you know the job will more likely take 1200 hours. You have to factor this in and be completely honest. Perhaps you’ll take the commercial decision to still take the job or pitch.  But if you don’t account for the extra hours, your framework is wrong right from the start.

People will do the work they need to do, you burn through the hours, but you’re not at a deliverable point. Once you see this happening, it’s really important to revise your estimates so you can get back to the right framework. Otherwise panic can set in.

Good capacity planning is pivotal for any project. And this means planning realistically, honestly, carefully, so there are no nasty surprises along the way.


Does your agency need client services... don’t they just send emails?

The client services role is often misunderstood and sometimes maligned, internally and externally. They’re sometimes seen simply as ‘email forwarders’, a barrier between creatives and clients who create Chinese Whispers in their role as go between.

But it’s actually an invaluable role within an agency, the glue that holds all elements together. Clients, creatives, projects, budgets, deadlines. It’s also a highly collaborative role, making sure all teams are working well together and that everyone gets the best outcome. The client gets great results, creatives are fulfilled in their work, the business profits.

Client services has historically not been even considered a profession. But when you take into account all these roles and responsibilities... it’s time to change perceptions.

The multifaceted role of client services

A client goes to an agency because they don’t have the experience, expertise or time to deliver something specific. For example, creating and building a website. They may only rebuild a website once or twice in their career, so they look to an agency. The client services role is to be the expert in delivering that type of marketing to help the client get the best work, service, output and product.

This often means wearing an awful lot of hats. You can be everything from an account manager and project manager to planner and marketing specialist. Responsible for finances, planning, strategy, stakeholder management, third-party management... you name it. There are a lot of moving parts. Which is why client services managers tend to be super organised, natural problem solvers.

And they have to be. Wearing a lot of hats doesn’t mean spreading yourself thinly across a range of roles. It means immersing yourself, giving each aspect your full focus. Indeed, client services managers need to be ‘experts’ in a whole range of areas, including:

Delivery: Helping the client understand what the project could deliver for their business, so they shape the right brief with the end results in mind. Client services act as the consultant, asking the right things of the right people. They need to understand the client inside out, so the agency can deliver the best outcome for them. It’s about being analytical and questioning, not taking things at face value. The best work comes from boundaries being pushed.

Planning and organisation: Structuring and planning a project in the right way means that the team and the client know what’s expected and what to expect, and when. It means everyone knows their timelines and budgets — and sticks to them.

Problem solving: Successful projects are those which use people’s talents effectively. Client services need to choose the right resource for the job and facilitate the best work from everyone. This isn’t just internal, either — choosing and managing suppliers is equally important.

Communication: Making sure everyone understands the brief and expected outcomes in an objective way is a big part of the role. It also means objectively reviewing work to assess whether it’s meeting the brief — and not offering subjective opinions. You’re taking your teams and clients on a journey from initial brief to project delivery, keeping everyone well informed along the way.

Quality: Mistakes happen, but the client doesn’t need to see them. Double checking all work before presenting it to the client can avoid them seeing any errors.

Managing expectations and feedback: Client services need to know how to keep a project running smoothly. This means pushing back on unrealistic timelines, understanding how to get clients to meet deadlines and getting full engagement from internal teams. It also means understanding how to manage and action any negative feedback from clients.

Relationship management: People buy from people they like, so this is an important part of the client services role. Listen to your clients, make them feel valued. You need them to trust you, to know you’ll deliver on time, with a good outcome.

There are a few other questions which often pop up when we’re talking about client services:

Can’t clients speak directly to creatives?

The answer here is yes, the client should be sharing business, product, and audience insights with creatives. Equally, creatives should be presenting their thinking directly to clients.

But creatives are experts at creative work. They’re not skilled in marketing strategy – and nor should this be expected. Clients use an agency for their collective expertise, and creatives constantly liaising with them means they’re not spending their time on the nitty gritty of the project.

Should client services be charged?

Yes. Absolutely. Client services offer knowledge, expertise and advice, resourcing sourcing and project management. Just like with creatives, you can charge different rates for different levels of responsibility.

What’s the difference between client services, project managers and planners?

Agencies are all different. Some will have client services wearing all these hats. Some will be big enough to have specialists in each role. It often depends on the size of the agency — the bigger they are, the more likely they are to have specialists in place. In the case of client services, this often means they are expert in client management — fully attuned to the needs of the client and their specific business challenges, but also aware of the technical aspects of delivering the project.

So to answer the question we asked right at the start: yes your agency does need client services, and no they don’t just send emails. They’re an integral part of an effective project, offering targeted and strategic expertise to make sure clients are getting the best outcome and creatives are fully and effectively briefed. In essence, they’re the bridge taking the project from its initial conception with the client to its execution at the agency.


Working from home: what lessons have we learned?

Staying motivated when working from home can be tricky - as many of us learned during lockdowns. But for those who are continuing to work remotely, how do we realistically navigate the challenges of the home office and stay productive?

The novelty factor of working from home powered many people through the initial months of lockdown. But the everyday soon set in. Now, we’re in a world where working from home is much more the norm than in the pre-pandemic days. So how do we stay productive?  Here are some of the 'best-practice' tips we've found, with some real-life angles to make them more... user friendly.

1 - Create a morning routine

This probably sounds like a no brainer, something you’ve been doing since your schooldays. But be honest, how many times have you rolled out of bed at 8.50am for a 9am meeting? Or chucked on yesterday’s T-shirt because you’re not going to be on camera. If working from home is a regular feature in your life, setting up a routine will keep you much more motivated. What the routine is is up to you - a walk, a jog, yoga, a shower, breakfast, catch up with the news. Even if your routine is watching telly for half an hour, it’s fine. Really, you’re looking for any activities that shift you from sleepy and slow into motivated work mode.

2 - Work your set hours

Set a schedule and stick to it. This is a nice idea. Having clear guidelines for when to work and when to call it a day would add structure and routine, but our time doesn’t always just belong to us. Everyday distractions vary from person to person, but they’re still just as disruptive. The key really is to make sure you’re working the right number of hours, not selling your employer short or overdoing it. If your work allows it, taking an hour out early afternoon doesn’t matter, as long as you recoup it somewhere else.

3 - Keep a dedicated workspace

Great idea. If you’ve got a massive house and no kids or pets. Otherwise, wherever you go, they go too. Rather than hiding in your bedroom or cosying up on the sofa, we’re advised to dedicate a specific space to work in the house and treat it like the office. Your partner, kids, dog, cat, toys and washing wouldn’t usually turn up to the office though...

It isn’t easy to establish specific boundaries between home and work, and if your dining table or kitchen island is the only place to set up camp for the working day, it’s unrealistic to banish the rest of the household from entering your work zone. The ranging backdrops on Zoom calls are enough to show you people are constantly moving around for the best WiFi spot, proximity to a plug-socket, or simply to escape the noise. The trick here is to make sure your dedicated workspace doesn’t turn into a dedicated overtime space. Keep, evenings, weekends and holidays sacred. If this means having to pack your things away at the end of the work day, so be it.

4 - Take a break

We’re told to find our company’s policy on break times and take them. Of course, there’s no doubt using our breaks as an opportunity to recharge is key to staying motivated throughout the day. In reality, when collaborating with the team, all on different timetables, pencilling in specific lunch and break times is a tricky, especially when we often find ourselves running over and running late. So, rewarding yourself with time to switch off doesn’t always happen within standard lunchtime hours. Remember too that a break is a break - you don’t have to be constructive at every minute of the day, so do whatever it takes to unwind. A quick meditation or yoga tutorial, chapter or two of your book or a little peek at daytime TV can all give your mind a much-needed rest.

5 - Know when to log off

As the world is becoming increasingly connected, it’s not uncommon to have both work and personal conversations taking place throughout the day, across many different platforms. Your inbox is pinging, your phone is buzzing and it’s hard to feel like you are ever truly ‘logging off’. Physically closing those open documents and browser tabs is one thing but managing your professional and personal to-do lists in your mind is one of the most challenging aspects when working from home. It just feels non-stop.

You need to be a bit strict with yourself here. Try focusing on crossing one thing off your work to-do list, then replying to your WhatsApps. If you have a separate work phone, you could switch your personal one onto silent while you’re working. Essentially, whatever you’re doing give it 100% focus and don’t fall into the trap of worrying about what else needs doing.

6 - Stay connected

From the beginning, instant messaging and video conferencing tools were recommended as a way to check in with co-workers, friends and family alike, as the closest substitute for face-to-face interaction. It is a great way to remind yourself of how your work contributes to the bigger picture and check in with colleagues when you’re missing the office buzz, but webinar fatigue and Zoom gloom is real and sometimes you just want the quiet. We’ve been in lockdowns, on and off, for over a year and some of us are feeling more disconnected than ever before.

While technology has been something of a lifesaver, if you’re feeling exhausted with it all then think how you can stay connected in other ways. Plan in some walks with friends and local co-workers, or arrange an outdoor lunch break together. Write a letter (we all love getting handwritten letters in with the bills) or send postcards. You might even get one back...

7 - Be kind to yourself

You’ll have had bad days at the office and you’re going to have them working from home too. For those not familiar with remote working, this would have been a totally new experience and you may still be adjusting – to some extent we all are. Having little motivation from time to time is to be expected. Don’t forget to reach out and ask for support, if needed, because being kind to yourself goes beyond the 9-5. Look at what you’ve achieved, not what you haven’t done. The way we speak to ourselves can make a huge difference to our frame of mind.

Nailing working from home isn’t something that you should be striving for - even those who’ve been doing it for years will tell you there isn’t a perfect answer. But try to get some balance into your day and add in as many small comforts as you can.