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How do successful creative agencies manage their projects? What steps do they take to onboard clients? What are some best practices they use across all clients and projects?
These are essential questions for running a successful agency. It doesn’t matter whether you’re running a marketing agency or a creative PR firm, you need solid processes and best practices to scale your business.
To find out answers to these questions, we decided to ask some of our favorite creative agencies about their project management secrets.
After dozens of emails, we gathered feedback from 20 different creative agencies.
This is what these 20 experts had to say about their creative project management best practices.
The Importance of Onboarding
As we’ve said in these pages before, client onboarding is one of the most important aspects of creative project management.
Our experts agreed; this is what they had to say about onboarding:
Founder & Creative Director
"During onboarding, we try to listen to the core of the client's needs and consider how they could best solve it.
Sometimes this means we end up talking them out of using our services altogether or have them start with a much smaller project than they initially intended — but we've found that that initial impartiality pays off much more than trying to hustle and constantly upsell.
Clients appreciate our honesty and often either come back or refer people to us later. It also allows us to focus our work on projects where we're making a positive impact."
Takeaway: For long-term agency success, it’s more important to give clients what they need, not what you can sell them. Sometimes, this might even mean sacrificing short-term projects.
The question now is: what should you cover in your onboarding meeting?
Here’s some insight from OHPartners:
Chief Creative Officer
"For every new client we onboard we hold a client discovery session or as it’s also affectionately known as the “no such thing as a dumb question” session.
We bring a cross section of key team members from each department and spend 2-3 hours with our new client getting as big of an overview of their business as possible.
We cover history, mission and vision, target audiences, product lines, people and personalities and try to understand where the victories or landmines might be. We want our team at OH to be able to walk away from the meeting with a really great understanding of our new client so they can then go back to their teams and provide them with the correct data to move forward.
These sessions have proven to be very successful, of course some people credit the cookies, candies, snacks and mimosas that we bring along as the secret to it’s success."
Takeaway: Successful onboarding depends on free and transparent exchange of information. Clients should be able to ask you anything, and vice-versa. Your entire team across departments should know exactly what the client’s business does and how it operates.
What should be your approach to client onboarding?
Here’s insight from Gordon Seirup.
Copper Leaf Communications
"Client onboarding is critical to project success. We are constantly evolving our approach in this regard with two guiding principles in mind:
1. Avoid surprises.
2. Maximize creative flexibility"
The avoid surprises principle echoes Matt’s focus on learning as much as possible about the client’s business in the onboarding process. Similarly, clients should also not have any surprises about how you work and what you’ll deliver.
Gordon further adds:
"Our communication philosophy is simple: We believe in communicating quickly, clearly, and often. This means meeting our client with their preferred method of communication. We rely most heavily on email, phone, and video chat via zoom.us"
While you’re learning about the client’s business, it is also important to negotiate enough room for creative maneuvering. Locking yourself into a particular solution in a project’s early stages is neither efficient nor effective. Allow your team enough space to express themselves creatively.
Run Better Kickoff Meetings
Further on, our agency experts emphasized the importance of kickoff meetings during onboarding.
Here’s what they had to say:
Director of Client Services
"The 'Sales to Production Kickoff' is an integral meeting where we transition new clients into active jobs at Three29.
At this meeting, the dedicated Account Manager is briefed of the scope of the project, general nature of the client and their work, as well as opportunities for additional ways that we can partner with the client’s business.
Ensuring nothing is lost between our Sales team and our production team is a critical first step in laying a solid foundation for the work ahead!"
Takeaway: Besides getting clients on the same page, it is also important to align your own departments at the kickoff meeting. For a successful business, your sales and management team should be in sync.
Use the kickoff meeting to ensure that your account managers and project managers are well-aligned to capture future opportunities.
Kickoff meetings aren’t just for clients alone. It’s also a good idea to have a kickoff meeting for your own team, as Angela Harless points out.
"Even with a great project management system, there is no substitute for in-person conversation.
To kick-off new projects or projects with in-depth goals, background or other factors, our team has a kick-off meeting prior to beginning the workflow.
This will determine the steps we all think are needed, which resources are on the project and reasonable timing. And, ensure the entire team understands and is working towards the same goal.
For major projects, milestone meetings are also scheduled to ensure we’re hitting key dates and moving in the right direction."
Takeaway: Gather your entire team responsible for a project and establish your internal milestones, goals and workflow. This will improve collaboration and help bring everyone on the same page.
At the end of a successful kickoff meeting, you should have all the data you need to create a marketing blueprint.
This will tell you what you need to deliver, and when, as Andrew Gray says.
"The big difference between our process and other agencies is that we start with a Marketing Blueprint for every new engagement. This is deep dive into the customer, their customers and competitors and how they sell the product. From that comes a tactical plan with deliverables, timelines and goals. We build consensus with all stakeholders before kicking off the project.
While most of our engagements are long terms, even a simple website benefits from this process since it help align the project scope with business goals.
Once the project(s) kick off, we use an agile approach to deliver the work, resisting the blueprint as needed."
Takeaway: Collect all the information you can about your clients and their customers, then organize it into a short 'blueprint'. Refer to thsi blueprint when setting timelines, goals and deliverables.
Develop Processes for Everything
Successful agencies are almost always fanatical about their process. They have detailed methods for gathering data, delegating tasks, and managing deliverables.
Usually, this process is customized for each client, as Matthieu Mingasson of Code&Theory says:
Group Director of Product
Code and Theory
"When we start a project, we always craft the process that will generate the best results, based on the category, client organization, workflows, and technology. You need to design the process before you design the product. No great product can be generated from bad process. Process design is the road that leads to great products. In Product Design, you can't distinguish creative work from process management, as it comes as a whole. Ignore one, you deplete the other.
Designing for digital is not about fixing things. It's about managing change, and adapting to dynamics and tensions.
Digital product design always impact your client's organization. As soon as you design something digital, you need to change the existing organization and systems, or rebuild everything from scratch. If a digital product doesn't impact the organization round it, it's not truly a digital product, but traditional communication wrapped in digital."
Takeaway: Client requirements vary; your processes will have to vary with them. This is particularly true for disruptive digital products where the impact of your work can be felt across the organization.
Ergo, as Matthieu says, “Design the process before you design the product”.
One process that Josh Wood of RuckusMarketing uses effectively is to client-agency workshops, as he expands below:
“Ruckus views the most crucial aspect of any of its projects to be its emphasis on agency-client workshops.
Whether the project is to brand a startup or build out a web platform for an established enterprise, these workshops ensure that all parties are on the same page and all row in the same direction moving forward.
At the beginning of the process, workshops are held in order to lay out what the project will entail. Once the project is fully fleshed out and agreed upon, ongoing workshops serve to provide consistent updates about status, communicate changes or roadblocks that have arisen, and allow for client feedback at every stage along the way.
By the time any final deliverable is shown, the client has seen roughly 80% of the work leading up to that point.
Thus, these workshops facilitate a level of technical communication that is necessary in this industry. Perhaps equally importantly, they also allow various project stakeholders to interact personally, thus building mutual trust and respect, elements of any positive relationship.”
Takeaway: Develop a process that involves clients in every stage of the product development. This means you have constant feedback and don’t spring any surprises on the client (or the client springing surprises on you). One way to do that is through regular agency-client workshops.
Joe Smith of UsTwo espouses a similar philosophy:
"For a long time design was practiced in a very linear, slow way - with long upfront immersion or discovery phases.
The justification for this approach was that as designers we needed to understand as much upfront as possible to ensure that what we were fully aware of all the possible permutations of the challenge or opportunity. The idea was that this process removed the risk of failure.
In truth, this approach just delayed committing to ideas, exposing them to your audience and getting feedback until the end of the process. The reality is that there is always a risk when creating new things and that the majority of the time you will be wrong, so the biggest risk is actually avoiding knowing you are wrong until the point that you can’t change or adapt.
Our secret sauce is we ensure our teams focus on getting tangible fast. Within the first few weeks of a project we are producing design artefacts or prototypes. Making things forces you to commit - to stop trying to know everything up front, or even acting like that is at all possible.
Ensuring teams get tangible fast allows us to test assumptions in our plans as early as possible. Teams create something specific and testable, things the whole team can interrogate and learn from objectively and can help form the basis of shared alignment across teams.
Through doing this we are able to shift the biggest risks to the front of the project with relatively modest investments- testing propositions for conceptual, strategic and technical validation. Doing this helps us focus on the things that matter and avoids a lot of wasted resources in the long run."
Takeaway: Adopt an Agile approach where you share more of your work upfront and gather feedback. This will help you avoid wasting resources on designs and approaches that don’t work.
A process tells you the steps for managing a project. A framework, on the other hand, tells you how to create a process that works.
Here’s what Pete Sena has to say about frameworks and flexibility:
CEO & Chief Creative Officer
“In my opinion, I think what is super important for clients is...frameworks and flexibility. And what I mean by frameworks and flexibility is the ability to have established ways of working that allow you to adapt and meet the needs of your partners.
Because at the end of the day, while many of your customers may have things in common, businesses are like snowflakes, they are all completely unique. Even if it’s a similar industry. Having a framework and some flexibility allows you to flex on the things that are important."
Understand Your Clients (and Their Customers)
The importance of customer research can’t be understated, especially in a service-focused industry like creative agencies.
Here are some insights about client research from the experts we interviewed:
Senior Marketing Strategist
"Without fail, the ONE thing we do at Brolik that places us on the path to success is speaking with the customer.
I'm not talking about our clients, I mean their customers.
We begin every project with a target audience analysis, which requires us to speak to as many customers, past customers and lost potential customers as we can.
This steers us on the path to success whether we are building a website or launching a marketing campaign and it almost always opens our client's eyes as well."
Takeaway: Don’t limit your research to just your clients. Research your client’s customers as well (who might even be the client’s employees in case of internal projects). After all, these are your end users; the client is just a conduit to reach them.http://www.accudata.com/
Understanding your clients will help you set better goals. And when you reach those goals, you get results you can showcase to win future clients, as Karen Blanchard points out:
VP of Marketing
"Here is the one best practice we follow with all of our new customers: AccuData Integrated Marketing tries to determine the goals and objectives of each of our clients’ projects by asking probing questions and listening to the responses.
Reaching the appropriate audience with a targeted omnichannel marketing campaign can produce brag-worthy results for our clients.
In order to gain deeper insight into our clients’ challenges, we always focus on the end result they’d like to achieve so that we can ensure success."
Takeaway: Focus on the end result your clients want to see, and work to deliver on that goal. This end result should be your ‘one metric that matters’.
On the subject of understanding clients, here’s what leading visual communication design agency, KillerInfographics, has to say:
Public Relations Manager
"At its core, Killer Infographics doesn’t simply design visual content. What we offer are visual communication solutions.
I’ll explain what I mean. The vast majority of our clients approach us because they have a problem in mind, or a goal they want to achieve: they’re not reaching their target audience, or they need to launch a new product.
Everyone on our team is trained to be a problem-solver: when you share your goal with us, we suggest the right combination of visual assets and outline a targeted visual campaign to help you achieve that goal.
We know visual communication better than anyone, so we want to be proactive in making sure that our clients not only get the best designed deliverables, but also the most effective deliverables for achieving their goals."
Takeaway: Work with the client to understand their goals, then create a custom solution that can help them meet this goal.
When it comes to understanding clients, a recurring theme in the responses we received was empathy.
Empathy doesn’t just describe a way to understand clients; it describes a philosophy that guides your entire business. Successful agencies empathize with a client’s problems, concerns and challenges.
Here’s what Blake Howard of Matchstic has to say about empathy:
“Understand Then Be Understood
If you are in the creative field, you have to accept one key principle: creative projects always have curveballs and challenges.
It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.
The true art of being a creative professional is how you handle conflicts when they do arise.
One mantra I’ve held onto over the years is, “Understand then be understood”.
It can be a challenge to embrace empathy, no matter the intensity of the moment, to listen and do my best to truly understand the problem a client or team member has. The job of creative leadership is part psychology, part counselor, part businessperson, and part artist (a true unicorn!).
Once a person feels understood, then, and only then, we can communicate our perspective. This isn’t a ticket to be silent, soft, or remiss, but a philosophy for in the moment restraint and mastery of state. It may sound touchy feely, but it’s actually the backbone to building healthy client relationships and enabling our firm to consistently produce amazing creative work.”
Takeaway: Practiced empathy involves listening to the client and forging long-term relationships. It means to manage your own ego and truly understanding the client’s concerns. Only once you can understand the client can you make the client understand your own approach and solutions.
Speaking of empathy, here’s Pete Sena’s take on it:
"Empathy...comes with the design thinking and co-creation component, but I also stress empathy for the client.
A lot of times agencies forget that they are a service provider. At the end of the day they are hired by the customer to do a job and they are there because the customer doesn’t have the time, talent, people, or literacy to execute it.
No matter how much we are partners with them or not, we’re still hired guns with a job to do. We have to have empathy for the customer and what is driving their day to day or deadlines, their pain points or their constraints is really important.
That’s why a good account person should have emotional intelligence. All too many times, great project managers lack human empathy or emotion. That’s something we’ve been able to deliver in our ways of working for customers that lets us deliver things in a more effective way. Leading to a happier team on both the agency and client side."
Takeaway: Agencies are service providers, and like all service providers, they need to empathize with their customers and understand their pain points to be effective.
Communication and Collaboration are Key
Project communication and collaboration, it goes without saying, are vital parts for agency success. So much of success depends on how well you can work and communicate with others (and your own team).
Here’s what our experts had to say about communication and collaboration:
Social Media Director
"I would say hands down, genuine collaboration is the secret sauce for our creative process.
SPARK, it's one of our core values and from day one of my employment here, I could see why. From the layout of the office space to the teams I worked with.
Embracing collaboration allows for an idea on a napkin to grow into something bigger - opening doors and perspectives.
Many times, we'll hold brainstorm sessions inviting brand, media, creative and social ideas and come out with even better ideas that have far greater legs and life, as well as, energized for upcoming projects we're working on."
Takeaway: Communication and collaboration should be core values for your agency. Make it a part of your work space, your onboarding, and your hiring requirements.
Great agencies don’t only communicate well with clients, they also communicate well within the organization. This often means giving space to creative individuals to communicate in a manner and role that fits their personality, as James Kramer points out:
"Effective creative management requires understanding the best way to communicate with each person on your team.
These are passionate creatives with real lives and real concerns. We use powerful tools like Culture Index that show us how someone is hard-wired and how they’re having to adapt in their roles.
Once we understand them, we’re able to more effectively engage with them and keep them productive on their campaigns. These tools also help us more effectively hire new team members.
At this point, every person in our agency is in a role perfectly suited to who they’re hard-wired to be. Workflow now feels seamless, productivity is off the charts, and we’ve removed waste and inefficiencies through the agency."
Takeaway: Don’t force creative people to fit a role. Instead, create roles that fit their personalities. For this, you’ll have to communicate clearly with your own team members and understand how they work.
The final insight on communication and collaboration comes from Pete Sena:
"You can have the best software tools in the world. But ultimately the most important thing is understanding the motivators for the people, and what the motivators are for the business and project.
Because when you’re working on any team or any client or any project, what is super important is understanding the people behind the process.
A lot of the agencies I’ve worked with, or for, focus way too much on tools and software and rigid questionnaires and not enough on the people and the goals and the objectives. I think that one of the ways that we’ve been successful at Digital Surgeons is we’ve established co-creation and design thinking practices.
What we like about that process is that it allows us to closely collaborate with our customers. We teach each other in the process. And do it in a fun engaging way. What that allows us to do is quickly cut through the fluff and remove any technical uncertainty.
At Digital Surgeons we work on a lot of projects that involve technology so it’s important to understand the possibilities of technology, timeline, and budget with that level of deep collaboration. Otherwise, the uncertainty and assumptions that happen when you are preparing a statement of work can get in the way."
Takeaway: Communication and collaboration should always be people-focused, nor process-focused. Change your processes to fit your people, not the other way around.
Use the Right Tools
Of course, each agency we interviewed had its own favorite tools and resources for managing creative projects.
Here’s a quick rundown of these tools:
"We use Basecamp as the central project management and communication hub, Harvest for project time tracking, Forecast for workload and resource projections."
SVP Accounts Director
“I'm a stickler for using tools like Google Sheets and Gantt charts to keep everyone on task and accountable. It helps internally and with the client for all to come together and for all to see the project unfolding”
Copper Leaf Communications
“Our favorite tools include WordPress, zoom.us, DropBox, Google Docs, and Stripe."
"Project management at an agency is a unique mix of deadline-driven process and fluid collaboration. It’s vital to have the framework to ensure all projects meet deadline and agency quality. But, at the same time, to get the best work, the system needs to allow for collaboration, changes in direction and input from a variety of resources. .."
Vision and Approach
There is one more ingredient for successful creative project management - your vision and philosophy:
Even though everything else is important, nothing trumps high-quality work.
As an agency, if you provide your clients with great customer service, low rates, and fast turn-around, but aren't able to deliver on quality, then you will not grow your business. If you provide your clients with great quality work, people will notice."
Hope and Glory
"Everybody see things differently. This makes delegation tricky. What can you do to make sure the load is shared but a great job is delivered.
We simply have a vision. Commit the vision to paper. Read the vision out to the team and then talk about the vision throughout the process.
That way you all pull in the same direction, one person is not doing everything and most importantly what you envisioned is actually realised."
So there you have it - insight from over a dozen agencies on how to manage your creative projects.
What about you? What best practices do you use in your own agency?
Share them with us in the comments below!