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Think about this situation: You’re sitting at your desk when a coworker asks you to step into a meeting to discuss an upcoming project that you’ll need to lead. As your coworker explains the project to you, it becomes clear that the project is unlike anything you (or maybe anyone else, for that matter) have ever done before.  And oh yeah – things are already weeks behind schedule.  What would you do?

In the hyper-evolving digital world, this situation is becoming the norm at ad agencies everywhere. Projects are becoming increasingly more complex and production timelines are shrinking due to clients rapidly changing business needs.

It’s an interesting and challenging time to be a Project Manager in this industry. We’re frequently the ones that need to put together a project plan that meets and exceeds the goals of the project while keeping the client and our coworkers happy. Over the years I’ve seen quite a number of project plans unravel under this pressure, but that doesn’t mean your project can’t succeed. Here at Smith Brothers Agency, I’m constantly looking at how we can better optimize the agency process to make sure the projects we take on are successful – not only for our clients, but also for the agency as a whole.

Over time, I’ve found that in order to be successful the one trait that must be instilled in your project team is proactivity. Regardless of whether it’s print, website, or video, the more proactive the team members, the better the project outcome will be. When a project fails, most of the time you can easily look back to a specific moment and pinpoint where things started to unravel. If you dig a bit deeper, you will likely uncover that most of the issues stem from a lack of foresight and planning. Conversely, when a project succeeds, it’s often because team members were anticipating challenges and addressing issues long before those issues had a chance to come to fruition.

At SBA, we’ve done a lot of different things over the years, but here are three best practices that we’ve put in place while reworking our agency process to help team members to be more proactive:

Daily Stand Up Meetings

I know what you’re thinking – another meeting? I would normally agree with you, but I’ve found this meeting to be more productive than most. Every morning the teams from Project Management, Creative, and Development get together to discuss their workload for the day and troubleshoot issues as they arise. The discussion used to be led by Project Managers, but we recently got away from that format in favor of having every attendee go over the items they’re working on for the day. Most days we’re done in less than 15 minutes but it’s still the most productive meeting I attend.

Better Project Briefs

Last year I did some analysis on “troubled projects” in the agency and found that a lot of the problems stemmed from issues during the handoff phases – essentially, when a project deliverable moves from one person to another person (design to code, etc.). After some investigating, it became pretty apparent that this was due to confusion about deliverables and expectations from one person to the next. Sometimes bad assumptions were made, resulting in stress for everyone.  The solution? A Project Brief (or Bible, depending on how devoted you are to the project), an evolving document that contained all of the information about the project – team members, budgets, scope, project risks, and so on. As we move between the phases of a project we have a reference point we can share with team members so things don’t get lost in translation, resulting in less confusion.

Better Collaboration

The information architect prepares a wireframe document and hands it off to a designer, who then prepares PSDs and hands those off to a developer. Remember this old website development model? There are a ton of issues with this approach. Everyone does work in their bubble and then hands their work off to someone else. Often times those at the end of a project, like the development teams, are the ones stuck with all the problems. It’s a model that isn’t very open and often causes a lot of frustration amongst team members. We ditched that model here and we now work with smaller core teams. Each person who will touch the project is invited to be a part of the project regardless of which phase we’re in. Not only has this improved the handoff issues I mentioned before, but it also allows anyone on the team to get creative and help solve problems before they arise. The result has been less confusion and frustration – especially in the later phases of a project.

While it takes more than just these three things to make a project successful, we’ve found that these ‘pillars,’ supporting a platform of proactivity, help us deliver better work, on time and on budget, resulting in much happier clients and agency staff.

Sam Kessler
Sam Kessler
Associate Director of Production