The adage “Garbage In, Garbage Out” is never so true as when applied to in-house creative agency (IHA) projects. In every forum Cella has established or has participated in, we consistently hear horror stories of poorly initiated and managed projects going south quickly and painfully. More concerning than how ubiquitous this problem is, is the fact that most IHA leads seem to be paralyzed at best or resigned and cynical about the challenge at worst. While there are numerous hurdles to correcting the issues that block effective project initiation and management, Cella has witnessed and experienced enough successes in this area to know that success is achievable.
Critical Best Practice Number 1: Establish Points of Entry
If your team has no pre-established avenues for clients to contact your team to start a project, you have no way of coordinating resources and prioritizing work—let alone consistently establishing and managing client expectations.
The opportunity is to establish limited methods for your clients to reach out to your IHA to explore or initiate a job. This isn’t to say that you should rigidly or aggressively establish so few options that you lose business, but there is a reasonable middle ground.
Contact options include:
- A user-friendly online portal with drop-down choices to expedite the process and enhance the client experience (a caveat here that this can unintentionally take a client down a path that omits potentially more strategic services or deliverable options that you may want to explore by limiting their choices)
- A group email address that is monitored by a designated team member
- Direct phone or email contact with IHA Account and/or Project Managers
- Live “drive-bys”—recommended only for business-critical clients and C-suite folks
- Texts (uh, no…like never)
It’s surprising how many IHAs do not use some form of a form. The typical response is that they or the client doesn’t have time to fill it out. So two points here: first, if someone had the time to write an email with some dysfunctional form of specs, then the someone would also have time to fill out a form; second, multiply by 20 the minutes supposedly saved by not filling out a form—this is at least the time lost farther downstream in making up for the lack of upfront direction.
The key is to design forms that only capture what is necessary for the project to proceed and to have several flavors of forms to allow for different tier jobs coming into your IHA.
Critical Best Practice Number 3: Scope Out a Scope
This is on our teams. Like PIFs and CBs, the rationale Cella often hears for not engaging in this practice is that folks don’t have the time to create a Scope (or Statement) of Work. We have pretty much the same answer as with not using forms: you pay more in pain and lost time farther down the road. And, there’s an even more critical consequence: expectations won’t have been established with your clients allowing them to foist on you whatever requirements they want including unrealistically-low budgets, ridiculous deadlines and no obligation to supply you with needed content or feedback in a timely manner. A caveat – SOWs are essential for larger more complex and higher-tier projects and are overkill for smaller quick-turn lower-tier jobs where the PIF will usually capture needed information.
The scope is your one and only opportunity to align with the client on what you’re committing to deliver and by when, what it will cost, what your clients must do in order for the project to be successful and what assumptions you’re making about the gray areas of the project.
If for any reason you do not establish these ground rules and specifications and your clients go crazy on you for not delivering what they asked for on time and on budget, then it’s on you.
Critical Best Practice Number 4: Change Your Life with Change Orders
Let’s assume you’re now creating SOWs and the what, who, when, where, why and cost of the project have been established, and all of a sudden the client changes the rules by adding more pages to that brochure, new functionality to that app or a tighter deadline for that PowerPoint. What should be the first thing your team does when that happens? Create and align with the client on a change order. Because what happens if you don’t? The client will rightly assume that it won’t cost them any more money or time. Again, as with SOWs, if you don’t properly set client expectations and they freak out on you, it’s your fault for not engaging in due diligence.
Critical Best Practice Number 5: Rinse and Repeat
A final word on Account Services best practices—never assume you’ve got it down and that your clients do and will love you and your team forever because they won’t. First, there are always new clients replacing old clients. Second, all it takes is one bad project for a relationship to go sour. Third, with ever-changing technologies, service needs and business mandates come new expectations of and norms for IHAs. This necessitates that you and your team continually look for ways to better partner with your clients and consistently take their temperature to ensure you’re hitting the mark.
Putting these practices in place in a culture and business climate that is reactive and stretched for time and resources is difficult, but not addressing these critical issues will and does make your and your team’s life exponentially more difficult. So, choose the lesser of the two evils and take out your garbage.
Andy Epstein is an industry thought leader in the field of in-house creative. He currently serves as the Director of Studio Operations for Cella Solutions where he has oversight of the managed in-house agencies run by Cella. Andy has written and spoken extensively on in-house issues and published “The Corporate Creative,” a book on in-house design in the spring of 2010. He is a co-founder of InSource, the former Programming Director for the InHOWse Managers Conference, and a key member of Cella’s professional development team. Andy is focused on empowering in-house teams to raise their stature in the design and business communities.