Is constant fire-fighting normal in agency culture?

 |  By: Steve Johnson In: Agency management

How much fire-fighting goes on in your agency? Does it seem to be on the rise? Does it go with the territory? What are the main causes?

Agencies tell us of a number of factors:


There seems to be an overall trend of clients demanding more, for less. As their expectations grow, their tolerances reduce. The concept of loyalty and deference towards service providers seems quaint today. Clients are under unprecedented pressure to deliver results, so a slight glitch on a project that might have once been cause for a minor frustration can now be the trigger for a mini crisis.


Last-minute switching of resources from one project to a struggling one has a knock-on effect. Do that often enough and a tipping point will be reached. From then on it feels like you are not managing but juggling, not creating but fire-fighting. Before you know it, your entire agency culture may reflect that way of working.


But this comes at a cost. In such circumstances your team is continuously stressed and client service suffers, forcing you to spend time placating clients, smoothing over issues, dealing with morale problems and worrying about staff turnover.


Last-minute resource-switching can cause communications problems and misunderstandings, which further compound the problem.


With a fire-fighting culture, inevitably too much time will be spent on projects that are not of the highest priority, and not enough on the most important projects and clients.


In these circumstances it is notoriously difficult to get an accurate grasp of the complete picture at any one time. At any moment you might urgently need to know things like:

  • What resources do you have available next Tuesday?
  • What percentage of a particular project’s estimated costs have been spent so far?
  • You need an urgent quote for a project that’s similar to one you did 18 months ago. But how much time did that project really take? Come to think of it, how long would it take to even find all the information to assess that?
  • What are the real knock-on effects of switching someone from project A to project B this Friday?

How inevitable is all this?

The agency world, whether in the creative, digital, PR, marketing or advertising sector, lives by its wits, smart thinking and fast grasp of constantly-changing situations. But does this mean it has to be constantly fire-fighting? No.

The MD of a 25-strong London-based digital gave us his views:

“Before Synergist we would work like headless chickens. Now, the data helps us make better decisions.”

“Before our new system here we couldn’t see which areas of our business we should most focus on. It’s now crystal clear.”

“We used to spend masses of time searching for information or pulling together reports or estimating work or doing invoices. Such a waste. Now that’s all cleaned up. It leaves more time for client focus.”

“There will always be over-demand for the resources you have. There are millions of ways to spend your time. The trick is to prioritise. What your gut feel tells you isn’t always right”. The answer? “You need a proper system.”