Agencies are surprisingly complex creatures. Multiple people can be working on multiple projects in the same time-frame. One minute everybody's racing flat out, then there's a hold-up; a key person is suddenly unavailable or working from home, then there's a problem with a client approval. Then it's full on again. Then the client changes the direction or reduces the budget.
Simply getting through all this and receiving client approval at the end can feel like something of a triumph. But wait. Was that project profitable, or not?
If you're an agency you need to know which projects are really delivering for you. If you're not sure, that's a worry. It's all very well when times are very good, but times are rarely like that. What can help?
In information systems a single source of truth (SSOT) is the gold standard for any enterprise. It means that every item of data across the entire system is only held in one place, meaning that any team member accessing any part of the system always sees up-to-date information.
In this way no information is duplicated, siloed or out of date. Any update to a record is immediately propagated across the entire system.
Applying the SSOT principle to creative agencies and project management software is no mean feat when you consider that an agency can be processing information in areas as diverse as their business pipeline management, job estimating, time tracking, scheduling work to individuals, purchasing, capacity planning and job profit analysis—all with access to team members who might be scattered across remote locations.
Using such a system is worlds apart from using separate apps or dozens of spreadsheets. You don't have to worry whether the information you're seeing is out of date, or whether it uses a faulty formula, or whether the terms describing something are defined differently elsewhere. It's all one entirety.
If you were a dealer in precious metals you would know exactly how much gold and silver you have in stock each day. Of course you would. That's what you do for a living.
Creative agencies deal in something even more precious: time, plus the creative ways in which it can be applied.
Not all time is equal, of course. It depends whose time it is, what skills they have and what they're working on. But tracking it and being able to trace its impact across the entire operation is fundamental to managing profitability.
It's hard to find a function in your agency that isn't connected in some way to time. So, once you're on top of all the hours you're well on your way to being in control of how your profitability is created.
It's not a question of trying to make people work longer or harder. Instead, it's about making sure all your precious resources are working on the right things at the right moment. This includes giving your team the tools to know what is needed, who they're working with, what the priorities and deadlines are, and whether everything's on track.
This frees them up from having to chase information—it's right there in front of them—so they can focus on what they're good at.
What's your bandwidth? It changes day by day.
What if your team is stretched but you're invited to quote for a new job on top? It's looking tight, but you really want that new client. Is it feasible? Every agency lives with such decisions all the time. What makes a difference is having all the facts in front of you, so the decisions you take are well-informed.
One of the great talents of any business is to have the ability to make the most of what they have to hand.
You may dream of bigger clients, more specialists, bigger budgets. But if you haven't got these, look at what you do actually have. Who's available? When?
Knowing your capacity helps you optimise your talent base and reduce extreme lurches between feast and famine. It also helps you avoid one of the costliest practices that creative agencies indulge in: Over-servicing.
Over-servicing may be suspected in your agency but its true amount may be hidden for years. What is it costing you? Which jobs and clients are the common culprits?
Do you feel like you're in control of things? Or, if you're honest, do you feel like you're reacting to events month after month? Of course every agency is confronted by client actions and market forces, so maybe it's inevitable if the journey is one of triumphs, disappointments and scary moments.
But one thing annoys agencies more than anything else. When they survive all the year's battles, they discover at the end that profitability has eluded them once more. If that feels like you, you're certainly not alone.
Discovering a lack of profits after the event is of course way too late. The trick is to have tools to show you how job profitability is shaping up right through the job's life.
Which types of job are working best for you profit-wise? The answer is very often surprising. Your largest client or your favourite type of job may not be the most profitable after all. Let's try another variable: Small or large projects? Small or large clients? Specialised work or generic? Vertical market sectors?
This sort of intelligence starts to create a picture for you. It helps you decide what sort of agency you currently are and what you want to become. You're now the pilot and navigator, not the emergency fire department.
That's because from that point on you are being guided by information that you couldn't previously get at. Once you have data that you can see and trust, you develop the confidence to set your direction.
Life is hard enough without having to spend time looking for trouble, right?
Of course. Except that if there really is a problem emerging somewhere, you want to know about it asap.
You don't know what you don't know. This famous dictum is disconcerting because one minute you think everything's flowing along nicely, and then suddenly a project blows up in your face. What happened there?
Alerts are good. You need them. You set them to automatically nudge you when something starts to go awry.
Sample alerts can warn you of things like:
But of course you don't run your work from alerts. They're there as a safety net. Being able to see live and accurate data and the implications of time being reflected across all reports and dashboard views has real power and will be the backbone to keeping your business on track.
Fragmented data tools give you fragmented reports. If you want reports that see the big picture and are always up to date, you have to have a unified system.
Profitability Report. This shows financial performance by client, project and job over a chosen period, detailing gross revenue or net profit.
Staff Utilisation Report. This is the analysis of the time that staff members spend on billable work. It shows the hours that staff members were available for the period selected, compared with the hours worked on chargeable and non-chargeable jobs, and gives analysis against targets.
Project Health Report. This reports on the status of your projects and jobs, comparing time and costs incurred vs the budget.
Work in Progress Report. Work in Progress (WIP) is work that has not yet been completed but has incurred costs such as staff time, purchases and materials. The report shows the state of WIP at a certain cut-off date selected by the user. It selects the requested range of job phases and can be further filtered by client, account handler and many other options.
Forecasting Report. The following are forecastable: Planned work, by person, role or team. Summarised capacity by role. Open opportunities and/or revenue forecasts shown against a timeline, typically by client and account handler. Estimated gross and net profit, with opportunity weightings.
Data Viewer. It’s Synergist’s report generator. With it you can create reports you need regularly, such as weekly or monthly. They can be automatically emailed to you. Or you can create ad hoc reports whenever needed.
You may say you are already doing a lot of what's outlined in this piece. But is it all joined up? And can you always trust what you are seeing? Most of all, are you able to make decisions safe in the knowledge that you can see where the profitability is generated across the agency?
If you use one system for all your project data you can easily follow the six steps outlined in this piece and managing multiple projects simultaneously suddenly becomes doable.