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Dann Albright on October 29, 2018 • 10 minute read
Agencies face a difficult task when it comes to project management. With so many people working on different projects, keeping track of everything is crucial.
“Make the investment in a robust project management tool that manages all your requirements,” says Dan Etiel, CMO at Tanda. “This investment will pay dividends in time saved, errors avoided, and transparency with your clients.”
Few would argue with Etiel’s premise, but when is the right time to invest in a project management tool and process? Is there a right time?
We polled a few dozen agencies to find out…
43% of agencies said they invested more seriously in project management tools and processes after closing their first 5 clients. Another 20% said they invest right away after their first client.
Perhaps most surprising, however, was the 13% of agencies that said they invest in project management only after 20 clients.
From there, we asked what their agency’s primary project management tool was.
33% of agencies say they’re using Teamwork as their primary project management tool. Trello came in at second with 23% of agencies reporting it as their primary tool, and Asana rounded out the top three at 17%.
Next, we asked agencies to share their most effective strategies for executing an organized, and ultimately successful, project management function within their agency.
Here’s what we learned.
“If you want to successfully implement a project management tool at your agency, you need to start with your processes,” says Parker Short, co-founder of Jaxzen Marketing Strategies. “If you have strong processes for how assignments are structured, organized, and communicated on, then you’re well positioned to adopt most modern project management systems.”
“Otherwise,” Short continues, “you’re likely going to be influenced by how the project management system is set up, which is the wrong order. Can you imagine having the design of a house being influenced by the type of drill you have?”
“You start with a plan and evaluate the tools against that. Once you have strong processes, even some basics, you’ll be in a better position to implement a project management tool, regardless of what you adopt.”
Knowmad managing partner Diona Kidd agrees: “We find the most effective strategy for implementing a successful project management function is to start with the experience we want to create. We begin there and then design example workflows. Using this information, we test out any new or proposed software against the way we and our clients want to work.”
After identifying and documenting your agency’s processes, you can compare tools and find the one that works best for you, says Arnaud Burdet, co-founder of Ideagency.
“Your processes must be well defined,” said Burdet. “Only then you are able to compare and choose which tool best suits your needs and matches your processes and people. Also, get buy-in from your team. If your team doesn’t have a clear picture of the overall strategy, they’re not going to know what to do and they are not going to use any new project management tool.”
At Webiteers, employees add custom fields to their project management software. “We have, for example, a field that reflects the impact it has on the clients’ end result,” said Michel Bonvanie. “That way we can always prioritize work on the tasks which have the best possible outcomes for our clients.”
You can customize your project management tool with whatever suits your business model.
After choosing the right tool based on your agency’s processes, you can start making your work more efficient by using templates.
“Create reusable, detailed service templates in your project management software,” suggests Zack Hanebrink, co-founder of HookLead. “Have the tasks outlined so it’s easy for team members to implement consistently and logically so clients can understand what’s going on when updated. This will help you productize and scale your services.”
Maddie Hewitt from Mcmahon Marketing emphasizes the value of templates as well:
“Before we started using templates identical projects would be assigned using very different verbiage, so while some projects were quick and easy, others were time-consuming and difficult because the task wasn’t clear or specific enough even though it was the same exact project.”
Hewitt adds, “We use Asana at our firm, which allows us to create templates for projects we complete regularly. Using templates saves time and energy that instead would be spent trying to figure out exactly what the task is.”
“Break tasks down into simple components and complete them one at a time,” says Robert Donnell, sales and marketing specialist at P5 Marketing.
By breaking tasks down and keeping things simple, P5 saves time with its templates.
There are other benefits to breaking your template down into smaller tasks, too.
“For any agency, regardless of size, I find that taking advantage of a project management tool’s templates are critical,” said Drew Cohen, team lead and marketing specialist at SmartBug Media. “For example, if you know that your SEO audit has 10 critical steps, you can pre-build a template that outlines those ten steps and assigns to the relevant parties. This not only increases efficiency, but it also ensures that the necessary steps are completed prior to sending for a client review. When juggling multiple projects across multiple client accounts, ensuring that relevant tasks for a project are assigned with enough time to complete the work is of paramount importance.”
While templates and clear documentation is important, it’s also important that your team is able to quickly find any relevant documentation prior to starting a new project.
“The team need be able to get to the documentation and resources quickly and easily each time. Not having access to people or assets will slow down progress,” said Richard Owens, owner at First Five Eight Media.
Many agencies use project management software for clients as well as employees. In those cases, clear communication makes is crucial.
“We introduce our prospects to Basecamp early in the sales process,” says Steve James, partner at Stream Creative. “We’ve found it helpful to show how we use it with our current clients for day-to-day communications and our ongoing digital campaigns. The early introduction helps explain how we incorporate and break down our agency process into daily, weekly, monthly check-ins within the tool. When we start working with new clients, it’s an easy transition right out of the gate.”
AnnaLea Crowe from Hello Anna Branding includes an onboarding step in the welcome email to clients. This speeds up the explanation process and gets the customer on board right away.
Neon Goldfish enforces the use of their project management tool with their clients: “If we receive a direct inbox to inbox email message from the client, we politely instruct they resend this information through the project board,” says owner Ken Franzen.
“Check timelines often,” says Melissa Campbell, account manager at Stratagon. “It’s easy to get into a bad habit of using your inbox as a to-do list. You tend to mistake the most recent for the most important.”
“You tend to mistake the most recent for the most important,” Campbell adds. “If you aren’t using a project management tool, get one. Managing scheduling, tasks, budget, etc. is easier if you have it all in view. If something is falling behind, you may need to talk to your team and adjust for the delay. If you aren’t leading the charge, you can’t hold your team accountable to the timelines set.”
Other marketers recommend regular check-ins, too. “Our strategy is simple. It’s called a daily stand-up,” says Candice Bullmore, founder of Mission Drive. “These are short gatherings (face-to-face or virtual), and always on time. We take and share notes, come prepared, speak up, don’t re-rail it, and keep it fun.”
“This helps give us clarity on what we are all working on that day and means we can provide our clients with a 2-week view (or ‘sprint’) of what we are working on.”
HeadsUp Marketing uses weekly status checks. “[I]t can be tough to keep track of all the tasks by priority,” says content marketing manager Katie Green.
“Our team incorporated a weekly 15-minute ‘self-check’ process to ensure every active ticket/project is up to date with the most relevant information. Everyone uses project management tools differently, even within our own team, so we quickly found that confusion and comment clutter were common issues.”
“To avoid miscommunication, we task every assigned team member to update each ticket with a one-sentence summary of where we’re at.”
“While these status checks can be conducted throughout the week, we made sure to designate a specific day to update the project status knowing that a daily status check might overwhelm junior team members.”
“Knowledge and training was the key to making our project management function comfortable,” says Nisha Wendelken, director of operations at Campaign Creators. “With small adjustments to their working habits it was just a few months until the entire team was on board working seamlessly together in the platform while providing management the oversight they need to steer the ship.”
LyntonWeb growth strategist Jennifer Lux also emphasized getting it right from the beginning:
“What’s important is getting buy-in from the team. Sometimes more robust project management means more visibility, which can make some team members uncomfortable. If you can get buy-in from your team by positioning the new tool as a service to them, and not management, that can make an implementation more successful.”
Lux continues, “For instance, how can a PM tool help a team member create better client boundaries, and understand their capacity (therefore contributing to better work/life balance)? How can it create visibility into their work impediments and lack of resources? Finally, when implementing a new tool, which can be a strain on time, try and clear team members’ calendars during that 2–3 weeks. What internal meetings can be removed during the heavy implementation so that members don’t work overtime when migrating to a new system.”
PR&Prose‘s Lauren Gilmore has similar suggestions. “Whether it’s a new process or a new tool, if you don’t communicate the change or adaptation clearly, team members could not only become frustrated with the update, they could end up becoming silent in the process.”
“This means you’re losing valuable resources and opinions. Be sure to communicate all updates and processes clearly and efficiently in order to maintain a healthy and engaging team balance.”
“We create documentable systems for any sort of initiative we are responsible for,” says Foti Panagio founder of Growthmentor. “Usually, it entails loads of Google sheets, a dabble of Trello, and a sprinkling of Zapier to tie it all together. Then after we hack together what works, I’ll write up a recipe for it ie. ‘documentation.'”
But Panagio also noted that processes and tools change.
“And sometimes that means that all those hours you spent building the perfect ‘system’ are now simply unsalvageable. And that’s ok!”
“We shouldn’t beat ourselves up over the ‘sunk costs’ of process creation. Just the fact that you’re out there, trying to organize your business and establish order is amazing enough.”
Much of the advice that we heard from marketers about agency project management comes down to this:
You should have a project management system, and you should get one set up sooner rather than later.
And, according to Verblio marketing manager Kali Greff, you should be “forcing . . . more than one member of the team to be ‘power users’ of the project management software or process.”
“Both members become power users, help others use it when the other is out, and generally spread knowledge and best practices (and preach the gospel!) around its use.”
Which project management tools do you use for your agency? What have you found to be useful habits and practices in making them effective? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
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