Manage your projects better

Agencies reveal how they keep on top of multiple projects and ensure every client brief is completed on time and budget.

Never forget that the design business is, well, a business. Which means that you need to account for your time, track the hours you spend on a project and ensure you’re billing for every second of input you put into a client brief. Why is this important? Because too often creatives find themselves shovelling extra hours into projects which aren’t accounted for. In a busy environment, this causes backlogs and bottlenecks which, if unchecked, damage a business’ reputation and bottom line. The same applies to small studios and freelancers working from home – if you can’t deliver on time and on budget, you’re unlikely to be hired again. Knowing when to work, how to work, and who’s working on what is important. But equally important is ensuring you’re paid for your time.

Similarly, keeping projects on track and ensuring they hit a given deadline does more than ensure you get paid: it grows your reputation. No one employs a bad plumber, even if they undercut the competition with their quote. The same stands for creatives. Do the work well, deliver it on time, and you’ll only get positive recommendations.

This is really the essence of excellent project management: a synergy between accounts teams handling client briefs and budgets, and creative teams firing on all cylinders. Behind all of this is often an agency’s secret industry weapon: the project manager or traffic manager, who keeps on top of everything.

So how do the top agencies and studios manage this synergy? “For me, I want to make sure I understand the requirements and expectations of others, so that I then do the same in return,” says Kim Cox, studio traffic manager at Six, a Bristol-based agency with a client list that includes Bank of Scotland, Lloyds and Halifax.

“Between the studio and client services team, I have around 30-plus people’s needs to meet at any given time. So it’s important I keep everyone updated and resist the temptation to over promise. It’s much better to set expectations and then over deliver. Flexibility is also key – as much as I relish having everything perfectly scheduled in advance, I have to be ready and willing to change everything around at a moment’s notice.”

Communication is king

Communication is a key facet of successful project management. And there are a number of ways top studios and agencies ensure everyone involved in a project is fully aware of all its requirements. Numerous project management software packages, as well as methods like Agile – a framework which sets segmented parameters and deadlines – are common. But face-to-face briefings shouldn’t be neglected, either. “In the digital team specifically, we have daily stand-ups at 9:30 every morning,” explains Rob Lowe, digital director at Mr B & Friends – an agency which has Principality Building Society, Unite Students and the BBC amongst its clients. “This gives the team a chance to talk though their workload with the rest of the team. Making sure everyone understands their tasks and accountability for those tasks is key.”

Sometimes, it becomes clear from these meetings that an extra set of hands might be needed in order to either add a specialist skill, or deliver the resources required to hit a deadline. “The pace of the projects that we work on, along with balancing a range of different clients’ needs, means that flexibility and adaptability are crucial to a project’s success,” explains Lowe. “Again, communication is essential to making sure that resources can be reallocated as needed. We’re lucky to have an extremely good base of freelance support that we can call on when necessary, too.”

Super skill sets

Finding the right people for the job is also not just about recruitment, it’s a secret skill of the project manager. Knowing not just your co-workers skill sets, but also their interests and passions outside of work, can make a brief really reach its potential, as Locket Aebischer, an account manager at SomeOne explains: “Where possible, we try to assess the studio for interest and abilities to see which team is best for each brief. For example, if we got a sports brand brief, we would try to allocate this brief to a sports enthusiast, which means they want to do the work and are more passionate and hard-working on that project.”

Flexibility means knowing at what stages a project is likely to require additional or specialist help – and then scheduling it. Rosie Brennan, another account manager at SomeOne, explains that being aware of a team’s specialisms means that the company can power through particular project stages, before moving people to other projects: “We put more people on the concepts stage of a project, but once the route is chosen, we streamline,” she says.

“We’re lucky to have a fairly large team with a variety of strengths and abilities, so we try to tap into these when we can. Our senior designer, who loves animating, will often be put on the jobs that need animation, for example.”

Software solutions

Stay on top of multiple tasks with management tools

Tracking multiple projects’ requirements, expenditure and key communications is where specialist project management software and tools come in. Slack is fast becoming the communication tool of choice for creative and development-driven businesses, with its ability to create message threads and share assistance and information.

“We use the project management software Synergist,” says Cox. “It covers everything Six needs – from studio bookings to quotes and financial reporting. I find it really easy to use for what I need. Being able to switch and change bookings easily really helps when projects are constantly moving. I also like exploring the reports it generates and using this data to improve the way I work. For example, I can quickly run time reports against projects from previous weeks, months and even years, and use this information to anticipate what studio time is likely to be required for future projects.”

Even the most carefully managed projects can overrun, though – either through additional client demands or production delays. In these instances, project and traffic managers come into their own, delegating and redeploying resources in order to ‘fight deadline fires’. As ever, though, communication remains key. Knowing who’s available to be reallocated, what other projects delays may have a knock-on effect on, and – importantly – how delays might disrupt a planned budget and deadline, is half the battle.

Panic prevention

Redistribution of resources can keep you ahead of the game

“We do weekly status reports for a lot of our clients, to help us spot these situations before it gets to the ‘panic zone’,” explains Brennan. “If a project runs over time – and we rarely do – we either try to negotiate an extension with the client or we get all hands on deck, to get the work done! Our ‘free’ channel on Slack comes in handy at times like this too – if a designer has some time they will make it known to the channel and be snapped up. Using Harvest and time sheets means we can keep an eye on the budget and hours for each project.” 

“Every project is different, but fundamentally it’s about communication,” agrees Cox. “We’re very good at keeping each other updated, so if projects look like they’re going to overrun, we usually have some notice to find a solution and most importantly, notify our clients of any changes to the plan. Then it’s my job to find the additional time needed. I think of it like playing Tetris – lots of individual elements to move around to find the best fit.”

This article was originally published in Computer Arts magazine issue 260. Buy it here.

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