Building and sustaining a great PR agency has never been easy. But it is getting even harder now, because shifts in the nature of the business itself are bringing a new challenge, several forms of integrated operational communications chaos known previously to only digital agencies.
A certain level of chaos is baked into PR agencies and the work they do. Rapid turnarounds for breaking news, unexpected events and crises can wreak havoc on an otherwise orderly content and communication schedule. But as happened to many traditional and creative agencies a decade ago, PR agencies are finding themselves drawn into the much more-complex world of integrated, multi-platform communications and marketing services.
At the heart of this shift are increased demands from brands for integrated offerings, a double-edged sword for PR firms as the opportunity to deepen their engagements (and stabilize revenue) means new complexities.
Signs of Chaos
In our work with over 200 agencies, we’ve noticed that the key forms of operational chaos have become increasingly present in more traditional agencies and PR firms.
The increase in size and complexity of engagements ignites this operational chaos within agency teams, driving up rework rates. Unchecked, it leads to a cascade of schedule slippages and internal firefighting, where the rescue of struggling projects causes a contagion as resources are “borrowed” from healthy projects, turning them into struggling projects as well.
Leadership in most agencies react incorrectly to this phenomenon, assuming that more managing and managers are the solution. In highly-afflicted agencies this appears as a rapid growth in “coordination” type managers (account and project) collapsing the manager to worker ratio to one manager for every three workers, or worse.
Agency size also exacerbates these challenges. As agencies grow past 40 people or so in size, complexity, over-managing, and the natural fragmentation of agency work combine to drive down productivity and quality by 30-50% (based on a survey of AgencyAgile clients), and with it, large drops in worker and client satisfaction.
A recent client of ours, a PR firm that had made the complexity-shift in offerings to their clients, had discovered on its own that adding project managers actually made things worse. The team discovered that the counter-intuitive solution lies in a re-emphasis on team-driven control of the work. This approach reduces the chaos from over-management, restores worker’s sense of ownership, and boosts work quality.
Tools to Battle Chaos
That’s but one of a handful of shifts that agency leaders and their teams need to master to battle delivery chaos. Here are several others:
- Find ways to get back to small. Growth can feel like a welcome relief to a struggling agency, but it also introduces layers of complexity that can transform nimble agencies into chaotic workplaces. Organizations of over 40 people benefit greatly from partitioning schemes that turn them into a federation of smaller agencies. Small is fast.
- Embrace cognitive diversity. Implement a richer set of methods for how teams and workers get onboarded and aligned to new projects. Replace the overly-simplistic and ineffective written briefing methods and “DIY learn as you go” with high-quality collaborative discussion and solution-based models. Increases in project or engagement complexity mean that extra effort is needed to engage and grow the mid- and junior-level makers.
- Unify priorities. The agency model spawns a legion of managers as it grows, but that means more people who think their work comes first. Production chaos can ensue. Create alignment of priorities between managers to reduce thrashing of the teams.
- Stifle the meeting urge. Meetings are highly costly, yet rarely do agencies have a strategy for how to avoid them. They are costless to schedule yet in a growing agency will obliterate productive time from the calendars of workers and teams. Develop a meeting reduction strategy, socialize it through the agency, and make sure leadership and team members stick to it.
While these techniques are proven in a wide range of agencies as being effective at relieving the challenges of complexity-driven chaos, they also appear to be effective in smaller, growing agencies. If proactively applied when they are still 30 people or less, it seems to serve as a “vaccine” of sorts against the onset of the chaos.
One of the key findings from our proprietary research into sources of agency chaos, based on a five-year study of over 80 agencies, is that managerial activities have the highest impact upon worker productivity. Growth often brings the urge to hire more managers, but agencies rarely realize how costly that move might be.
Source: Jack Skeels is CEO and Founder of AgencyAgile, an agile transformation and coaching firm. ‘Unmanaged,’ his forthcoming book, highlights a new managerial mindset that boosts productivity and happiness in marketing agencies and project-driven organizations.