Many are drawn to the idea of running a creative agency: interesting projects; great creative minds; and, of course, ideas people take notice of. Nevertheless, the challenges of agency life can prove a rude awakening, for the new agency operator.
Keeping your agency profitable relies on many variables. You need even cashflow, dependable processes, and a little bit of luck. That said, the lifeblood of any creative company is communication. That’s what I’m going to cover today: how client communication impacts the bottom line—and the quality of life for all involved. (Oh, yeah, and I’m pitching my product, too—because someday it’ll save your ass.)
Slo-mo to Crunch Mode
As you probably already know, the underlying challenge for any agency lies in establishing a healthy balance. This requires you to juggle a number of ongoing projects and delivery times, while maintaining work quality. You’ll need to do this while managing a sustainable pace that’s compatible with the talented mortals you hire.
Before I get into that, though, let’s step back a little and look at how you got here.
You start off as an energetic trio with a few small clients. After struggling for a while, you land your first substantial client. You’re stoked. This is your big break. Pull this one off, and you know there’ll be (lots) more.
The project completes ahead of schedule, and with better-than-expected results. Sally, your client contact, is thrilled. She immediately commissions another project. She also tweets excitedly about finally discovering a rare BFF in the “evil agency world.”
You enthusiastically dive into the new project. With a little money in the bank, you hire an employee. Meanwhile a brand manager at another organization spots Sally’s tweet—and wants you to help with his project. His previous agency botched the project and he just needs this problem to go away. Oh right, and the RFP you submitted 6 months ago finally comes through.
Now, with three top-priority projects, you find yourselves in crunch mode. As a result, everyone in your little shop is stressed out. It’s not so much the work—you know you can pull that off. The problem comes down to all the emails and meetings. If you didn’t have to deal with all of those, you could actually get some real work done.
All the Goddamn Emails and Meetings
Emails and meetings (virtual and in-person) are high touch, time-expensive means of collaboration. Since they are so all-consuming, a team in crunch mode will do everything possible to avoid them. This, is a dangerous habit, though. Skipping communication widens the gap between check-ins, increases the risk of course deviation, and tends to erode trust.
Weak communication takes its toll on a team. The more time-consuming and fractured it becomes, the more you’ll see staff drained. Nothing quite sucks the life out of a “young, small, bespoke, and energetic team,” like strained communication. A predictable side effect of this stress is weaker creative product, diminished morale, and lower overall productivity.
The funny part? Just a few years ago agencies dealt with almost the exact same problem with their internal communication. Team chat (Campfire, Slack, HipChat, etc.) changed all of that. Over just a few years, this medium has become the de facto method of office messaging. As a result, some agencies wiped-out internal email almost entirely.
Curiously, the problem remains for external communication.
What About Guest Access?
Of course, there are workarounds (most commonly, some form of guest access). With this approach, you invite a client into your team chat account. This almost always improves agency-client collaboration—but it has issues.
For example, clients commonly invite the agency into his/her team’s chat—which forces you to use another chat client/account. You can protest this, but (for the most part) resistance is futile. He who pays the piper calls the tune. If this scenario repeats with even a few clients, the situation quickly becomes unwieldy. As a result, you’re left juggling numerous applications, tabs, and teams.
Another common problem is in not having all the right people in the chat. This happens as a result of a lost/forgotten invitations, guest access feature limitations, or team members refusing to use a particular chat system. Ideally, each party (there could be more than two) would have full jurisdiction over who has access to project communication on their side of the discussion.
The biggest issue with guest access is the change in semantics for data ownership. With email, both parties can run basic forensics on previous correspondence, since everyone gets a copy. This doesn’t happen with team chat, though—because in this setting, the team owner owns all the data.
We Saved the Day
(This is the part where I pitch the thing we made.) Sameroom.io offers a surprisingly simple solution: it connects a chatroom in your team chat to a chatroom in the client’s team chat. If a third party is involved, you can connect to a chatroom in their team chat as well. Want to get crazy? You can add a fourth party, fifth party, et cetera. Once connected, all chatrooms get their own copy of each message.
A major benefit of this approach is that no one’s forced to use a chat tool they can’t, or don’t want, to use. Let me put it this way: Sameroom is like an invisible layer of plumbing that replicates messages between connected channels or rooms. Simple, right? (You might be surprised by how confusing the idea is to some.)
With Sameroom, admins from each team are free to establish their own policy as they see fit. Plus, Sameroom relays messages to every connected chatroom on a project. As a result “carbon copies”—owned by their respective sides—are readily available. This is a must-have, should you (God forbid) find yourself in the midst of a lawsuit.
Most new agency owners think creativity will be an issue. They fret ideas, concepts, and awards. Most times, though, this isn’t what takes down an agency. You probably have more good ideas than you’ll ever use. However, if you can’t communicate efficiently with your clients, you’re already sunk.
Thanks to Eric Karjaluoto, Peter Hizalev, and Boris Soroker for reading drafts of this.