Are your projects profitable? Beyond simply charging more, what can we do to make our projects more profitable in an industry that’s becoming increasingly commoditized and demanding more for less? What are the skills we need to develop and tools we can use to ensure that we’re delivering value to our agency as well as our clients?
Deltek TrafficLive hosted an interesting debate at SXSW called Cocktails, Conversation, and Creative Leaders where members from the creative agency and digital project management world participated in a panel to address ways to minimize profit-eating operational challenges. A salient part of the debate focussed around managing scope creep and how to avoid the hidden costs of over-servicing our clients. It’s a perennial challenge; how to service clients in such a way that we foster and secure a long-term relationship – while still delivering profitable projects and not undervaluing work by giving it away for free. In this article we’re going to explore how boundaries, education, communication and tracking can help us make our projects profitable.
We can start by establishing clear boundaries. It’s often the big projects that are difficult – do we really know if this project is done or not? The answer to that question on any digital project is all too often – ‘It’s complicated’. It used to be more straightforward – take a TV campaign: it’s trafficked it and it’s done; With print: It goes to the printer it’s done. The ability to change and iterate used to be limited to a hard and fast deadline but now in digital it’s a lot more fluid;
‘In the digital world, the products are living and breathing documents, so boundaries are important.’
– Tom Fornoff, Tocquigny
We have to hold our hands up; we’re a bit culpable here; we talk about phases and iterations and it can become confusing to our clients to understand what they’ve paid for and what they haven’t. Obviously key to getting this right is some clear documentation. It’s the documentation (probably a statement of work) that should clearly define where warranty ends, and where maintenance begins. No one likes creating documentation, and worse still (or sometimes actually it’s just as well), no one ever reads it, but at least if we’ve created it we can clear where the project boundaries lie; what’s in scope, and what’s not.
It’s one thing to define boundaries, it’s another to enforce them. It’s the gray areas that get us down. We can think a project is over but then it reappears months later when a new bug pops up on the latest Apple iWidget. Of course it doesn’t work, but it should, shouldn’t it? Our clients get upset because they think it’s a bug. They’re right, it is, but it’s not warranty work either. We need to educate our clients on what ‘done’ means. When a project is delivered, when it’s been accepted as complete, and signed off, it’s delivered.
‘We’re creating products that are going to live out in the world and that need to be improved upon because all the products that we use are constantly improved, and it’s a never-done cycle.’
– Robert Edwards, Team One
In our bid to keep our clients happy, (and because we actually really want it to work on the iWidget ourselves) we can find ourselves spinning the team back up to make a fix before we’ve even had a discussion with the client about who’s going to pay for it. As soon as we do that we lose the opportunity to bill the client for genuine maintenance work. And we set the precedent that they can keep having freebies. It’s hard, and it requires a lot of discipline from ourselves as we manage the project and manage the client, but it works.
It can be easy for us to point the finger at clients for ruining profitability, but what about ourselves, and the way that we manage our teams? Often the biggest detriment to project profitability is actually our own internal process. As project managers, it’s our role to cast a vision for the project and rally everyone to that vision so that everyone is delivering to the same objectives – it starts with clear communication. We distil the vision into actions with a clear beginning and end so that we prevent over-delivering and directing. Does everyone know who has the final internal approval? When to stop? When we’ve used up the budget? When we’ve delivered what we needed to?
‘Everybody needs to be in sync and on the same page as far as what does it do, what is the deliverable, what is my role, what is your role.’
– Mary Warinske, Wunderman Seattle
Everyone wants to do their best work all the time. The challenge is in allowing people to do their best work within the constraints of the project. That requires vision – communication of the vision, and clear boundaries and education as much for our internal teams as with the clients.
It goes without saying that tools can play a big role in maximizing project profitability. Probably the most important tools in our toolkit are time tracking tools – as project managers we need to know at any given time how many hours we’ve burned, and how many hours are left in the budget. Without that knowledge there’s no way that we’ll be able to deliver on budget! And that’s important regardless of whether a project is fixed price, or time and materials – it’s important to accurately track the hours accrued on a project so we know whether or not our team are over-utilized and so that we accrue the historical project data to enable us in the future to do analogous estimating.
There’s really no silver bullet to maximizing project profitability; it’s a combination of factors. At a project level, the levers we’re able to pull as project managers can be limited. But before we lose hope let’s take charge of the factors that are in our control. We can set clear project boundaries and ensure we don’t over-deliver. We can educate our clients when the project is truly complete. We can be the hub of communication on our projects, casting a vision and managing its implementation to streamline activity. And we’re project managers, we love Excel, so let’s track and monitor to ensure our teams are running efficiently.
Thanks to Deltek TrafficLIVE
This post was sponsored by Deltek TrafficLIVE, the comprehensive agency management software. Deltek TrafficLIVE has fancy tools that work across your entire agency, but for us digital project managers there are some really great tools to specifically help us manage projects. As project managers we’re responsible for monitoring progress and delivering completed jobs – we need to see job progress instantly, deal with issues as they arise and get everyone from the client to 3rd party suppliers into some semblance of order. TrafficLIVE lets you do that by providing information to do the job using simple graphical views. No hunting for information or trawling through pages of numbers. Issues are clearly highlighted and important events are notified in real time. Check it out and request a demo.
A big thanks to the panelists featured in this article:
- Mary Warsinske, Sr Manager Agency Operations at Wunderman Seattle
- Anna Owens, Sr Project Manager at EWI Worldwide, Austin
- Tom Fornoff , President Tocquigny Agency, Austin
- Robert Edwards, Sr Manager, Creative Technology Team One, Los Angeles
What do you think?
How do you ensure your projects are profitable? What do you think we’re missing? We’d love to hear if you’ve got any thoughts on maximizing your project profitability – why not join the conversation below?