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About 20 years ago, I moved out of the city of Minneapolis and onto a gravel pit in Lake Lillian, Minnesota. It was late spring. By fall, I needed to have a home built, equal to these northern continental winters. 

We needed resources: wood, tin, rubber, heavy hammers, nails, plexiglass, and lots and lots of dirt. I was building a heavily modified Mandan Earth Lodge, a structure used by the indigenous people of the area.

Most of the resources we needed could be purchased. But how would we move the earth? Luckily, our neighbors, who lived several fields over, just happened to be in the earth-moving business, and we could rent their services. What an excellent third party vendor to have essentially next door! 

How this all came together is another story. I mention it here because resource management sounds great when you are talking about oak, tin, rubber and things of that nature. It’s entirely different when your “resources” have names, have walked with you through fire and have moved mountains for you on behalf of clients. 

For me, with 11+ years at three different advertising agencies, resource management has been the mission-critical factor. Let’s talk about it.

Project Management Drives Resource Management At Agencies 

Project management is like air for the fire. When done well, the fire burns. It’s not burning out of control or sputtering. It’s creating warmth and security by being consistently fed the correct amount of what it needs. 

Your resources, who have names and work in varying disciplines, need specific information to keep burning properly! That starts with the initial planning and road mapping of any given project. And many tools, such as creative project management software and advertising agency software, include resource management features for this very reason.

This is that critical upfront work that starts to happen in the scoping phase of smaller projects, and those conversations often go something like this:

  • Account Manager (AM): The client has a new product. They need a launch video that showcases new capabilities and can be used on their homepage and social channels. 
  • Project Manager (PM): That’s cool! When is it due? Any budget constraints we need to take into consideration? Motion graphics? Voice over? Stock footage? B-roll shoot? Any existing assets we can review? Do they have any call to action (CTA) versioning needs (PS: this is a classic cause of scope creep)? 
  • AM: Well, they have a launch event coming up at the end of the month and the CEO wants to use it as a hype video to launch his PowerPoint (so it needs to be able to be embedded in PowerPoint). Can part of it be a looping version, to be used as a teaser? 
  • PM: Sure. But given it's the end of the month, a shoot might be tough. Also we haven’t talked about the budget or existing assets. If it’s heavy motion graphics, we’ll need X person. Also, due to timing, it’d be good to use X, as they have gone from script to rough cut successfully with this client in the past, saving us at least a round or two. 

And so on. This project management dance creates the foundation leading to later success in resource management. It’s here that you start to define parameters against which proper expectations can be set and met. 

Based on how this all unfolds, the project manager can identify who will be needed, what they will need, and how much capacity will be required of them. They can also properly estimate fees and hard costs, and ultimately decide whether or not this project can be accomplished within existing boundaries, without contributing to burnout

All of this discovery is foundational to proper resource management. 

Depending on your agency’s size, these sorts of conversations are happening more or less continuously, with specific player participation dependent on scope and complexity. 

You need to factor in a mix of the following types of work (these are arranged from most stable to least): 

  • AOR (Agency of Record) 
  • SOWs (Scopes of Work) 
  • Project Based: one-off scoped as needed
  • Hot Potatoes: 1one-offs needed ASAP (ie. someone forgot something)

If you consider these different types of work, you’ll see why thorough upfront project management supports resource management and is so vital to any agency’s success and why there are so many tools trying to address this (I’ll cover tools later). 

The Work Back: How Resource Management Is Done At Agencies

In my first weeks, at my first agency, I heard: “Let’s back into that date” several times. To be honest, I had no idea what this meant. 

This sounds so clear and straightforward now, but back then, I also didn’t know what an ISCI (Industry Standard Coding Identification) code was, or an end card, or a CTA, or the difference between an art director, creative director, or executive creative director (though adding executive in front of anything makes it safe to assume they’re a muckety-muck of import). 

Anyway, backing into a date means planning out all the key steps needed in order to reach a particular outcome by X date. Easy enough if you know the game. If not, get with your key stakeholders. 

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Assigning Resources 

So, assuming you know what we’re making, when it’s due, and the budget, how do you determine who really has the time and the necessary skills, isn’t on PTO during mission critical times, and ultimately can deliver? Let’s start the work back. 

The math is pretty easy; it’s the puzzle that provides some challenge. How many business days between project start date and the final due date? You’d think this would be as straightforward as it sounds. It is not. 

Let’s think about the increasing urgency behind due dates:

  • Level 1: The client is on PTO on Monday, so they would like to have everything the Thursday before. They’ll test it in PowerPoint Friday to make sure everything is working and to address any troubleshooting if needed.
  • Level 2: The client is on PTO on Monday, but some members of the client team will be around and could start testing Friday, and then make any changes Monday.
  • Level 3: The client tells you that the main stakeholder won’t see anything until Monday anyway. They can make any edits then and prepare for the presentation on Wednesday.
  • Level 4: The client tells you that all final files are due Tuesday morning. All troubleshooting and QA-ing will be addressed Tuesday
  • Threat Level Midnight: The client tells you to send files on Tuesday by noon. They will take it from there. 

Clearly you don’t want to operate near Threat Level Midnight. It happens. Some delivery dates are so close to when assets need to be live that though you may have technically delivered, the delivery date created so much stress that you may not be asked to work on additional projects by that client.

Armed with the knowledge driving the delivery date, you can now begin working backwards. For this, I like to use Smartsheet (this isn’t a promotion for this software; I just happen to like it!). 

Building Out A Timeline

Once you have the full picture in mind, including potential plans A, B, C, and D, a full timeline can be built out. Smartsheet is a great, purpose driven piece of resource management software that does this well. Client dates and internal dates are easily filtered and critical milestones are easily highlighted for key stakeholders. 

With the proper dependencies in place, you can inform your teams and the client when items will need decisive action by or progress driving decisions made by, including a drop dead start date, i.e., if we don’t start by X date, this won’t happen. 

Armed with this initial project plan, it’s time to start the process of identifying the key players. See the basic example timeline below. With this, you can work back against PTO, client OOO, holidays, and any other potential conflicts. 

creative agency general timeline
Sample: creative agency general timeline.

To get better insight into what internal teams have going on and what utilization issues might be lurking, I like to use Harvest and Forecast. 

Checking Resource Compatibility

At my previous agency, operations and resourcing was my domain, though I also carried my own client roster. Project managers would request teams for a particular effort and duration. Assuming the exercise above had been thoroughly worked through and we now know the timing implications, we can use Harvest and Forecast to vet the additional considerations. (Check out DPM's picks for 10 Best Time Tracking Software For Companies In 2023.)

Here’s the assignment consideration funnel we used at our agency:

First, we looked at skill sets by asking the following questions. 

  • Does the team member have what is needed for that particular client? 
  • What is their client-facing level of seniority?
    • Do they know the brand? Can they provide something new?
    • Are they consistent, persistent, and dependable?
  • How well do they work with their team counterparts?

Then, we looked at utilization.

  • Do they have the appropriate amount of capacity to successfully deliver?
  • Will they be able to meet responsibilities needed for all key dates?
    • Do they have any conflicting PTO or other client conflicts, such as shoot travel, or in person presentations?

This consideration funnel conversation happened between department heads and ops. Department heads will primarily want to know if said person has capacity. For that, Harvest and Forecast provide quick insight into what everyone is working on, when it’s due, when PTO is scheduled, and what other conflicts might exist. 

Visual sample showing projects with assigned resources
Visual sample showing projects with assigned resources.

With this information in hand, knowing the timing and knowing who can take work, a final and internally vetted (by all stakeholders) project plan can be defended. 

This “defense” of the project plan is key to getting everyone that might be impacted by timing together in the same room. This will prevent lamentable comments such as “we only had X days to do Y, and team W got Z days.” A project plan defense precludes all notions arising from feelings of “I didn’t know.”

Now comes the final stage: client timeline review and sign-off. Let’s assume they’re ready to rock! What’s next?

Common Challenges With Tools: Who Is Using Whom?

In the fairy tale land of project management I just described above, you just follow the steps and everything goes correctly. Things just snap together and stay. 

But we know that’s not reality. Let’s look at this list of tools and sprinkle some reality dust on them. The anecdotes below are just some of the ways roadblocks come up. 

Here’s one example, pulling from our Smartsheet timeline. 

  • PM: This timeline only works if everyone holds to these dates. There’s no room to miss reviews or delay feedback!
  • AM: Understood. I will convey this to the client. Thanks for sending it over.
  • Client: Thank you for this timeline. Can we change the 2nd review date? Our CEO is out of town.

And here’s another example, pulling from our use of Harvest and Forecast.

  • PM: It looks like you have four hours a day spread out for the next week. Is that real? 
  • Art Director: Yes, and that’s just for X client. Also the hours on me for Y client are way too little. I’m totally under water for the next 2 weeks.
  • Operations & Resourcing (who just pulled a utilization report) to PM: Why is the art director only 70% billable? Are you not assigning them work?
  • PM: Uhhhhhmm…

Don’t forget about time tracking and timesheets!

  • Executive creative director: Please put job numbers in meeting invites so I can backtrack my timesheets for the month.
  • Finance: [All agency email] It's the end of the month. Get your timesheets in before the end of day Friday.
  • Operations and Resourcing: I have to approve 400+ lines of timesheets? Today? Including vendor invoices? Hold my beer.
  • PM: Cool! My project is on track so hard, I’m actually under budget by a lot!
    • Same PM: WHAAAAT??? We still have a month to go and I’m nearly over budget. It’s only been a day since I pulled the last report.
  • Finance: No freelance until late Q2. 
  • Operations and PM Team: Can you take this project?
    • Entire agency: I’m so underwater, but sure.
  • New Business: We need a team today!
    • PM: Okay, let me check out freelance. 
    • Executive creative director: When can we give internal teams cool opportunities?
    • PM: Now? 
    • ECD: Who has capacity? 
    • PM and Ops: Looks like nobody. 
    • Finance: No Freelance. 

None of these are show-stoppers. They may sound like complete roadblocks, but everything is a negotiation, no matter what it sounds like at the outset. Good communication skills, proper planning, and tenacious problem solving can move teams beyond these fairly easily. 

The more pernicious problem is the idea that these problems shouldn’t exist in the first place. They don’t all exist at the same time, with the same frequency and amplitude, but when weighing your business strategy and approach, what you decide will bring with it its own challenges. 

Ultimately good resource management is the key to profitability.

How To Work With Finance To Prioritize Profitability

So are we profitable? How do we know? The short answer is to ask the folks in finance. But you should know, too.

One way to tell is utilization. This is the extent to which resources, such as employees and equipment, are being effectively and efficiently used to complete projects and tasks. It is a metric used to measure how well the agency is maximizing the productivity and capacity of its resources.

Here’s a Haiku written by ChatGPT: 

Resources' dance flows,
Ad agency's heartbeats,
Utilization.

Good utilization can lead to a higher EBITDA and higher levels of revenue. EBITDA stands for earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization

Another Haiku for you from ChatGPT: 

Earnings unveiled,
Before costs and taxes weigh,
EBITDA shines.

Revenue refers to the total income or sales generated by a company, organization, or individual from their primary business activities. It represents the amount of money earned through the sale of goods, provision of services, or other sources of income. 

Revenue is a fundamental aspect of financial statements and is a key indicator of a business's performance and profitability. It does not include any deductions for expenses, taxes, or other costs, providing an overall measure of the amount of money coming into the entity.

Here’s ChatGPT’s Haiku about revenue:

Money flows like streams,
Sales and services converge,
Revenue's life's blood.

In summary, finance wants to: 

  • Maximize EBITDA
  • Maximize revenue
  • Maximize utilization

Finance can do this because: 

  • Finance loves money
  • Or because Finance wants a stable growing business and loves money 
  • Or because Finance wants a stable growing business that never has to go through rounds of lay-offs … and loves money! 

Jokes aside, this role is critical to the long lasting success of any agency and for that we should love finance. Work with finance—get them on your team! A lot of real world insight can come from utilization reporting coming from finance. 

The Struggle Is Real: Challenges With Maintaining Profitability

Here are a few strategies to control costs or create better work life balance when profitability is the priority.  

The case for and against running lean:

  • For: You stay tight and share in victories. You can weather tough times and set yourself up for longevity.
  • Against: It can cause burnout leading to high turnover and job dissatisfaction, making longevity a moot point. 

The case for and against a deep bench:

  • For: You’ll have a solid roster to choose from when teams are needed. It will be easy to address quick-turn requests and surprising opportunities. You’ll have the ability to avoid freelance on new business pitches, keeping more work in-house. 
  • Against: Maintaining a heavy roster during lean times can lead to lay-offs and can create the impression of instability, especially if there are multiple rounds in a short period of time.

The case for or against super heroes, i.e., freelance:

  • For: They can potentially dedicate more hours and work weekends to achieve a last-minute win. They’ll be dedicated to a single effort with less interruptions or distractions. You can have many specific short term hires with a high degree of a particular specialization. 
  • Against: Freelancers can be wild cards and they’re often unproven. They may not work well in a given cultural structure. They’re often expensive, and come with billing, invoicing, and trust issues.

My experience includes agencies that have run both lean and those with a deep bench. As with all things, when times are good, times are good. When they are bad? Well, then they aren’t good. Both have used super heroes to good and bad effect. 

The agency which ran lean weathered the tough times more gracefully in my book of individual experience (i.e., no lay-offs).

Where Science And Art Meet: The Project Manager

Regardless of where you land on the spectrum of businesses, advertising agencies, or otherwise, many (if not all) of the players will be looking to the project manager for solutions. If they don’t, that’s a bad sign. The more solutions you have up your sleeve, the more you become the air for the creative fires described earlier. 

If there is too much work and not enough resources, build your bench of trusted freelancers. Talk to others, get names, build your network, and then pull a rabbit out of your hat when you have the right person for the job. 

If freelance isn’t an option, it comes down to the nitty gritty of project planning, working with your fellow project manager on their key dates and shifting across high need/low need portions of projects as best as possible. 

Absent that option, your last resort is shifting dates or making up the time in a later phase. Late nights and weekend work should be the anomaly and not the norm. The key is proactive anticipatory communication and expectation management. Avoid the pitfall of a surprise deadline miss. 

If you have an ops or resourcing person, support them and send them freelancer names. They can get them onboarded and vetted as a vendor so they are ready to be called in a time of need. If you have too little work, support your new business director by helping update outbound assets, or work on a refresh of internal assets and videos. 

Whatever you do, make sure to drive work forward in a productive way. Think like a start-up and take ownership in doing your part to support new client acquisition efforts. Any underutilized folks could potentially put their non-billable time to those efforts. 

Develop An 'Owner' Mindset

One question we asked leading up to yearly 360º reviews in a previous agency was whether someone was an owner or renter.  

The renter’s mindset is: “Someone else will take care of it. It’s not my problem. I won’t be here long term, so I only care enough to get most of my deposit back.”

You should aim to be an owner: Stay engaged, take the lead, and dive in. Let others feel your investment. Get on the dance floor and shake a leg, cut a rug. Make music in the house and raise the roof, but don’t burn it down! 

If this raises any questions and you’d like to chat, I’m available on The Digital Project Manager Slack. Don’t forget to subscribe to The Digital Project Manager newsletter!

Find out more about who's responsible for resource management here.

Thako Harris
By Thako Harris

Thako Harris is a seasoned operations and resourcing veteran, with over 11 years of experience within the discipline of project management. His client roster includes recognizable brands such as: Subaru, Noom, GNC, Comcast. Most recently Thako led a department of eight senior project managers, focusing on process implementation, resource management, utilization and profitability, as well as managing his own portfolio of clients. With a broad range of career experiences, Thako brings a fresh, human perspective to agency operations.