Episode 166

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Back in my early days of agency life, there was a production or traffic manager in every agency. Their job was to make sure all of the work was in the pipeline and delivered on time and on budget. Somewhere along the way, as agencies streamlined, that position went away.

But now it’s back. And it’s making a huge difference in agencies client retention and profitability.

Back then, the production manager was a combination of what we might think of today as a traffic manager and somebody who negotiated with all the outside vendors like printers or other suppliers providing a service to the agency to solve a client’s problem. The production manager kept track of all the jobs the agency had open, the due dates, who within the agency was working on them — and it was all done by hand without software.

Then in the middle of my career, that position sort of went away as people within agencies started tracking their own jobs using some sort of software. Computers and systems began to replace things that humans did previously.

Because of the complexity of our work today, and how fast it needs to be delivered, many agencies are discovering they need more than just software. They need a dedicated person responsible for driving how the work gets done and how it gets done on a budget.

This is a vital role inside an agency and I’m glad to see it’s back. Depending on the size of your agency, this position, combined with implementing the right software, might be something you want to think about as you prepare to step into 2019.

But before you do, I want to share several best practices, resources to evaluate, and a month-by-month roadmap so you and your team will know what to expect and when.

Quite honestly — on-boarding this new role, especially if you add in new software, will be bumpy. It will be hard on your team. You need to think about it carefully, and if you’re ready to grow, maybe it’s the next step for you. My goal for this solocast is to help smooth out the road for you as much as possible.



What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • Why not having a traffic manager may be holding back your agency’s growth
  • How to decide if and when your agency is ready to hire a traffic manager and onboard the software system
  • The day-to-day role of a traffic manager and the impact the role can have on your agency’s profitability and client retention
  • Why the traffic manager is a full-time position, not a hybrid, and definitely not entry-level
  • Who the traffic manager should report to within the agency and why
  • The personality and EQ a good traffic manager must have to handle the work and the team
  • The advantages and disadvantages of all-in-one software solutions versus standalone
  • What you and your team can expect to happen within the agency during each month of the implementation process and how it gets worse before it gets better
  • The role of the agency owner throughout the process
  • What are the success metrics you and your team need to consider before deciding to go down this path

Drew McLellan is the CEO at Agency Management Institute. He has also owned and operated his own agency since 1995 and is still actively running the agency today. Drew’s unique vantage point as being both an agency owner and working with 250+ small- to mid-size agencies throughout the year gives him a unique perspective on running an agency today.

AMI works with agency owners by:

  • Leading agency owner peer groups
  • Offering workshops for owners and their leadership teams
  • Offering AE Bootcamps
  • Conducting individual agency owner coaching
  • Doing on-site consulting
  • Offering online courses in agency new business and account service

Because he works with those 250+ agencies every year — Drew has the unique opportunity to see the patterns and the habits (both good and bad) that happen over and over again. He has also written two books and been featured in The New York Times, Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, and Fortune Small Business. The Wall Street Journal called his blog “One of 10 blogs every entrepreneur should read.”

The Golden Nuggets:

“Project management software is a great tool to support an agency’s growth but it still takes a human being to drive the functionality.” - @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet “Having a full-time traffic manager who is in the work all day every day and dedicated to understanding the system is efficient and profitable.” - @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet “Filling the traffic manager role sooner rather than later needs to be a priority if your goal is to grow your agency and become more profitable.” - @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet “You need to make it clear to your team that the traffic system you’re implementing is not something you’re going to abandon just because it’s hard.” - @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet “You’ve got to be disciplined with your project management tools so you have good data. It’s definitely garbage in - garbage out.” - @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet


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Ways to contact Drew McLellan:

Speaker 1: Are you tired of feeling like the lonely lighthouse keeper as you run your agency? Welcome to The Agency Management Institute Community, where you’ll learn how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money and keep more of what you make. The Build A Better Agency Podcast is now in our third year of sharing insights on how small to midsize agencies survive and thrive in today’s market. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant. Please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.


Drew McLellan: Hey, everybody drew McLellan from Agency Management Institute here with another episode of Build A Better Agency. Thanks for coming back. If you are a regular listener, you know that typically I have a guest with me on these episodes and I dig into their subject matter expertise as it pertains to our world as agency leaders and owners. But every fifth episode or so, I come out with what I call a solo cast. And that’s really where I’ve identified something that I am talking to agency owners about a lot and I want to make sure that you and I talk about it as well. So today’s topic is a throwback to the old days of agency life. So when I started in the agency business several decades ago, one of the core functions inside every agency of every side was what back then, what we call the production manager.


  And that production manager was a combination of what we might think of today as a traffic manager and somebody who dealt with all the outside vendors. So they kept track back then on paper of all of the jobs that the agency had open and all of the due dates and who was working on them, and then they also negotiated with anybody outside. So not media typically, but all of the print vendors and folks like that. So anybody who was providing an outside service to the agency in the pursuit of solving a client’s problem or putting together a deliverable for a client. Anyway, in the middle of my career that position went away. Agencies as you know, sort of balloon up in size and services, and then when economic times get tight agencies shrink down to sort of the core essentials, and then as times get better agencies grow, they find they have more needs, they want to diversify the staff a little bit, so then they add more specialties.


  And so back in the 90s, as computers came on board, and as people were able to replace some of the things that humans did, replaced those things with computer services, all of a sudden everybody started sort of doing traffic in particular themselves. So everybody was sort of tracking their own jobs or tracking it inside some software. And the production management side often fell onto the subject matter experts inside an agency example, a lot of art directors ended up negotiating with print vendors and things like that. But a trend that I’ve seen over the last probably five years as we’ve come out of the recession and as work we do gets faster. So I think about how long we took to turn around a print ad or a printed piece back in my day when I was early in my career, compared to how fast my agency has to turn that stuff around today.


  And they’re night and day. And so, one of the things that a lot of agencies are discovering is that they really do need somebody more than just a piece of software, kind of driving the production, if you will, of the agency. Driving how work gets done through the agency, when it’s done, and somebody monitoring basically are things being done on time and are we managing to the budget. And while the software is a great tool to support that, it’s still really does take a human being to drive that functionality. And so what I’m seeing now is sort of a modern day traffic manager, or some people are calling it up creative services manager or something else, but basically it’s a traffic manager. And here’s kind of how that job works. And the reason I want to talk to you about it is because once you get to a certain size, not having a person in this function role becomes really detrimental to your agency.


  And so I want to make sure that you’re mindful of the role and how that can work inside your agency. So you can decide whether or not it makes sense for you to have one. If you have less than 10 people in your agency, then I would say a traffic manager is probably a nice to have, but isn’t necessary. So I’m not saying you shouldn’t have one, but I’m saying that the wheels will not come off the wagon if you don’t have one. If you have more than 15 people, it’s pretty risky, not today, to have someone managing the traffic functionality inside your agency. And if you have 20 people or more, this is an absolute necessity at the speed that we are moving today. And as our margins get thinner, we have to have someone who is making sure that we are as efficient and effective as possible, and that we are meeting the client’s needs on time and on budget.


  Or I will say this, if you are a 20 person agency and you choose not to have someone in this role, then typically you’re going to shrink back down to a 15 or 10 person agency, because you are going to make mistakes and it’s going to cost you business. I also do not believe this is a hybrid role. This is not something… Now, again, if you’re in a smaller shop, 10 people or less, this could be a hybrid role, your creative director, your office manager, someone like that might be able to sort of do double duty and do this. But in most agencies, this is a full-time position. And so here’s kind of what they do. This is what this position does, they work with account service and the creative team to build templates for common jobs. And when I say templates, I don’t mean creative templates, I mean, sort of timelines and budgets and what are the things we have to think about or do or deliver when we’re doing this kind of work.


  They also typically sort of whatever traffic system you’re using and we’ll get into what those traffic systems are in a minute, but whatever your traffic system you’re using, they own that traffic system. So they are opening, not the account people, not creative people, but your traffic manager is actually opening all the jobs in your traffic system. So one of the things I want you to notice is, some of the tasks that the traffic manager position takes off of your key account people and your creative teams, because really when you think about it, opening a job in a traffic system is probably not the most efficient use of an art director or a copywriter or an account service person today.


  But having somebody who’s in it all day every day and really dedicated to understanding and knowing and working the system, that’s more efficient. So they also build out all the project authorizations and timetables for projects. So this no longer sits on the account service person’s desk. So if I’m the traffic person, I’m going to map out how long, and obviously I’m sitting down with the creative team, I’m sitting down with the account service team, but I’m using the templates that I mentioned earlier, and I’m mapping out how long it’s going to take for us to get this work done. And then I’m going to assign the resources. So think of everyone on your staff and also any freelancers that you use on a regular basis, those are your resources. And you want to make sure that those resources are well used and deployed throughout the week, that they have an even amount of work, that one person isn’t slammed while another person is sitting around twiddling their thumbs.


  And the traffic manager’s job is to move things around. It’s sort of like moving puzzle pieces on a board. Move things around so that everybody sort of has an equal load and they have a good sense of how much work can get done and through your shop in a week. So they’re going to assign the resources and they’re going to budget hours, this is critical to every job. So again, this gets back to the template. Okay. We know that when we do a banner ad, it takes about this many hours and about this much time. And no template by the way is going to be perfect or right all the time, so do not wait until they’re perfect, do not beta test them for six months, build them out based on historical data and then start testing against your templates and then tweaking as you go.


  Because I promise you, the first templates you build are not going to allow for enough time or enough money in the budget. So nonetheless, they’re using these templates to build out the project authorization, the timeline, they’re assigning the team and they are assigning the budgeted hours for each task. Then what they do is they are also kind of keeping an eye on the workflow that is happening over the course of a few weeks. So they’re not just paying attention to what I’m opening today or what’s due today, but they’re also sort of forecasting out the workload. And what’s incredibly valuable about that is this is happened to all of you, you’ve all experienced this. Friday is looming, and I don’t know why, but we tell every client on the planet that everything will be delivered to them on a Friday. But Friday is looming and all of a sudden we’re buried and everybody’s working super late Thursday night, or we’re missing deadlines because we can’t get it all done.


  The traffic manager’s job is to make sure that never happens again, that they are watching out a couple of weeks. And they’re able to say, “you know what, next Wednesday, because that is taking a vacation day. And because of this has happened. And because this huge website is going live on Friday, we’re going to be slammed on Wednesday and Thursday. We need to figure out how to get more resource in here. Either we need to front load work earlier in this week or earlier next week, or we have to bring some more resource in. Otherwise we’re not going to be able to deliver this on time.” So they’re projecting out the workload as well. They’re also determining what outside resources are needed and they are booking them. So they’re the one who handles working with your freelance pool, working with your contractors, making sure that everybody has signed a no compete, making sure that everybody has signed the confidentiality, making sure that everybody has a contract that they have signed that assigns the work back to your agency once it’s done.


  All of those sorts of things. They are also negotiating rates with your freelancers. So that also is coming off of the plate of either your creative team or your account service team. Then what they’re doing is they are making sure that everybody on your team and knows what’s on their plate this week. So they are doing daily reminders. So “Hey, drew, here’s a list of things that you have to get done today. And by the way, here’s a list of what’s on your plate tomorrow. So if you finish early today, get started on what’s what to do tomorrow.” They’re making sure that everybody knows when deadlines are, they’re checking in. Typically they’re walking around the office and in the morning they’re stopping by and they’re saying, “Hey, bad, bad. I want to make sure that you know, that these three things have to be delivered by the end of the day to day, are you on track to do that?”


  And then they’re walking around the office again, say 3:30 or so saying, “Hey, Bad bad, are we still on time for those three things? And by the way, do you know that these five things are due tomorrow?” So they’re making sure everybody on the team is in the loop and they know exactly what their deadlines are. They’re not just walking around and doing that verbally. Obviously they’re providing a printed documentation or the software, depending on what software tool you use may pop up on everybody’s screen, “here’s what’s due today,” but they’re making sure that no one is in the dark about what they have to get done today and probably for the next couple of days. And they’re making sure that no one is going to surprise an account service person at four o’clock by saying, “sorry, you can’t get it done. I’ll work on it tomorrow.”


  So no surprises. That’s really one of the huge functions of this role is that they deliver a no surprise experience for the team and for your clients. So they’re producing these daily hot sheets, and they’re following up all throughout day to make sure deadlines are being honored, they’re also working with the team to make sure that they are honoring budgets. So they’re coming to me and saying, “you know what, drew, I see that you’ve logged three hours. So note on here just for a second.” This is also critical that everyone’s doing daily time sheets. So this person has on time, current accurate data. But anyway, “Hey drew, I see that you’ve already logged three hours on this copywriting job. And I haven’t even seen the draft. We only have five hours total. How much longer do you need? We need to wrap this up. We need to get going.”


  So the other role that the traffic manager plays as they sort of keep everybody accountable to the budget of the project. They’re reminding me when something is super important and I should spend a ton of time on it, they’re also reminding me when it’s this sort of a down and dirty job and I need to just sort of crank it out, but they’re monitoring. And by the way, they’re held responsible. The way this person is measured and rewarded is based on what percentage of our work got delivered on time and on budget. So they own those metrics for your agency. They’re also a check and balance. So they’re the ones who are making sure people are entering their time correctly, they’re the ones who are making sure that estimates are accurate and adjusting those templates when they prove to be inaccurate, they’re also the one who is reporting up the food chain, how we’re doing on terms of being on time and on budget.


  So this is a critical role. So I talked a little bit about the kinds of systems that these people use. And I want to talk about this really briefly. And then I want to tell you a little bit about the kind of person you should look for, for this role. So many of you are using a standalone accounting software, QuickBooks, Xero, Zoho, something like that. And you don’t want to go to an all-in-one solution. Which is fine, and we’ll talk in a minute about the ups and downs of that. But, so some of the most common project management tools that agencies are using when they don’t want an all-in-one solution are Asana, Wrike, Teamwork, Jira, and Trello. Those are the most common ones. For the six or so that I just named, there’s probably another 600 out there. So I’m not saying these are the only answers I’m saying, these are the ones that are most common for agencies.


  If you do want an all in one project management system. So what I mean by that is, that the accounting software and the project management software are all in one system. So there’s nowhere for a ball to drop between one and the other. Then typically what agencies are using is clients and profits, Workamajig, Atvantage, e.SilentPartner, tools like that. And the advantage that all those tools have is that they are written specifically for agencies. So they have modules for tracking media spent and buying and other things that only an agency is going to need. Depending on your size, on your budget, these may be overkill for you, but if you’re a mid-sized agency and you really do want an all in one solution, those are the four that most agencies are landing on. Again, just like the project management software, there are plenty of other choices out there. So I’m not saying these are your only choices I’m saying these are the most commonly chosen choices. And with that, it seems like a really great time to take a brief pause and then we will get right back to the show.


  Thanks for checking out this week’s episode of build a better agency. I wanted to interrupt very quickly and just remind you that one of the services that AMI offers is our coaching packages. And it comes in a couple of different options. So you can do a remote coaching package, where we would communicate with you over the phone or over a Zoom call. Or we also do onsite consulting where we would actually come to your agency and work with you for a day or a period of days to solve a specific problem, typically that you’ve pre identified and we’ve talked about on the phone. So if you’re interested in either of those, you might go over to the AMI website and under the consulting tab, you will find more information about both our remote coaching and our onsite consulting. Let’s get back to the episode.


  So let’s go back to how to decide. So if you are already in a QuickBooks or a Xero or one of those tools, and you’re trying to decide, “do I really want to upset the apple cart? Do I really want to eliminate the accounting software that I know that I like that I’ve historical data in to switch to one of these standalone, to one of these all-in-one solutions?” There are some advantages and disadvantages that you need to think about. So some of the advantages of the standalone are; typically the interfaces better, agency people like to use those tools better. They’re more intuitive, they’re more nimble agencies can manipulate and customize the software typically better when it’s a standalone project management software. They’re often less expensive.


  So that’s one of the main motivators for many agencies. Oh, by the way, I should have also mentioned Function Point. Function Point is also a standalone, but Function Point sort of an interesting hybrid. Function Point plugs into your accounting software, plugs into QuickBooks. So it turns two disparate systems into a complete system. So, sorry, I should have mentioned that one. But anyway, the standalones. A better interface, more intuitive, less expensive, typically fewer bells and whistles. And for many agencies, some of the all-in-one packages are almost too robust, too much for what you need. And often that means you’re paying for a lot of things and functionality that you don’t really use. Most of the standalone tools have apps, so you can sort of do your traffic on the fly, and you can check your project management, all your people can check their to do lists on some sort of a mobile app.


  They’re easier to get compliance with because they are intuitive. So if you struggle with getting your team to adopt new software, a standalone project management software may be easier for you to do. But there are also some distinct disadvantages. So the biggest one is you have multiple systems. And so basically you have to take the data from one system and transfer it to the other system. And you know that whenever there’s a chasm in between two things, something is going to drop down that hole in the middle. And so many agencies report that when they do the standalone. So I’ve got a project management management system here, and I’ve got my accounting software here, and they do not talk to each other. So I have to manually do something to get the data from one end to the other, that causes problems and a few balls get dropped along the way.


  I also think that a lot of times you have weaker financial metrics. When you can’t get all of the data every hour spent on a project, all of those sorts of things tied to your financial numbers, it’s harder to do some of the benchmarking that we recommend. So you have to do more manual labor. I’m not saying you can’t do it, but you have to do more manual labor to get the data that you want. To get the systems to talk to each other, a lot of times you have a traffic manager and then you have someone in your accounting department, even if it’s an accounting department of one. Now you’ve got two people with their sort of fingers in the myths, and they are trying to make those two systems work. And so it does require good cooperation between those two departments to make those two systems, those two disparate systems function as one system for you.


  And a lot of times the project management software is not agency centric. It is a generic project management software, which means it doesn’t coordinate media, projects, time, profitability, all in one thing. So again, what it’s going to require as your accounting person and your traffic person to do more manual labor, and to create by hand some of the reports that you need to run your business. There’s not a right or wrong. There is a right or wrong for you and for your agency. So just go slowly in the decision-making process and know that this is not a quick shift. So it also means that if people don’t comply, if people put bad data in, if they put their time sheets in three weeks after the date of the work has been done, you might as well not bother.


  It’s definitely a garbage in garbage out scenario. You’ve got to be disciplined about how the tools get used, so that you have good data. Some other things you need to know about sort of this functionality about escalating up to this more formal traffic system is, it’s going to take a year. And nobody believes me when I say this on the front end of their journey, and at the back end of the journey, they look at me and they go, “Oh my gosh, it’s been almost a year. You were right.” It takes almost a full year to be fully functional in this tool and with this new role. So I don’t care what software you use, I don’t care how much money you spend on it, it’s going to take a while to get your team in compliance, to get them to be habitually, putting the data in and the way that you want them to.


  It also requires quite honestly, full-time focus. So many people try and hodgepodge this together with a part-time person. And again, if you have 10 people or less, you can probably get by with that. But if you have more than 10 people in your shop, this is a full-time job. And it’s a full-time job because it’s not about just putting all of the stuff in the software, it’s really all of the managing of the data and the jobs and the estimates and the timelines that takes a lot of time and focus. And it’s really difficult for someone who has another functional role inside your agency to do that well. Another thing you need to know is the owner has to comply. Nobody is excited, no agencies excited about the implementation of a traffic system. They’re excited about the results of it, they’re excited about the insights and the data, they’re excited about the less likelihood of having rush or panic jobs.


  They’re excited about all of that, but no one is excited about adding this to their day. So of course, what they do is they look to the owner and say, “well, is she doing it? Is he doing it? Are they complying?” And if you don’t comply, then everyone’s going to go, “oh, this is optional.” And you’re going to invest all this time and money, and you’re not going to get the help that you want, you’re not going to get the efficiency that you want, and you’re not going to get the data that you want. So don’t do this if you’re not in, right? You’ve got to lead the way. And you’ve got to set the example. I will also tell you that in the implementation, it gets worse before it gets better.


  There is a point in time when this is really hard. And I know I’m not making this sound very attractive, but I promise you, a year after you’ve started, you will be so grateful that you did it, but you have to slog through that first year. And there’s a time when everybody is a little grumpy and everybody is struggling to follow the new system and process. And so you just need to warn them in advance this is coming, when it comes you need to remind them that, “Hey, we knew this was coming. This is a season. This is not going to last forever. We just need to sort of power through this.” I will also tell you that no software support gets rave reviews. There are a hit and misses in all of them, they all have support, but many people end up hiring an outside consultant to help them implement the onboarding of this new traffic functionality and the tool.


  Now, I will also warn you though, this can get expensive. So I’ve seen agencies spend anywhere from 20 to 40 grand to pay someone to come in to their shop and really help them implement it. I’m not saying you have to do that, but I am saying that depending on the person you hired to do the work, and we’re going to get to that in a minute, this is why you want to invest well and wisely in the person who’s going to be your traffic manager, because they can save you 20 to 40 grand if they are the right person to do this work, and they can implement it as their full-time job. So let’s talk a little bit about who should serve in this traffic role. I see a lot of agencies make the mistake of hiring an entry-level person or a kid and putting them into this role.


  And there’s a couple reasons why that doesn’t work. Number one, this person has to be someone who can command compliance. And that’s not easy to do. I mean, let’s face it. Agency folks are tough. They they’re stubborn, they are smart, and they don’t like change, and they don’t like system and process. So you need someone in this role who is mature enough and has a high enough emotional IQ that they are able to read everybody and figure out how to get everyone to come on board. Because this is not something that people are going to embrace. They will on that backend once you’ve got it done, but during that period of time where I said it gets worse before it gets better, this person has to really be able to get everyone to comply, including the owner, whi