Building Your Agency's Integrated Engine

Your agency's engine has a dual purpose. First, it needs to be able to drive your agency to develop creative solutions and innovations for you and your clients. Second, your engine is the heart of how you get your team to those solutions. Without out a reliable, and strong engine that can keep up with the evolution of advertising, you may find yourself running out of gas and stuck on the curb.

One of the main reasons why I started this site was to not only share the basics of process and workflow — to provide a starting point in defining what goes on during the creative process — but to make the case that the way an agency operates is a vital, strategic part of the business model.

Throughout the site, you are going to find a variety of ways of doing things, most of it centered around the basics, to help you evaluate what parts you may need to build your own unique agency model. This definition process, I think is vital to help you define and develop your own practices for your own specific agency.

Notice how I shy away from using the term "best" when it comes to practices? It's not because we don't often fall back to the tried and true, it's because we often ignore them (and I argue, for the right reasons) when it comes to managing creativity. 

We ignore best practices when it gets in the way of innovative thinking, when it doesn't apply to the project or the industry or the specific media, when the group of people we are working with are different, and when using best practices means falling short of the big idea.

This doesn't always mean re-inventing the wheel when it comes to managing projects, it just means clearing the way for allowing new practices to develop and connections (and inter-connections) to form and occur. However this means creating (and indeed, allowing for) new connections between people as well as supporting the development of a network approach to overall agency workflow.

Why is creating your own "practices" important?

Because the model for creative agencies is evolving. 

There is no one size fits all, and there hasn't been for sometime. This splintering in ways of doing things is making for some unique, fun places to work, as well as making some agencies stuck in the past (and dare I say, increasingly stressful to work in).

I look at in a similar way to where we are now in car engine technology. Different engines power different types of vehicles, they all get you to where you want to go, but their end results may differ. While the focus in the past few years seems to be more on how to improve efficiency and gas milage, there is only so much you get out of an older engine. I think we can acknowledge that just improving on efficiency with the old model isn't going to be enough to stay competitive with other car makers in the long run. Take the real auto-industry for example, we all see the trend for more and more cars being powered by hybrid technology — gas and electric, working to power the car in different ways at different times. It may not be too long before we all see the inevitability and demise of gas powered engines. 

This doesn't mean we are all going to be driving around in Tesla-like autos, but it does mean we need to put the time in for some research and development for our own engine technology (in fact, I believe just like there may be several competing technologies that power cars in the end, there will be several new agency engines that can compete competitively).

The end result is that in order to continue to sell some kick butt cars, we need to do more than just rely on a more efficient gas powered engine to get us where we want to go.

So how do we improve our agency engine?

Recommit to placing value in thought leadership in your agency. 

What you believe in, what you want to, where you want to go is not only important to your client, but to the strategic viability of your company. Having thought leadership in your organization will require you to "walk-the-walk," to be innovative in your own business model.

Have a strategic plan for your agency's engine that is more than a manifesto.

We concentrate very hard on developing strategy for clients, but too often we forget to practice these skills on our own organization. However, your business needs more than a manifesto if it is going to continue to be profitable and sustainable. A business strategy that takes into consideration an HRD (Human resource development) view is important. In an industry that values the creativity of it's individuals; who you hire and what you hire for can play a large part in how you are defined. As an industry, too often we think of people as throwaway parts. Placing HRD at a higher level in your organization, can help you not only find better quality parts but will allow for the necessary research and development that you are going to need in order to build your new engine. 

Your agency organizational structure does not map out the way your engine works. 

Almost every agency has some form of formal structure. It helps to determine where someone is and what role they play in an agency. Formality helps us to set roles and responsibilities, and helps our employees understand what is expected of them and how they will be measured. It is an easy way of making clear what's expected of someone, how they can improve and opportunity for growth. However, if there is too formal a structure, silos will develop. Take a glance at the example below, does this look like an organization that can be nimble in the way it works? It certainly is meant for a specific scale of business, but how often are people sharing knowledge cross functionally, across teams and across the larger agency?

Example of a partial advertising agency hierarchy / organizational chart. This chart shows where people fit in by function, not how they may work together on assignments. 

Example of a partial advertising agency hierarchy / organizational chart. This chart shows where people fit in by function, not how they may work together on assignments. 

While we often hire and figure resources based on function, agency work is typically done in a  "project based" agency environment. We work in teams, pulled from different functions and grouped by project. While not everyone in the agency world has embraced project managers or has given project managers true ownership of the projects they run, the fact is much of the agency work we do is in a team environment. In project management terms, we call this a matrix organizational structure. You may have a formal department head (like an ECD or head of production) but you typically work together with other people across functions to complete work. To what level you do this in your organization varies, but a matrix structure is the beginnings of a networked structure (or integrated) organization. The down-side of a matrix is that you may have a conflict of loyalty between functional managers and project managers over resources. The up-side is that when you do empower real project management, teams and resources can be focused and tracked.

Example of a matrix structure which you may see in your agency. In this example, we show a strong project management team taking the lead as project managers of teams made up of people from different functions.

Example of a matrix structure which you may see in your agency. In this example, we show a strong project management team taking the lead as project managers of teams made up of people from different functions.

Many agencies will tell me that they have a "flat organizational structure." However, I argue that saying you have a flat structure in your organization is meaningless in regards to how you actually get work done. Flat structures always have a way of working. What you get in a flat structure is an underlying unspoken hierarchy. I think you are doing yourself and the organization a disservice, as when the "way things really work" is hidden. A flat organization can manifest itself easily into agency politics, favorites and can form unintended "I have the power" chains. To fix flat structures or to support them means having a set of real rules for the road. In the end, however, flat organizational structures, will over time naturally form into more formal structure due to necessity. There is always a critical level of work in any organization that exceeds its ability to self-organize.

The middle ground is for agencies to develop thinking where values in the organization are embedded. The ideals of a flat structure can be transformed to the concept that says "everyone has value that may go beyond their job function, everyone should share a cross-functional mentality that allows for teams to form, work-together, where everyone feels like they share ownership, and everyone can connect with anyone in the agency in order to deliver on solutions." 

If we take the matrix model (with some of it's rules) and combine it with the idea of building a flat organization, we get a model that begins to condense not only who is working on the project, but more multi-discipline thinking and individuals. This middle ground is what many agencies are loosely calling an "integrated model." To me being an integrated agency means more than being an agency that does broadcast, digital, mobile, social and traditional work. It means that the agency teams can work across media to build solutions, that values making connections, allowing for the free flow of expertise or experience across everyone in the agency in order to gain insight or new knowledge in the work being done. 

To create this middle ground, it's ok to pull from different project management methodologies to tune your engine.

Traditional project management has some very valuable tools that your organization can benefit from. SOW's, risk analysis and communication skills or tools are just some of the things that you can pull into your engine. 

The values from a Agile workflow, such as placing emphasis on individuals and interactions over processes and tools and collaboration over negotiation and responding to change rather than following a plan can also be valuable in developing teams.

Design Thinking where you focus on solutions though the define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement and learn stages as opposed to having a single defined linear process has valid methodologies that support and help us to define integrated thinking. Integrated teams expand and contract based on their development stage.

Pulling from these methodologies and other similar systems, can help to form the basis for an agency engine that can work in "hybrid mode." It means being agile enough to be able to collaborate (and evolve solutions) with cross-functional and multi-disciplinary teams, a focus on solutions as oppose to tactics, and a structure where people work in a networked, agile environment where people can form teams as needed for each step of the process.

An example of two different integrated teams at different stages of a project and how they may network with others in the agency as support. Colors represent possible functional links as peers rather than any given hierarchy. This network concept also borrows from "lean" philosophy.

An example of two different integrated teams at different stages of a project and how they may network with others in the agency as support. Colors represent possible functional links as peers rather than any given hierarchy. This network concept also borrows from "lean" philosophy.

Shape process for how your teams are organized. 

At the core of integration is the fluidity of pulling together a wide range of people to come together for each task, but it is also having a core team participate in a way that can quickly allow for rapid iteration. Integration methodology also requires the entire agency to place value in helping others in a collaborative environment. Where a developer can seek out an art buyer or motion graphics artist, or strategist or other specialists in the agency that can add value to the project that he is a part of. Where a team is built with complementary roles, where they are available to meet and reach each other regularly and can collaborate in an effective way.

This collaborative environment does several things. It allows for the transfer of knowledge and expertise between traditionalists, creatives, strategists, technologists and the untraditional. It allows for ideas to be tested or prototyped early on in the process. It provides us for a "structure" based on rules rather than best practices which allow us to have the openness to concept "the next big thing." 

When collaboration is the norm, it allows for the organic development of new practices to tackle creative solutions. An integrated team may not even have a creative technologist, if it's the norm that it can pull from the expertise of multiple technical areas (and agency individuals) and have them on the team as needed. The best creative technologist, is one who is always in learning mode, and probably has a deep network within the agency as well. What learnings or changes to a project would happen if the team brought in someone from analytics or an expert on a specific platform?

Create masters of adaptability, specialists in generalization and utilize organizational learning.

Connections are important to your engine, cross-functional teams by nature, get to know each other and gain exposure to other areas of the company. As an agency leader, you need to be a key role model in not only having a clear vision, but support the future development of your agency engine by being committed to the long-term. Adaptability to change means you need to be supportive of the new and support of people with a multi-discipline background.

Adaptability means having a culture that values continuous improvement. Reinforce the positive, and realign the agency when things get off track. And when there is less importance placed on hierarchy and formality, its easier for the average joe to engage agency thought leaders since you no longer have to go through layers of management and command. 

Lastly, embed knowledge sharing in your agency into the daily workflow. Agency wikis, internal agency meetings & internal platforms can help in sharing agency information as well as new tech, new ideas and new solutions. But take the time to get it distill out to the larger group,  formalize a learning structure. While more collaboration means less hoarding of information learned, it doesn't mean the organization as whole can take advantage of new learnings. Encourage internal networks and coordination of sharing of new knowledge for the greater good of your organization. 

Being integrated means being adaptable, sharing knowledge, and supporting teams in a networked environment. It uses HRD as a core business strategy and organizational learning as a toolkit to support the development of an agency engine that is always being improved on in a strategic focused way.

Note: This article is a work in progress. - Ed