Making Sure It Doesn't All Go To Hell

A peer recently spun a tale of the client and campaign that traveled everywhere but to 'Successville'. They started to tell me all the things they went through to repair damage done and get back on track. Then, of course, I was passed the talking stick, which in this case was a pint of Pilsner and we started to compare scars – there were many.

Anyone in an agency -- creative director, designer, photographer, videographer, AE, AD, PM -- ALL have more skeletons on the island of 'Crash & Burn' than we'd ever admit to. Whether it be lost contract, lost relationship, creative never selected or, simply, clients that are so bipolar you can't see how you didn't date them in college. But I digress. There are a million and one things that can go wrong with any project and this post spans far beyond advertising, but I'm going to try to keep the wagons circled here.

Let's analyze, in a vacuum, the key drivers to 'professional doom' in the advertising world:

Poor communication with the client:
The rest of this list is predicated on how well you get this part done. Creative briefs are a must have. Design standards (if any) are a must-have. Client insights and opinions are a must-have. Find out everything you can before you walk back in the door. Furthermore, it's OK to check with your contact person to see if your thinking aligns, prior to showing the fruits of your labor. Trust me, a marketing director doesn't want you showing a photo a frozen monkey paw to their CMO unless it's within the brand vision.

Initial lack of understanding of the project scope:
"We'll build it to your budget!" Yay, that means that you made it cheaper but the client stills wants everything that they asked for. Define the scope with a critical eye for pass-through costs, like freelancers, video and photography shoots and printing. Be sure to cover yourself from the top down. Remember: you should be paid for the work you perform -- keep saying that.

Entering in with inexpensive contracts with the hope to build money into the contract as it unfolds:
"This is the backdoor to an AOR!" I've heard this; I've also become an agency's production house because of it. Remember: if you want the BIG work, you have to show them you're capable of it, even if you begging for table scraps in a crap economy. You'll have to eat some time doing spec and show above and beyond what's asked to get invited to the adults table.

Poor due diligence of what the client really needs vs. what they [think] they want:
Monitor your client, especially those with an agenda. If you have a manager looking to pull an 'Ides of March' on an executive, you don't want to be caught in the crossfire. Make sure you've aligned your creative with more than simply your point of contact's vision. Support any deviation of that vision with case-studies, metrics and A-B testing. Client-side political bloodshed can be the best and the worst situation for an agency dependent upon whom you make look good. Make sure the vision works outside of the bullshit and you might stay regardless of who wins.

Regrettably weak creative briefs:
Just like the SOW, simply undefined creative briefs breed internal resentment with your creative team and typically make AE's lack credibility when they have to go back for further clarification. Build an airtight creative brief template and arrange the proper time to gather the real information from various decision makers on the clients' side.

Strict adherence to the brand standards and related style guides (if any):
Nothing will get you tossed quicker than bringing in (at least one piece of) creative that doesn't match their existing brand standards (those standards that you dutifully collected long before the creative process started).

Thin contracts that don't protect you, your client or the project:
Much like airtight creative briefs, make sure that all assumptions, schedules and legal requirements are out on the table. Make sure the client understands that they, too, can play as much, often more, in the meeting deadlines and coming in on budget.

Contractually limit the amount of rounds of revisions and hours per each round contains (define as not to exceed "X" number of hours):
This puts the onus on the client that they cannot keep going back and forth with revisions without the consequence of a change order (aka: "shock collar").

Not following through with change orders:
This is your own spineless fault. You HAVE to assign change orders right away given that the client has stepped outside the terms of agreement. Remember: if you don't start a pattern of project managerial control, you can never go back and start over to save your skin.

Realistic schedules, milestone and deadlines:
When it comes to traditional advertising, schedules are often more firm than most. When it comes to working technology into the mix, such as developing complex database or tying legacy systems together for final results, the schedule becomes very unstable. Plan appropriately by asking your development staff (or vendor) for a 'pain scale' regarding development. Does it need to be made from scratch? Can you use an 'off the shelf' solution? Is there a CMS? What's monitoring the analytics? Etc. With that pain scale, create days associated to those instances and it will give you a better understanding on when something will truly get done. Gantt charts or project management applications like Basecamphq.com will help you assign and track all the little developmental pieces that come into play with a large-scale project.

Schedules with no room for adjustments:
Locking your schedules in without the inability to move (client notified) deadlines will soon be your undoing. Remember, your contracts needs to protect you just as much as it protects the client. Errors & Omissions (E&O) insurance is also advisable when you start getting into any project that could single-handedly destroy your company if you unknowingly make a mistake during the process.

Minimal vendor and or talent network:
If you deal in consultancy, then you are typically only as strong as your network of talent to accomplish your claims. Don't get me wrong -- consultants and project-based firms are indeed allies you should have at your disposal; remember: it's your job to have your own network, as well. I suggest making a comprehensive database of talents, pricing and results, should you have used them previously. Believe it or not, your network could very well be your most lucrative asset if used correctly.

Too many creative versions and not enough client feedback:
Creative that sits inside an agency being beaten between AE's, AD's and CD's that don't see the client light of day are "time sucks." The longer creative remains in the walls of your agency without real feedback, the more money you will lose!

Creatives that think they can create a revision-proof masterpiece:
It's not going to be perfect the first time -- get over it or get out of this business. There is no perfect idea. Show and tell, gather intel (that means actually having to talk to your client), rework – rinse and repeat. There's a term that I've also learned over the years called "pixel f•••••g." This is when someone (either internally or client-side) is so indecisive, they talk themselves in and out of their own thinking. Do your best to manage this adversity without hitting them in the head with a tack-hammer.

When it's approved you move to the next square on the board:
It's your duty to have the client approve your work. If you leave projects undone, they will affect all of the work that is done beyond that point. Create a document that outlines that milestone, a description of work completed and their acceptance to its completion.

Leaving projects open and subject to being viewed prior to completion:
Look -- Dr. Frankenstein didn't do tours or alpha testing. If you start allowing your client to hang out and change their thinking mid-stream, you will inevitably lose money over and over again. If you have approval, create a 'production lockdown,' which is defined as a period of time for work to be completed without the distractions of potential revisions. After such time, the client can beat it all to hell (given that they have enough time allotted in the revisions) without consequence. Rinse and repeat.

Creating an out-clause or "kill fee" to your contracts:
Lastly, provide a way out. This is something that small firms never think of. You should have just as much a right to terminate the relationship with the client as they do of you. Agree to an allocated amount or hourly summarization of work performed as a 'kill fee' so you both can walk away civilly. Yeah, I know, this sounds great on paper doesn't it?

And for every client gained, there's more than likely one leaving or one you'd like to fire. The key to understanding this balance is "consequence interpretation." Much like chess, the move you make now will bring about many other scenarios that you can control and others that you cannot.

Posted on April 26, 2010 and filed under Advertising, Business, Process.