How Digital Agencies Around the World Manage Their Projects

Written by Celine Roque on June 13, 2013

It doesn’t matter where you are, running a web agency has its challenges.

You have to get your name out there, conduct needs analysis for clients, provide customer support, check that your entire team is working well, and make sure that you keep these balls in the air all at the same time.

With all of this going on, how do agencies even manage to work on their projects?

To answer this question, we peeked into the workflow of web design and development agencies from all over the world.

Made by Many’s Lean Approach

“Firstly, we would never start with a finished idea,” said Tim Malbon, founding partner of London’s Made by Many.

Made by Many - Image credit

Made by Many – Image credit

Made by Many works with big companies to create innovative digital products and services. Their current clients include Skype, ITV, Universal, Adidas, News Corp and Swisscom.

So if they don’t start with a finished idea when working with these big clients, how do they initiate their projects?

Made by Many uses the Lean approach, which is mostly based on the Lean Startup methodology proposed by Eric Ries.

Tim said that this approach focuses on hypotheses to be validated and tested over time, rather than a fixed set of project requirements:

The product or service we are making for a client emerges from many, many iterative cycles of ‘make, test and learn’. And since the things we make – as with most software today – is never finished, this continues well after launch. This sounds like an obtuse answer – but its not meant to be. Designing new types of ‘soft’ products and services requires a new way of thinking and workflow.

Like their workflow, their team structure isn’t rigid at all. The teams are tightly-knit and cross-functional. Tim explains their company structure like this:

We are very customer-centric and try and see value through the eyes of customers. As such, we have no creative directors – in fact, no job titles or departmental silos at all.

Oursky Says “No” to Context Switching

Ben Cheng is the Product Manager of Oursky – a development studio in Hong Kong. Apart from doing client work, Oursky also builds and runs their own apps like PandaForm and FileSQ.

Image credit

Oursky – Image credit

Because of this workload, Oursky’s PMs oversee 1 to 3 projects simultaneously.

Given all these multiple projects, how do they stay organized? According to Ben:

We try to shield the developers from switching between projects. The PM and me do most of the work to re-allocate resources weekly so other teammates can focus on doing the actual work.

In fact, Ben considers that context switching was one of the biggest mistakes they made early on. This meant that their ‘creators’ – developers, designers, and other specialized workers – were working on multiple projects at the same time and switching their attention back and forth between these projects.

They’ve since fixed this mistake:

The solution is human-based — we try to dedicate each ‘creator’ to one and only one manager. This is so that their time will be handled by a single person and they avoid context switching/meetings as much as possible.

Monkii Values Good Communication

“Managing the workflow and schedule at a Digital Agency is one of the most challenging parts of the job,” according to Matt Fenton, Managing Director of Monkii, a digital agency in Melbourne.

Monkii - Image credit

Monkii – Image credit

But this type of management has to come from people, not tools. Matt says:

Timelines can be bumped by clients, staff get sick and we are usually working on tight deadlines. There is no piece of software that can automate scheduling. Good communication is absolutely essential, as is visibility of who is working on what.

Because of this emphasis on communication, Monkii conducts weekly agency-wide meetings so that everyone in the company is aware of what everyone else is working on. Apart from that, teams have additional meetings:

The PM and account management teams should meet regularly to discuss the schedule and any challenges (at least twice a week).

Cookie Strengthens the Customer Relationship Upfront

Lukasz Twardowski is the co-founder and Creative Director of Cookie – a digital agency based in Gdańsk in Poland. I asked for his advice for staying on track with multiple projects, and here’s what he said:

There’s really only one advice. One hour of high level management at the beginning of the project brings more benefit than 10 hours at its end.

Maybe this is why they pay so much attention to managing their clients’ expectations before they work on the project itself.

When Cookie first started out, they felt that their clients were the weakest link in their workflow. But they quickly realized that it didn’t have to be this way:

Now, we spend a lot of time on understanding our customers before we pick up any, even medium sized projects. We spend equal time to make sure that customers understand us too. And we charge for that time.

During this consultation time they craft a clearer project brief and define the specifications. Then, faced with a clearer picture of the project, the clients have an option:

At the end of the process they can stay with us or take that document and go to another agency. ROI of that is huge on both sides – customers optimize objectives and budget, we make sure that the flow is smooth.

Vordik Works Remotely With a Network of Top Talent

“It all starts with a huddle,” said Aaron Shapland, Managing Director of Vordik, a digital brand agency in Toronto and Calgary.

Vordik creates brand experiences for the web and mobile devices. Their clients include Deloitte and the University of Toronto, but they largely work with SMEs and startups.

According to Aaron, Vordik’s project managers (PMs) first meet with their team and iron out the details of the project.

From there, depending on the type of project, the PM moves the work from expert to expert (brand strategist, UX designer, graphic designer, copywriter, developer) until all stakeholders are happy with the final product… and then the champagne showers begin.

But before the champagne showers, Vordik’s PMs have to keep track of all the moving parts of each project – which includes their vast and remote network of skilled workers.

We’re an open innovation company, and rather than boasting ‘x’ number of employees in Toronto, we have a network of skilled talent across North America, all working remotely for Vordik.

Aaron says that this model helps them have quick access to additional talent when necessary, with low overhead:

It’s a model that we love, that’s cost-effective, that’s growth-oriented, and that we’ll see a lot more of 20 or 30 years down the road.

Digicorp’s Business Analysts Make the Difference

Bangalore’s Digicorp works a little differently. Rather than have a PM, they have a Business Analyst (BA) who acts as the contact person for the client, and passes on the client’s requirements and information to the development team.

Digicorp - Digicorp

Digicorp – Image credit

Abhishek Desai, Digicorp’s “Chief Happiness Officer”, this helps the PM focus on the project:

The Project Manager makes sure the project goes as per schedule and development team is not stuck anywhere technically. So each project has a BA and a Project Manager overlooking it from functional and technical aspects.

This made the biggest difference in how effective they became:

Adding up Business Analysts in the whole cycle was icing on the cake. Now our project manager can focus more on processes and technology rather than communication. He spends more time with developers making it a better team.

As a result, Digicorp can send clients deliverables each week, as well as give them daily progress reports.

Learning from Mistakes

While the above agencies look like they have their work processes all smoothly ironed out, this wasn’t always the case. They made many mistakes along the way – but they used these mistakes as learning opportunities.

“Well, our first mistake was taking any client and any project – regardless of size,” said Aaron of Vordik.

Because of this, they quickly learned their strengths and limitations.:

We learned to only accept projects we excel at – a practice that guarantees a collection of happy clients, and a polished portfolio of work we love doing.

Another common mistake for agencies is to think that they have to build all of the infrastructure from scratch.

Abhishek of Digicorp admits that they made this mistake:

We built our own project management tool initially but due to client projects deadlines we could never focus on making it better.

Now, rather than letting this side project take over their client work, they use Basecamp. “[We] don’t have to worry about the tool and we can focus on delivering the project to client.”

A poorly integrated team is also a common mistake, especially since digital agencies need highly specialized people from different fields.

Tim of Made by Many initially thought that they could get other developers to help them with the work:

At the beginning, we thought we would be able to partner with brilliant dev shops instead of having our own dev team internally. That idea died with the first projects we did – it’s not that it didn’t work, it’s just that we need the devs to be utterly integrated from the get-go and right throughout, and not to be involved only in a production capacity, but continuously.

There’s also the opposite problem: being so integrated with your team that you’re micro-managing everything they do. Abhishek says that this happened at Digicorp:

We were also doing lot of micro management of developers. Keeping track of their daily work by forcing them to enter a memo every half an hour! Those things were horrible.

Since then, Digicorp has learned that by trusting their team, they produce better quality work as well as cultivate a great company culture.

Find what works, fix the rest

The common thread that runs through these agencies is their ability to find what works for them. While mistakes were made along the way, they were quick to recognize these and find other ways to work more effectively.

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About the Author

Celine Roque

Celine Roque writes about creative work, marketing, and web entrepreneurship. She is based in the Philippines, but she works with businesses and blogs from all over the world.

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