13.05.20 // Culture, Perfect Storm
Coronavirus: Keeping your agency out of the ‘vulnerable’ category
We’d like to tell you how we run a digital agency with a unique and ‘sign of the times’ point of difference. Why we created our model and what we believe have been the keys to its success, even when faced with a global pandemic.
Perfect Storm is now 4 years old, and from day 1 we have been firm on our agency proposition around how we operate, and our promise to clients.
It’s no secret that our proposition was born out of frustration and based on the notion that the traditional agency model is broken and no longer fit for purpose. Large and unnecessary overheads, a limited talent pool, lack of transparency, lack of scalability, the list goes on. Yes, remote working for staff members is nothing new, but throwing a global pandemic into the mix has magnified those flaws and accelerated the need to evolve. The rush to hit the furlough buzzer at the first opportunity in March says it all.
Working in direct opposition to these flaws, we were able to create a lean agency set-up – with low overheads, a limitless (but vetted) talent pool of freelance specialists, uber transparency and a switch on or off scalability meaning clients get to see Perfect Storm’s flexibility in full flow.
Whilst it seems like a bit of a no-brainer decision to evolve (and quickly) towards a more flexible model such as ours, it’s not going to be an easy task. So, we want to open-up and share the benefits to be gained from taking the plunge.
It’s worth stressing that freelancers are used by agencies all the time but are normally a dirty secret in the corner of the studio and kept away from clients. For example, with a large office and 50+ staff, why should you need freelance resource to plug the agency shortcomings? With smart processes and systems – the idea of using a network of approved freelance specialists can be achieved – no secrets, just on demand scalability.
Talent & Resourcing
You are only as good as the specialists who are ‘doing the doing’, and with clients being as demanding as ever, the “whoever is free in the internal resource planner” just doesn’t cut it anymore.
Imagine a world where you’re no longer forced to present creative you know deep down isn’t up to scratch – all because the best person for the brief was too busy with other work? Evolving to a more flexible model using talented and senior freelance specialists means sleepless nights are replaced with the calm confidence that your clients will be overwhelmed with the breadth of talent and exceptional work being produced.
Employing freelancers is nothing new in our industry, but making them client-facing rather than hiding them away like a dirty secret in the corner of the studio is. The key is vetting your network of freelancers to ensure you have the very top tier talent at your disposal. Why, if your freelancer has decades of experience would you waste time (and your reputation) making someone who has a fraction of their knowledge talk on their behalf?
Furthermore spreading the talent net further and wider to the freelance community can only have positive outcomes if managed properly and with the right systems and processes in place (see more on that later). No longer does the only technical solution to a website brief need to be WordPress because that’s the sum total of the skills you possess inhouse. Instead, why not handpick a tailored dream team of specialists for each and every brief? Round pegs for round holes remember.
Whether it’s a 3D animation for a property business, building a Magento 2.0 website for a home improvements store, or a brand identity for an independent bakery, these tasks require very specific expertise and levels of experience – evolving to a freelance network model removes the need for short-cuts or asking someone to be something they’re not. No more “Just win the work and we’ll figure out how to deliver it later”.
Never before has it been as imperative that agencies are able to scale up and scale down quickly and flexibly, whether it be in response to COVID-19 related comms, creative, or technical solutions – things need to happen at pace and to a high standard, with no room for passengers. Brands need their agencies’ full support in times of crisis and taking two weeks to create a timing plan isn’t acceptable – neither is sticking in an over-inflated bill as a result of the newly expanded team.
Evolving to a more flexible agency model using a vetted network of freelance partners means that scaling up a large team of top talent, completely fit for purpose can be done with ease, and within hours. Impress clients with the speed of turnaround and still have the luxury of scaling down just as quickly when things start to simmer down. The agility of scalability brings enhanced longevity to agencies – no need for large head counts across multiple departments and no need for the financial burden that comes with it – for you or your clients.
Commercially & Future-proofing
Switching on and off at frequent intervals across a project means, with a model such as ours, the commercials become leaner and more efficient. The worst that could happen if work ground to a halt would be the slowing down of revenue income – but in parallel the cost of sale (i.e. freelance specialists) would also grind to a halt in this scenario, too. From a pipeline perspective, this means there’s no panic when external factors (such as a recession or a global pandemic) damage trading conditions. Also, in this scenario, furloughing doesn’t have to become the crucial lifeline it’s proved to be for so many recently.
No matter what ups and downs come your way, the agility of this model ensures the freedom to constantly fine tune the business and keep looking ahead.
becoming less vulnerable
Whilst there are clear benefits to evolving into this type of agency model that is more sustainable, flexible and efficient, some robust foundations need to be put in to place initially. Simply ‘having used good freelancers before’ will not qualify you to implement a new agile business model.
Systems & Process
First, unsurprisingly, you need some key systems in place for this to be a success.
Have a service level agreement in place that represents a commitment to ways of working for both the agency and freelancer. Freelancers need certain assurances – getting paid on time being an obvious one, and in return agencies need strong commitments on reporting time, communication and clear definition of roles and responsibilities during a project.
The obvious project management tools are great for tracking time, messaging, managing workflow and ticketing of tasks, however there is nothing better than having your own bespoke system which does the job of consolidating as many of these things as possible. The same applies to the housing of key documents – there’s no need for huge investment into an agency intranet when an internal agency hub can be built efficiently and effectively.
Developing the best processes for how work gets delivered is obviously vital too – but it’s important the client is taken on this journey to make sure transparency is never questioned.
We made the decision some time ago to invest in our own purpose-built software to help drive effective delivery management the way we expect and having total ownership of this has become an important aspect of our workflow now.
A Strong core
Operating with a lean agency set up means that our core Perfect Storm team of digital producers need to be exceptional. As there are less people their individual responsibility is greater, so not only do they need to be superbly switched-on they need to learn fast and deliver outstanding work, consistently. Everyone pulling in the same direction is crucial in a tight-knit team, so being the right personality fit and demonstrating a solid work ethic is a must. Again, no room for passengers.
All the above factors mean we really take our time to recruit. We get to know them before leaping into an offer. As they’re central to such a small core team it’s vital they feel invested in what they’re doing, as opposed to merely a temporary contributor to the success of the owners. Being transparent about the performance of the business, having conversations out in the open and discussing how we’re all going to develop together is as important as the (more common) Friday 4pm beers.
Trust is something the industry needs to work on. Not just in respect to the client / agency relationship but between agency owners and their staff too.
Speaking to client-side senior marketers in the industry, we’re aware that more and more brands are placing ‘trust’ high up on the selection criteria when looking to award work. This is something the traditional agency model has often struggled with in the past. The most common reason for clients losing trust that I’ve heard about is where the agency claims (in the pitch meeting!) that the A-team will carry out the work, but the client later discovers they’re suddenly dealing the B, or even C-Team day to day. Once a client discovers something like this, the trust is lost.
A model like ours clears the air and eliminates the need to overpromise. There’s no hiding place and consequently no scope for such issues to emerge. The handpicked team for each brief is the team that delivers the work, each and every day, until project completion. It’s so liberating to introduce the confirmed team members upfront, so clients have the chance to build rapport and ultimately feel more involved with the project and the people. The long-term rewards of a relationship based on trust like this are obvious and plentiful.
Building trust between agency owners and their staff is just as essential. As part of our lean set up, sharing the financial performance of the agency is key to making the team feel part of the bigger picture, so they can see how their individual efforts and decisions can make an impact to our success as a team. Working for the collective benefit, as opposed to the benefit of an agency autocrat is a strong motivator.
It’s also important to involve the team in decision-making, both for the big things as well as the small. Working together and believing in what we do and where we’re heading is key to maintaining an engaged and motivated team, that works hard for each other and for our clients.
We’ve been approached by a lot of people across the industry in recent weeks, all interested in how we’re managing to ride this out with comparatively no negative impact. Rather than keep our cards close to our chest on this one, we thought it might be helpful to be open about us and our processes so that hopefully it might benefits others. As the future is still so uncertain and returning to ‘normal’ in our various places of work seems increasingly unlikely anytime soon, there’s never been a better opportunity to shift how you deliver your product or services to ‘a better way’ whether that be commercially, culturally, efficiently or indeed quality. If you’d like to chat about any of the above, please don’t hesitate to give me a shout or email me : firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE FACT THAT THEY CAN BRING IN TAILORED, SENIOR TALENT AS NEEDED TO HELP DRIVE THE PROJECT FORWARD REALLY ADDED VALUE TO THE PROCESS AND WE ARE DELIGHTED WITH THE RESULTS.Leanne Mckenna Head of Marketing - CBI