Your guide to agency workflows (featuring an 8-step agency workflow process)

agency workflow

A solid agency workflow can take your business from good to great. Get it right, and you’ll have a better chance of reducing agency bottlenecks, staff burnout, and client churn. All while retaining revenue you’d otherwise lose through inefficiencies like lost deliverables or poor team cohesion. 

Read on to improve your workflows—starting today.

Our agency expert roll call

We’re not just bringing you the low down on agency workflow. We’re bringing you real insights from the following agency veterans:

So, let’s get started. 

What is a workflow (in general)?

A workflow outlines the typical sequence of steps or activities from project initiation to completion. Aside from tasks and steps, a workflow establishes the dependencies and resources (people or tools) required to achieve project objectives. 

What is an agency workflow specifically? 

Like a general workflow, an agency workflow outlines the typical sequence of actions needed to go from project initiation to normal closure. But, there are a few key differences. 

For starters, agency projects usually involve higher team project coordination and collaboration levels. The plot thickens even more when you add multiple clients and projects into the already wobbly workflow balancing act. 

In short, it’s not just your internal team or C suite that you need to keep happy across a few in-house projects. You must also keep your client roster happy—across projects.

Agency workflow management vs. agency workflow

Workflow refers to the specific sequence of steps, tasks, resources, and dependencies necessary to complete a project. In contrast, workflow management involves designing, executing, and overseeing the progress and efficiency of those tasks.

Agency standard operating procedure (SOP) vs. agency workflow

Workflows and agency SOPs are different but support each other. Your workflow gives a birdseye view of the sequence of tasks. Your SOPs get into the nitty gritty with detailed instructions on performing a specific task or activity within that workflow. 

3 types of workflows (with agency use cases)

Let’s look at three types of workflows, alongside use cases showing how you might apply them within your agency.

1. Sequential workflow 

A sequential workflow means you complete tasks in a linear, sequential order. So you only start the next job after you’ve finished the previous one.

  • The biggest pro: Increased coordination, leading to smoother project execution.
  • The biggest con: Slower response times to potential bottlenecks. That can hinder agility and adaptability in fast-paced agency environments.

Agency use case for sequential workflows

A digital marketing agency workflow could include specific tasks that require linear completion. Publishing a blog post, for example. 

You’ll likely need room for flexibility, but you’ll usually follow the same sequence of steps each time. Think brief creation, research, first draft, review, final draft, approval, and upload. 

2. Parallel workflow 

A parallel workflow allows you to execute multiple tasks across different projects simultaneously. This workflow also accounts for the tasks requiring collaboration across individuals or teams.

  • The biggest pro: Enhanced efficiency and faster turnaround times. That allows for progress on multiple tasks or projects at once.
  • The biggest con: Coordination and communication across workflows and projects are complex. That can cause team conflict and inconsistency across workflows. 

Agency use case for parallel workflows

An advertising agency with multiple client accounts could benefit from a parallel workflow. With this workflow, you can encourage collaboration to optimize resource utilization across your client roster. 

3. Conditional workflow 

Also known as “conditional logic” or “branch logic,” conditional workflows are a way of automating a process based on different conditions or criteria being met.

A simple way to think about it is the “if this, then that” structure. Meaning, if a certain condition or set of conditions is met, then a certain action is taken.

Conditional workflows provide flexibility and customization when conditions or criteria determine the flow of tasks. In this case, you need room for different paths or branches. 

  • The biggest pro: The flexibility to adapt and tailor your process. That creates space for bespoke and targeted actions in your workflow. 
  • The biggest con: Conditional workflows can get complex. This workflow is tricky to maintain over time because of the many branching paths and conditional dependencies.

Agency use case for conditional workflows

A software development agency might benefit from conditional workflows—especially if they work on custom projects with varying requirements. You might need to start or skip different tasks or processes depending on project requirements

What can happen if you don’t have agency workflows (expert insights) 

From inefficiencies (i.e., lost revenue) to team burnout (that may lead to staff churn). We look at what can happen if you don’t have agency workflows.

“I’ve struggled a lot with creating agency workflow processes when my business began to grow. But equally, those struggles helped me realize just how important it is to have strong business ops in place.” – Riley Kaminer, Agency Founder.

Avoidable inefficiencies (like lost revenue)

“I view optimizing workflow processes as a value-producing activity of my agency,” says Riley. 

That’s because “having poor agency workflow systems in place can, at the very least, cause inefficiencies.” Riley cites both “lost revenue,” and missed “opportunities to increase revenue” as examples. 

A rectangle shaped banner in purple featuring a 3D book cover with a prompt to download an eBook about resource planning for agencies.

Bottlenecks, lost assets, and costly project delays

“Deadlines are much more difficult to maintain when there’s a workflow gap,” says agency expert Justin Whitcomb. Plus, “bottlenecks and lost assets” (more pitfalls of poor agency workflows) can “lead to late completion.”

Riley mirrors this point, highlighting “losing track of deliverables” as a significant issue when you don’t have agency workflows. At best, these issues can cause costly project delays and at worst, project failure

Losing clients 

To recap, poor agency workflow (or lack thereof) makes it hard to keep track of deliverables. But “frustrating your freelancers or other stakeholders” is another common issue, says Riley. 

Lost deliverables and frustrated team members can lead to project delays or complete failure. And that leads to negative client experiences.

You might be able to bounce back from the worst-case scenario on a single client or project. But across multiple clients and projects? It can be fatal for your agency and lead to the worst outcome of all, losing clients.

Agency burnout (leading to staff churn) 

A lack of agency workflows doesn’t just frustrate your freelancers. It’ll discourage your employees too. Here’s why. 

If you don’t have robust workflows in your agency, knowing who’s responsible for what throughout the project is tricky. And you can’t effectively plan team time if you don’t know who’s responsible for what.

If you can’t plan team time on a single project, let alone across projects, you can’t plan manageable workloads. Intense workloads (with poor planning) can cause agency burnout.

Agency burnout doesn’t just put your team’s health at risk. It also increases staff churn, which in turn creates negative client experiences. Prevention is cheaper than the cure for this nightmare agency cycle that only perpetuates if left unchecked. 

Your 8-step agency workflow process 

To avoid some of these challenges that occur if you don’t have the right workflow processes in place, we’ve created an eight-step agency workflow process for you to bookmark.

Expect expert tips, example agency use cases, and key actions

But before we kick off: We assume that the “client discovery” and “proposal” stages of your agency project management process went well. So your client has signed the contract, agreed to the initial project scope, and you’re ready to onboard them— officially kicking off the project. 

Step 1. Client onboarding (or project kickoff)

Step one isn’t just about onboarding clients. It’s also about defining your project team’s roles, goals, and responsibilities. 

Doing this now will help you forecast resources. That means you can better match your team against tasks across your agency—setting you on track for project success.

During this stage, you’ll also want to finalize:

  • The effort vs. scope (you’ve got input from the right person about how much work is really required to meet the scope) 
  • The project requirements (including deliverables)
  • Your client’s goals (and their criteria for success)
  • Any project stakeholders
  • An outline of resources needed (i.e., the people and tools you’ll need for project success) 
  • A flexible project timeline
    • Your timeline should include key milestones and dates, but remain flexible enough to account for project changes or issues

Expert insight on client communication

Justin cites “client communication” as a tricky agency workflow aspect to get right because it can be “all-or-nothing.”

“Either they have no desire to communicate, or want to have their hands on everything,” says Justin.

It’s “hard to find a good balance on a consistent basis,” but there are things you can do to mitigate risk. Setting communication expectations (internally and externally) during the client onboarding stage of your agency workflow is one example.

Client onboarding actions

Here are some key actions you can take during this stage:

  • Define project milestones and create a clear project brief. To do this, ask yourself:
    • What key tasks need to be done and why?
    • Who are we aiming the project at? (i.e., target audiences and buyer personas)
    • What are the milestones?
    • What are the key due dates for milestones?
    • What is the ideal timeline and deadline for project closure?
  • Set achievable and measurable goals. Try the S.M.A.R.T method (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely) when setting project goals. 
  • Finalize your project team structure, and set responsibilities. Take this time to assign specific project roles and responsibilities. Provide a clear idea of what success and failure look like. 
  • Set communication expectations (internally and externally). How will you communicate (e.g., email, Slack, calls), and how often? Who are the key contact points? 
  • Host an internal project kickoff meeting. Your kickoff meeting isn’t just a chance to set project expectations, assign team roles, and introduce the brief. It’s also a chance to gain team feedback so you can ensure your expectations are realistic. 

Step 2. Planning and strategy

During the planning and strategy stage, it’s time to dig into the project details, starting with research. 

You can use any research you gather to develop your strategy (or project roadmap). Your strategy should detail your approach to achieving your client’s needs and project goals. 

Getting clear about the project’s target audience is very beneficial here. 

You’ll want to know: 

  • What their goals are
  • What drives them to take action
  • How your clients’ products or services help solve their problems

Expert insight (small agency use case) 

Building “brainstorming and worst-case-scenario work into your workflows, as a startup or smaller agency, is critical,” says Justin. 

“You need time to talk through ideas” throughout the workflow, but it’s imperative during the planning and strategy stage.  

Justin emphasizes that even with plans and risk management, you need the “flexibility to change when your needs and demands change.”

Planning and strategy actions 

Here are some key actions you can take during this stage:

  • Define goals and objectives. If you want results, specificity and clarity are key. You’ll want to set clear project goals, objectives, and key performance indicators (KPIs). But do so in a way that aligns with the client’s expectations and desired outcomes. You must also ensure your team’s fully on board and the project expectations are realistic. 
  • Conduct market research. Gather research about your target audience through existing data sources (i.e., online analytics), surveys and questionnaires, one-on-one interviews, online research tools, or focus groups. 
  • Create your project strategy. Use all that juicy research to create a strategy. You’ll want to outline your approach (including key tactics) and break your plan into specific tasks. 

Step 3. Resource planning 

Resource management is something you’ll want to factor into the entire process. Agency resource planning forms a significant part of this. You can embed resource planning within the planning and strategy phase. Or you can work resource planning into a separate step in your process.

If you’re embedding within the planning stage, remember: it isn’t just about creating a rock-solid strategy. It’s also about planning your team’s time so you can execute the strategy with the greatest chance of success. That means you must assign the right people to the right tasks. But are they even available, and if so, how much? 

Resource planning actions:

  1. Assign the right tasks to the right people. Factor in the skills needed for tasks and subtasks against the project timeline, milestones, budget, team availability, and capacity.  
  2. Plan time for brainstorming. A la Justin’s expert advice, remember to plan time for brainstorming and worst-case scenarios throughout the workflow. 
  3. Account for less focused work or time off. Downtime is essential for team well-being and productivity. You’ll also want to plan for vacation, sickness, or unforeseen time off. 

Step 4. Creative development (starting key deliverables)

Now you’ve got your strategy, it’s time to dive into creating key deliverables. Examples of deliverables could be designing and developing visuals or writing content. Your deliverables could also be any materials you need to implement the next stage of your strategy.

Allocating and scheduling your team’s time is essential during this step. When planning your resources, your priority should be to assign the right tasks to the right people.

But also remember to factor in:

  • Time for less intense work like admin
  • Team vacation or sickness
  • Different time zones
  • Time to brainstorm 
  • Flexibility for any bumps in the road
  • Budget 
  • Deadlines 

Creative development actions

Here are some key actions you can take during this stage:

  • Ideation and conceptualization. To get the best possible deliverables you’ll want to encourage collaborative working. This way, you can work together to create innovative ideas and concepts that meet project goals. 
  • Create deliverables. If you’re a content agency, you’ll likely start to work on things like designs, graphics, layouts, and copy. In that case, you’ll need to schedule resources like graphic designers and copywriters. You’ll also need to work in line with the client brand guidelines if they have them.
  • Iterative review and feedback. Before the final review, you’ll want to encourage a feedback loop between team members, departments, and the client.

Step 5. Monitoring and control (quality assurance)

You should build monitoring and control (or quality assurance) into most, if not all, workflow stages. It should also form a crucial part of your agency workflow management approach.

Throughout your workflow, you’ll need to test, fact-check, seek feedback, and find opportunities for improvement. This process won’t look the same for everyone. 

Content marketing agencies might check for brand compliance. Meanwhile, software development will likely double-check functionality and compatibility, for example. 

Resource monitoring and control 

Aside from the deliverables, monitoring, and control apply to your team too. You’ll want to track the use of resources and make adjustments as needed. For example, if someone is overallocated, you could reallocate work or hire a contractor to help with the excess. 

Pro tip: Profitability analysis can form part of resource monitoring and control for your agency. A tool with in-built project forecasting reports will show you the percentage of time spent on non-billable work. It’ll also help you see whether you’re over or under-servicing your client.

Monitoring and control actions

Here are some key actions you can take during this stage:

  • Quality assurance. Do quality checks and testing throughout the project. You want to ensure the deliverables or anything else involved with project execution (including technical aspects) meet client and project needs.
  • Resource monitoring and optimization. Poor resource management, including overallocated resources, is a top cause of project failure. So you’ll need to monitor team capacity throughout the project, ensuring no one is overallocated. As part of resource optimization, you’ll also want to assign workload to under-allocated team members as needed. 

Step 6. Review and approval 

After completing the first drafts of your project deliverables, you’ll need to get client feedback, revision suggestions, and final approval. 

We recommend presenting the deliverables to your clients in a meeting. That way, you can show how the work aligns with the client’s objectives. Plus, you can add context, answer questions, and agree on the next steps while you have the client in front of you.

Pro tip: You’ll want to document the meeting. You’ll then have client feedback, your responsibilities, and agreed-on next steps in writing. That means you can create accountability for tasks in-house and execute the following steps with peace of mind. 

Review and approval actions

Here are some key actions you can take during this stage:

  1. Presentation and explanation. Take this opportunity to present the deliverables to the client. You’ll want to highlight the key features, benefits, and rationale behind any project decisions. 
  2. Incorporate feedback. You’ll need to incorporate client suggestions or revisions. For example, ad agency workflows might include changes to an ad’s written messaging or visuals based on the client’s input. 
    1. Be mindful of over-servicing clients here. If there are any requests outside of the original scope, you could recommend these as a separate project. You could also gently remind the client of the agreed scope. 
  3. Alignment and final approval. Open communication is critical. An open dialogue will ensure you’ve aligned everyone (agency team and client) on the final versions of deliverables. You’ll want to get approval and any required sign-offs or documentation. That means you can move forward with either project closure or the implementation or production phase.

Step 7. Further production and delivery

Hopefully, you’ve got the final approval for any materials or assets. Now it’s time to deploy the completed project or campaign. 

It’s worth noting this stage won’t be necessary for every project. Some projects might require deliverables, plain and simple, with no further project execution needed. But it helps to build it into your agency workflow as a conditional step.

Full-service digital agency use case (plus a conditional workflow example)

Let’s say you’re a full-service digital agency. 

  • Client a) asks you to design and build a website as a one-and-done deliverable. 
    • The further production and delivery step isn’t necessary
  • Client b) asks you to do a web build and take charge of monthly content production. 
    • The further production and delivery step is necessary

Production and execution actions

Here are some key actions you can take during this stage:

  • Project management and coordination. Your project manager will need to assign any new tasks to the right team members, factoring in new timelines and team capacity. They might also need to liaise with internal and external stakeholders, such as designers, developers, vendors, and suppliers. 
  • Implementation and deployment. You’ll need to execute this stage of the production plan. That could mean distributing creative materials across the intended channels or platforms. So launching a website, distributing marketing collateral, initiating advertising campaigns, or deploying digital assets.

Step 8. Performance analysis (or project evaluation)

Say your work is ongoing (i.e., you have a monthly retainer with a client). In that case, you’ll want to analyze project performance results over time. 

Your main goal is to optimize your approach and maximize results based on incoming data. That could involve adjusting the project plan, pivoting your approach, or reallocating team workload as necessary. 

Now let’s say your work isn’t ongoing (i.e., a client asked you for a one-off deliverable). Then think of this stage as a final evaluation. 

It’s a chance to gather learning and evaluate your performance as part of your project closure process. You can then use these insights to improve your agency workflows for the next project. 

Pro tips: Performance analysis can also include resource analysis—so evaluating how you used your resources throughout the project. To optimize your resource usage for the future, ask yourself:

  • Was anyone consistently over-allocated?
  • Was anyone under-utilized?
  • Did the project take longer than planned due to unavailable resources?

Performance analysis actions

Here are some key actions you can take during this stage:

  • Data collection and measurement. You’ll want to gather relevant data and metrics to evaluate the project’s performance. That could be website traffic data to evaluate metrics like impressions, clicks, and conversions.
  • Analysis and interpretation. Examine the data for insights like key patterns, trends, and correlations. That’ll help you understand what parts of your project worked well and where you can improve. 

Reporting and recommendations. You’ll need to prepare a performance report sharing your findings.

Resource management’s role in the workflow

Although there’s a dedicated step in your agency workflow process, agency resource management actually pops up throughout the entire process.

Here’s how:

Tips to optimize agency workflow (expert insights)

Here’s how to optimize your agency workflow, according to our agency gurus.  

Build workflows early 

“Build the infrastructure before you think you need it,” says Riley. Because “when you actually need it, you won’t have the time to create it.”

Riley also emphasizes the importance of “building your ops structure properly from the start as it will save you time in the long run.” He recommends engaging with a professional and finding the right workflow tool for your agency’s needs. 

Stay agile 

“Always be ready to adjust your protocols,” says Justin. 

For smaller agencies or startups, Justin recommends “agile workflows.” Because they “lead to better productivity and quality.” Agile workflows also allow you to adapt as your agency team grows. 

Factor in retrieving deliverables

According to Justin, retrieving deliverables, specifically content, has formed a significant part of their agency workflow management. 

It’s not just about producing quality deliverables, but “where do we keep copy? Visual assets? Comments and questions?” says Justin. 

For context, as part of their agency workflow process, they:

  • Break down tasks and subtasks by client and project
  • Then assign the tasks as they progress to different stakeholders for each step
  • Finally, they relay the documents to the clients for feedback

“By the time we’re done, we have things all over the place,” says Justin. That’s why building agency workflows that account for retrieving deliverables is critical. 

Agency workflow software (what to look for)

Agency workflow management software can save you time, money, and help you scale your operations. For the biggest ROI, here’s what to look for in agency workflow software.

  • Agency workflow dashboard with clear schedule visibility. That’ll allow you to plan ahead and get a good view of what the next months look like in terms of availability. And bonus points for drag-and-drop scheduling so you can easily assign or reallocate tasks. 
  • Resource management and planning features. You’ll need forecasting, availability, capacity, allocation, and optimization. You’ll also want to look for utilization rates. That way, you’ll have a clearer picture of optimizing your resources without overburdening them or over-servicing clients.
  • Project forecasting reports. Estimate resource needs throughout your agency workflow. Prevent bottlenecks, track and hit milestones across clients and projects. Plus, track the percentage of time spent on non-billable work. 
  • Email notifications update. You and your team can always stay on top of schedule changes with automated or manual updates.

The power of agency workflows: Boosting efficiency, retaining clients, and banishing chaos

A robust agency workflow is crucial for success. It’ll help you keep revenue, ensure efficient resource management, and reduce client churn. But neglecting workflows as an agency can lead to inefficiencies, project delays, client dissatisfaction, and staff burnout.

Following our 8-step agency workflow process can help you streamline your agency operations and improve overall performance. Investing in agency workflow software that factors resource management into the process will save you time and money. 

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