At the heart of every thriving agency, there’s a well-oiled machine known as agency operations. From resource allocation and workflows to client management and process optimization, agency operations are what, well, keeps your agency in business.
Agency operations management covers a wide range of roles and responsibilities, from finding resource management software to developing effective quality control processes.
Agency life is challenging as it is, and running ops isn’t easy. But we’re here to (hopefully) enable you to improve agency operations while putting your team first and improving your bottom line.
In this article 📖
What are agency operations?
Agency operations refer to the day-to-day activities and processes involved in running an agency. It encompasses various functional areas, such as administration, finance, human resources, project management, client services, and marketing.
Agency operations involve managing resources, coordinating project teams, delivering services or products to clients, and ensuring the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the business. These activities are essential for achieving the agency’s goals and meeting client expectations.
What’s agency operations management?
Though operations management is vital in all business, agency operations management is particularly crucial because agencies rely heavily on:
- Managing diverse projects
- Coordinating creative teams
- Meeting client expectations within specific timelines and budgets
The truth is that agency work is so intricate, variable, and expansive that you need foolproof processes and operations to pave the way toward employee happiness and client satisfaction. Without it, you can kiss work-life balance goodbye.
What does an agency operations manager do?
The person in charge of agency operations management is usually the operations manager or Chief Operating Officer (COO). The title and specific responsibilities will vary depending on the size and structure of the agency and the role is usually designed by the person in question together with the CEO.
Typically, they’re responsible for overseeing and managing the operational aspects of an advertising agency. That includes the following areas:
- Workflow management
- Resource planning and management
- Process improvement across project life cycles
- Technology management (including agency operations management software)
- Vendor relationships
- Performance tracking
As part of all that, they facilitate team collaboration to ensure efficient operations and successful project delivery.
They act as a key link between account managers, project managers, finance, HR, and leadership. Because it’s such an integral role, it requires an extremely strategic mindset, excellent communication, and analytical skills.
How is agency operations management different from project management?
Agency operations management and project management are different, but interconnected disciplines.
Agency operations management encompasses the broader operations and functions of the agency beyond individual projects. It’s an ongoing and continuous function that operates beyond the lifespan of individual projects. It is responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of the agency and ensuring smooth operations on a long-term basis.
Project management focuses on the planning, execution, and delivery of individual projects within the agency. It involves defining the project scope, creating project plans, coordinating tasks and resources, managing timelines, and ensuring project success. It’s temporary and time-bound.
Resource Guru is a resource management tool that can help operations managers easily understand resource capacity and utilization so they can do strategic resource planning, long-term.
If you’re experiencing any of these challenges with your agency, Resource Guru’s agency software can help.
Agency operations: Your 5-step framework
An agency operations framework defines the actionable steps needed to execute your business plan in the most efficient way possible. And with so many touchpoints where you could lose efficiency, we’ve created a framework that helps you make the right decisions across the business.
This framework splits agency operations management into six core categories:
Let’s take a look at why each is so important and what it means for your business.
1. Prioritize your people
Your people are the lifeblood of agency operations, so it’s in your best interest to use them wisely—and treat them well.
Agency burnout is a real issue and staff turnover is not just disruptive, it’s expensive, time-consuming, and morale-sapping. A 2022 Gusto study shared that finding a replacement can cost between half and double an employee’s salary.
Minimize turnover to maximize output
Create a results-focused and flexible work environment for your team, without micromanaging. In practice, this starts with providing a clear direction and realistic goals.
You may question whether putting this time and effort into staff retention has an impact, but a 2022 DMEXCO survey shared that “29% of respondents said that it is taking an average of three to six months to fill an advertised vacancy. Seven percent are needing more than half a year, and six percent of companies can no longer fill vacant positions at all.”
So be aware, employee turnover may be quietly killing your business.
Pre-empt your human resource capacity
Put simply, this means having the right people available, to work on the right projects at the right time. If sales have just bagged a huge new client, then creative or marketing is going to need the right talent skilled up and ready to work.
Get ahead of recruitment by:
- Maintaining a vetted and varied freelance pool of support
- Keeping in contact with previous candidates (you almost hired)
- Having recruitment incentive schemes for current employees
- Staying on top of employer branding activities
Want to try resource capacity planning but not ready to commit to a software subscription? We’ve got you covered. Try our free resource capacity planning template to see how much of a difference the right tools could make to your agency.
Realistic resource capacity planning
Once you’ve secured the people you need comes the tricky task of mapping their skills and experience to the right projects.
Set your staff up for success by staying ahead of resource capacity planning and giving them a steady flow of realistic and rewarding projects to work on. Having the right agency operations management software in place for visibility on what people are working on is a great place to start.
A good rule of thumb for resource capacity planning is to have your staff planned for 80% capacity, leaving 20% free for the inevitable issues that crop up. Our automated capacity warnings will let you know if assigning a task will put your resource above 80% utilization.
Learn more about how agency operations software can help schedule your employees effectively.
“Resource Guru has the perfect balance of simplicity and detail. It’s easy to see where issues might arise.”
Create a collaborative culture
Creating a culture of collaboration stops teams from making costly mistakes. Not only does it benefit from diversity in expertise, but it also fuels creativity and more engaged stakeholders. The result? Better project outcomes and happier clients.
Your departments may have communicated organically in the past, but good agency operations should facilitate, incentivize and, at times, formalize this process.
In a 2022 Forbes study, 6 in 10 respondents ranked collaboration skills among the most important skills needed by businesses today, yet only 25% rated themselves “advanced” in collaboration technology skills.
2. Establish scalable processes
When things are running smoothly it can be tempting to skip process maintenance and let things take care of themselves. But this approach will only slow you down in the long run.
Processes exist to create replicable, scalable, and robust ways of doing things that save time and increase client satisfaction.
You want to develop processes built with scalability in mind from day one. So where does it start? You need to align your processes with business goals.
Create an operations statement
An operations statement is a document that outlines the specific actions, strategies, and processes required to achieve the operational objectives of your agency. It provides a detailed roadmap for how day-to-day activities will be carried out to support the overall business goals.
This document should evolve over time as you update and polish processes as needed. Plus, if the business goals or strategy change (for example, there’s an M&A), the impact on operations would be significant.
Automate as much as possible
The problem with processes is they can be repetitive and tedious. The solution? Automation.
From resource planning and project management tools to best-in-class leave-tracking software, why waste precious employee time on tasks that aren’t billable? Ask your team for their favorite agency operations software they’ve used in the past to get a list of things to consider or take a look at our list of what to look for in an agency resource management tool.
3. Choose scalable agency operations software
When it comes to your tech stack, you want to be set up for growth from day one. Because when an agency needs to scale, it often needs to scale quickly. Relying on outdated tech and plastering over the cracks with manual spreadsheets, will eat into important time (read: billable hours) spent on client projects.
A 2022 BCG study found that those who identified as digital leaders not only brought twice as many digital solutions to scale, but had three times higher revenue growth and cost savings compared to laggards.
Futureproof your tech stack by asking yourself what would be the best software choice for the company in:
- Six months?
- One year?
- Five years?
Before making any key agency operations software decisions you also want to ask yourself this: How much work would it take and how much would it cost to migrate to a different tool at a later date?
Remember, agency operations are about long-term thinking, not quick short-term wins.
“With the Guru software we get better insights into our daily planning. Great tool & easy to use.”
4. Plan for better projects
If you’ve automated and optimized as much of your day-to-day as possible, then you’ve created time to plan for the future.
Turn plans into objectives
So much of agency operations planning is about making the intangible achievable.
Make sure your employees are aware of how their work fits into the big-picture vision for the agency. Giving your team tangible goals can also support employee retention and minimize burnout as they’ll have a solid sense of their impact at work.
Get ahead of crisis and scenario planning
As the famous Mad Men adage goes “The day you sign a client is the day you start losing [them]”. And whether it’s losing your main client or a global crisis that changes the world as we know it, you need to be ready for it before it happens.
In a recent Forbes interview Darren Lee, CEO of McCann, referenced the goodwill some brands generated during the pandemic as an example of crisis planning in practice:
“When crisis hits, brands can make people’s lives better and the meaningful role they earn in people’s lives in those difficult moments will likely continue long after crises subside… Think of the brands that traditionally have nothing to do with medical supplies or pharma stepping in during the pandemic to produce hand sanitizers or masks. The good they did and the goodwill they generated live on.”
Use project controls to stay within the scope
Scope creep happens when the deliverables you and the client agreed upon slowly grow far beyond the realm of the original project. It’s an all too common occurrence that ends in you doing work for free, building resentment between you and the client.
That’s where project controls come in.
Discuss things like a project scope statement or definitions of done agreements with the client before you start working on the project.
5. Enable profitability (through efficiency)
Profitability doesn’t just “happen.” And these days, profitability is about efficiency rather than growth.
The processes agency operations create are the foundation project management sits on top of. The better the foundation, the easier it is to deliver client work on time, on budget, and improve your agency’s bottom line.
A 2023 digital agency report by Promethean stated competition among agencies is playing a role in the downward pressure on profit margins, meaning “shops are going to have to increase their level of sophistication to compete successfully. Things like time tracking, managing utilization rates, service mix optimization, and targeted industry focuses are becoming table stakes.”
So besides having the right processes and tools in place. Agencies need to think about the relationships between departments and what that means for their bottom line.
Communicate with sales
It’s far too easy for sales to operate in a silo, going for projects and pitching prices that are great for onboarding clients but don’t make sense operations-wise. It’s up to agency operations to create a feedback loop so sales, leadership, and the rest of the company understand the end financial results.
Work closely with project teams
We’ve already mentioned collaboration and resource planning plenty. But it really is the crux of the matter. Because if you don’t plan your resources well, you can’t plan the work well. And if you don’t do that, you won’t keep your clients for very long. In short, agency operations are not only good for business, but they’re also essential.
A word of advice on price
It can be tempting to cut costs to attain a dream client, but you’ll then encounter the choice of reducing quality or going over budget. This will both harm agency operations and the bottom line in the long run.
Differentiate yourself in other ways by specializing in a particular niche or marketing your agency around certain values. Plus, if the client is looking for the cheapest deal, it’s probably just the first in a long line of issues.
The future of agency operations: Better brand experiences and AI adoption
Looking toward 2024 and beyond, we believe agency operations will face a series of once-in-a-lifetime challenges. The rise, and adoption, of new technologies like artificial Intelligence, augmented reality, and virtual reality will reshape agency operations as we know them.
Agencies that can adapt quickly to these challenges without losing stability or overwhelming staff will thrive. In fact, a key challenge may well be finding and retaining staff amidst an ongoing shortage of skilled professionals. You may want to think about specializing your recruitment strategy, as well as creating socially conscious and balanced working conditions to retain talent.
From digital to marketing agency operations, each type of agency will face its own set of challenges, requirements, and client expectations in the coming years. They’ll need a specialized strategic approach to their agency operations to differentiate themselves from the competition.
From creating better brand experiences to using AI, let’s take a look at exactly what each type of agency is in for in the coming years.
Advertising agency operations
In a recent Forbes piece Megan Jones, EVP Head of Media for Digitas, described the need for “media-fueled creativity” to “[deliver] a rich brand experience in the ideal moment to the precise audience that matters.”
This understanding of how to marry striking creativity with specific marketing channels and audience segmentations will be crucial to your bottom line, and something ad agency operations will need to facilitate.
Creative agency operations
Creative agencies will need to manage clients’ perceptions of AI versus the current value of the technology. As well as consider what a flood of poorly executed AI content will do to consumer behavior.
In a Little Black Book interview Sara Tate, former CEO of TBWA London and MD/strategy director at Mother London, conceptualizes this content overload as “quantity over quality. People [will] struggle to choose what’s the most impactful: there’s still a human skill in evaluating those connections.”
Creative agencies will need to work hard to prove that human discernment is not only relevant but key to results. So creative agency operations will need to facilitate processes that streamline AI adoption in workflows, whilst increasing quality control measures before you share projects with the client.
Digital agency operations
Digital agencies will be in a position to adapt faster to new tech developments. They’ll have more opportunities than ever to reach consumers, but changing consumer behavior means they’ll need to keep their creative approach top tier as well.
A recent Forbes piece characterized this contradiction as the “more people become accustomed to digital platforms, the more discerning they are likely to become to marketing messages that don’t hit the right tone.”
In other words, digital marketing agency operations will have to make sure their KPIs and hygiene metrics keep an eye on conversions, not just impressions.
Marketing agency operations
New trends and technology may be shaping the future of marketing industries into something closer to the past. Nancy A Shenker, Founder & CEO, theONswitch & Nunu ventures, argues in Forbes that agency leaders must be visionary generalists who are tech-driven, trend-conscious, and customer-centric rather than focused on their own skill set.
“Brand imperatives, the Covid-19 pandemic, and the rise of artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI and ML) will reshape our industry. Mad Men will be replaced and augmented by Mad Machines… Media integration will make a comeback, and only the truly strong and customer-centric will survive.”
So marketing agency operations will need to think carefully about who they hire and what they put in their tech stack to meet growing client expectations.
5 pitfalls to avoid in agency operations
The future of agency operations is going to come with its fair share of challenges. To help you tackle those, we’ve identified five pitfalls to avoid in agency operations management.
1. Outdated processes
Imagine this: Six months have passed since you last updated your processes. Microsoft has released another version of ChatGPT, Elon Musk has created three new Twitter features and Meta has finally released a virtual reality world that’s catching on.
Will someone please think of the processes?
Nintex’s recent research report, America’s Most Broken Processes found that broken processes are a huge push factor for employees leaving jobs, with 67 % of respondents stating their company’s broken processes prevent them from maximizing their potential.
2. Neglecting talent development
When you have enough staff to keep things ticking over it’s easy to neglect your talent pipeline and current staff progression. But in today’s competitive market the amount of time, and money, it takes to fill a role just isn’t worth the risk.
Payscale’s Generations at Work survey found 72 % of millennials value career advancement opportunities. They want to work for organizations that offer:
- Weekly one-on-one meetings
- Regular feedback
- Career development plans
- Leadership opportunities
3. Lack of quality control in the age of AI
In the modern marketing world, we find ourselves at a crossroads where AI can be a helpful ally or a mischievous trickster. Agency operations management holds the key to unleashing the potential of AI while safeguarding creative quality.
In Deloitte’s 2021 Connectivity and Mobile Trends survey a third of US consumers were overwhelmed by the number of devices and subscriptions they manage. Previous studies have also shown that as the amount of information customers consume increases they feel more negative emotions, less decision satisfaction, and more buyer’s remorse.
We’re entering an era where how well you master the art of handling AI will determine your agency’s reputation. Design your agency operations processes with creative integrity and consumer value at their heart to stand out.
4. Not getting buy-in on innovation
So you and the rest of the C-suite may have a vision for the future of your AI powdered customer-centric media field agency, but are you empowering your team to feel the same?
Get buy-in from your team on your approach to innovation by bringing them in on the process. Get them to play with new AI tools and ask for their opinions on where it helps and hinders before deciding your company’s approach.
5. Inefficient resource management
Failing to properly allocate resources leads to missed deadlines, and soon enough—decreased profitability. Make the process of resource management a breeze by finding software you love to use.
Prepare for the future of agency operations
Before you make any decisions around your agency operations think carefully about your long-term stability and growth. Consider how you can invest in staff retention, scenario planning, and capacity planning so you’re ahead of the game and saving costs in the long run without sacrificing creative quality.
Putting your people first, especially if you have to make difficult decisions about restructuring, will ensure stability and success in the long run.
Improve agency operations with Resource Guru
Employ resource management software like Resource Guru now to put yourself in the driving seat tomorrow. Use a tool that easily tracks billable hours and utilization rates to get the highest return on investment.
Not to mention software with reports and dashboards so you can easily plan, manage, and evaluate whether your agency operations are improving efficiency in the ways you need.