When you’re running (or working at) an agency, there are many moving parts. So how do you avoid the inevitable chaos? The answer is agency SOPs. That’s right. To plan, operate, or even scale effectively, you need structure.
Agency SOPs (or standard operating procedures), will provide an infrastructure to respond to tough client demands. They’ll help you and your team move effortlessly, protect your time, and ultimately free up more space for creativity.
In this article 📖
Introducing our featured agency expert
Throughout this article, Katie will provide insight into why SOPs for agencies are often the hidden component behind high-performing agencies. She also shares tips for creating your own agency standard operating procedures.
What is an agency SOP?
An agency SOP is a standardized procedure you or your team follow when performing routine tasks or processes.
Where workflows provide a bird-eye sequence for bigger tasks or processes, your SOPs get into the details. More specifically, they give a step-by-step process of performing tasks or activities from the broader workflow.
We’ll look into more SOP benefits next.
Why are standard operating procedures important to an agency?
From increased consistency and efficiency to getting into the zone of genius, here’s why agency SOPs matter.
“With multiple stakeholders and a thousand moving parts, agency operations can get a little untidy and overwhelming, to say the least,” warns agency pro, Katie Bray. Using SOPs “ensures consistency across the team and makes sure you’re all singing from the same hymn sheet.”
Consistency helps with pricing and capacity planning. Knowing how long a process takes means “you know how much to charge and how many resources you’ll need,” says Katie.
By not standardizing or documenting processes, you could both lose money and waste time if everyone is doing things their own way.
Improving agency efficiency often feels like an uphill battle—an uphill battle that impacts the bottom line. So, we keep clambering to the top. But what if the climb didn’t have to feel so steep? Or you at least had a guide to follow?
“Having SOPs makes you more efficient,” says Katie. That’s because SOPs eliminate decision-making time and minimize room for errors. But it’s so much more than making people more efficient individually.
“Oftentimes in an agency, the thing you’re working on likely affects someone else,” explains Katie. Following SOPs “ensures all stakeholders are considered throughout the entire process.”
“Having SOPs means you can scale your agency and increase your clients without necessarily having to grow your team,” says Katie.
“You’ve documented the most important part of the most important process, and now this can be repeated time after time by different people.”
Katie reiterates that delegating this way can be one of the most cost-effective and efficient ways to scale your agency. And, that’s not to mention the scaling opportunities you can unlock through improving efficiencies.
A gateway to the “zone of genius”
Implementing something as seemingly mundane as standard operating procedures “frees up more brain space for the zone of genius,” says Katie.
That’s because “having a tried and tested process to follow eliminates analysis paralysis and means you spend less brain power on decision making.”
You can redirect all your brain power and time to being in the flow. (Or, as Katie aptly says, spending “more time making the magic happen.”)
When you’re in the flow, inspiration doesn’t just come easy. It’s limitless.
Contingency planning (and sharing the load)
“The job doesn’t always have to be done by you,” says Katie. “A well-documented process can be picked up and executed by almost anyone.”
SOPs mean “the knowledge is shared and available to all, instead of being stuck in one person’s head,” Katie reiterates. That means “you can take time off, you can have a change in team members, and you can offer new starters an easier onboarding and training period.”
But if you don’t have a contingency plan for those instances? Your client projects may screech to a halt.
As we’ve covered, agency SOPs help with capacity and workload planning. With a firmer grasp of who you need for tasks and how long they typically take, you can balance the team workload.
For example, you can have something like a booking approval workflow in place as part of your resource management SOP. That way, you’ll protect in-demand teammates’ time and make sure their work-life balance isn’t compromised.
Because SOPs also help with resource contingency through process documentation, and you’re not relying on a single overburdened teammate to do a task this means more manageable workloads. That lowers the likelihood of agency burnout.
SOPs help your agency “achieve better results, faster,” according to Katie. “SOPs are constantly being updated, and each time someone finds a better, faster, more efficient way of doing things —the SOP is updated.”
That means “everyone else can follow the exact same new process, just by following the SOP,” says Katie. Updating processes and finding improved ways to achieve better results is continuous improvement in action.
If you follow an agile agency project management methodology, your interest is likely piqued. But even if you don’t follow a specific PM methodology, continuous improvement through SOPs will help your agency stay competitive.
SOPs for different agency types
No matter the type of agency, your organization can benefit from standard operating procedures.
Here’s how different agency types may use SOPs.
General agency SOPs (relevant to all agency types)
- Global and remote team management. This SOP should give your leaders a framework for guiding teams across different time zones and when reduced visibility is challenging.
- Client onboarding. Client onboarding (or project initiation) is integral to your agency project management process. This SOP will make sure you kick off client projects the right way. It should get everyone—in-house and externally—on the same page. And reflect the project goals, budget, and team roles at a minimum.
- Reporting. A reporting SOP gives you a standardized process for reporting on client work, internally and externally. It helps you show your value to clients early and keep everyone updated on project progress.
- Quality assurance. Project monitoring and control SOPs help you maintain a high level of quality throughout the entire project life cycle across your agency projects.
SOPs for creative agencies
- Ideation and brainstorming. An SOP for this type of creative process might sound counter-intuitive, but it will actually speed up the process of coming up with amazing creative concepts for your clients. It can include techniques to use, how to best evaluate ideas, and how to best document them.
- Creative asset creation. A creative agency SOP for asset creation lets your team know who’s responsible for what (i.e., copy or design) across campaigns. And the different stages they need to follow depending on the creative asset.
SOPs for digital marketing agencies and traditional marketing agencies
- Strategy development. This SOP outlines the general tasks involved in developing a client marketing strategy. You can then tailor it depending on the needs (goals, marketing channels, industry, etc) of a specific project.
- Onboarding freelancers. Marketing agency SOPs for onboarding new freelancers give your project managers a framework to follow for each new hire. They’ll cover key things like ensuring freelancers fill in and revert onboarding paperwork.
- Email campaigns. Your email campaign SOP could outline the email flow sequence, how to trigger asset creation (copy and media), quality checks, and more.
- Social profile optimization. As with strategy development, this digital marketing agency SOP outlines the general process of social profile optimization. You can customize it for specific profiles like Instagram, Twitter, etc.
SEO agency SOPs
- Keyword research. A keyword research SOP could highlight things like choosing the best keywords for different content types or matching search intent.
- How to source subject matter experts (SMEs). Your SOP will outline how to choose the right SME for a project, where to find them, and how to collate/document their insights.
- Content production. This SEO agency SOP should outline the order of content production—i.e., assigning the brief, first draft, feedback, edits, and final approval.
Agency SOPs for resource planning and project management
- Defining project scope. Every project team needs to know what goes into determining the project scope. If you don’t, your client-agency relationship might suffer. A poorly defined scope will lead to misalignment that could be detrimental to project success.
- Resource capacity planning. This SOP helps PMs and resource managers optimize resource allocation and scheduling depending on utilization rate, skills, and availability.
- Resource scheduling. A resource scheduling SOP provides a general framework for scheduling team time against tasks. It should factor in the project timeline, milestones, work required, and resource availability.
- Resource optimization. Show your project managers how to keep project teams happy, healthy, and projects on track. This SOP should outline how to adjust workload as needed throughout client projects using techniques such as resource leveling and resource smoothing.
- Resource allocation. A resource allocation SOP will guide how your agency project, resource, or OPs manager oversees their teams throughout a project. This SOP will likely factor in capacity planning, scheduling, and optimization.
- Choosing project tools. Each project might have unique needs when it comes to project management software, resource management tools, design tools—you name it. An SOP for how to best identify and choose your agency tech stack will save you a lot of time (and money).
How to create SOPs for your agency in 8 steps
There can be valid pushback about agency SOPs. Be it how much time they take to create upfront or the worry that standardized processes may stifle your creatives.
But with the help of our featured expert, Katie Bray, we’ll show you how to tackle your agency SOPs in a strategic manner and make sure you create them with the end product in mind.
Step 1. Zoom out (with the 20/80 rule)
Creating your first SOPs can feel overwhelming. But it’s important to create them with the right mindset and understand that it’s about creating efficiencies in the long term.
The first step? Zoom out and take a look at your processes.
“When we first started, we went a bit granular and documented every little part of the process (e.g., how to log into a website, yikes!),” Katie recalls.
They realized they’d gone a bit far and were making SOP documents overwhelming and pointless. This will defeat the purpose (and definitely stifle creativity!)
Instead, Katie recommends using the 20/80 rule. That means “you only need to document 20% of the process that produces 80% of the results.”
H4: Step 2: Foster a mindset focused on collaborative improvement
Katie reiterates that the over-arching idea behind SOPs isn’t to take anyone’s creativity away. “Especially in creative agencies, there might be people that prefer not to have to follow a process,” says Katie.
That said, “If we didn’t use SOPs or if we didn’t update them, we’d have one person with a better way that no one else knows about.”
Because ultimately, SOPs have one job: to ensure consistent quality in the work you deliver.
To get team buy-in and foster a mindset of collaborative improvement, reiterate that SOPs are mutable. “Just because something is documented this way now, it doesn’t mean that’s the way it has to be done forever. That’s just the way it worked best at the time,” says Katie.
Then let your team know that if anyone has a better idea, they’re “more than welcome and even encouraged to bring it to the table.”
Step 3. Define a structure for your SOPs
Now that your mindset is right and your team knows they have the autonomy to change processes, it’s time to create the structure for your SOP.
You could use tools like Google Docs or Notion to get started. As for the format, it doesn’t have to be overly complicated—start simple and build on it as you go.
For example, the structure could look something like this:
- Effective Date: Keep this at the very top of the document to indicate the date from which the SOP becomes active and applicable.
- Title: Clearly state the name or title of the SOP. It should be short and descriptive, indicating the process or activity it covers.
- Purpose: Provide a brief explanation of the purpose of the SOP. State why the it’s important, what it aims to achieve, and what problem it solves.
- Scope: Define the scope of the SOP by specifying the activities, processes, or departments it applies to. Clarify what’s covered and what’s not.
- Responsibilities: Outline the roles and responsibilities of individuals involved in the process. Clearly state who is responsible for each step or action and who to contact for questions or issues.
- Steps: This is the core section of the SOP and should provide a step-by-step explanation of the process. Use a clear and logical sequence, and consider using headings, bullet points, or numbered lists to make it more readable.
- Supporting documents: Where appropriate, include flowcharts, diagrams, tables, or other visuals to provide additional clarity to the steps covered.
- Approval: Specify who has the authority to approve the SOP and its revisions, along with the date of approval.
Katie suggests starting your SOPs with the why (aka, why the process happens) and always having a purpose and end goal for each process.
Short-term that will keep you focused as you develop your agency SOPs further. Long-term, when your team knows why they’re doing something, they can give input on how they do it.
Step 4. Record a walkthrough
On the practical front, Katie recommends recording a walkthrough of the process and including it in the SOP. Depending on the process, you could use a tool like Loom to do this step.
A recorded walkthrough forms part of your SOP documentation, giving your team a visual reference point to refer to. It can also help you think through the process as you create your SOP template. That’s because you don’t have to recall each step from memory.
Katie also uses Tango, a tool that “follows your location around webpages and then generates screenshots and annotations” on the fly. This is a seamless way to add static images to your SOPs, letting team members know exactly what’s happening where in the process.
Using a tool like this means you don’t have to spend any extra time thinking about how to capture the right screenshots for specific processes. All you need to do is hit “Record” and go through the process yourself.
Step 5. Get feedback from stakeholders
If you’ve established the right mindset, your team will feel psychologically safe enough to share their honest feedback. You especially want to encourage anyone directly involved in the process or tasks to share their insights.
Feedback from other stakeholders (i.e., teammates in different departments who come in at various process stages) is also invaluable.
Pro tip: For SOPs related directly to client projects, stakeholder feedback could highlight mismatches between effort and scope. Maybe you’ve not considered how much work is really required to meet the scope?
Step 6. Roll out company-wide
You can put anything down on paper. But when hypotheticals meet reality, you discover whether it’s feasible. So even though it’s nerve-wracking, don’t wait for perfection. Roll out your SOP company-wide and find areas for improvement.
Pro tip: To embed SOPs firmly within your agency culture, Katie says, “Empower people to find answers themselves by using SOPs. For example, if someone asks a question about a process that’s documented clearly in an SOP, point them in that direction rather than giving them the answer.”
Step 7. Store in a user-friendly SOP home
“The place that people go to find the SOP is vital,” says Katie. Ask yourself, “Is it easy to find and use?”
Katie recommends creating a dedicated (and user-friendly) home where you file your SOPs for quick access. Whether that’s a Google Drive folder or Notion doc, doesn’t matter, as long as everyone has access and can find relevant SOPs fast.
For example, you want people to easily be able to find and add relevant SOPs to a booking when scheduling people and resources for your projects.
Step 8. Review and update with any improvements
Your first agency SOPs are a starting place from which to improve continually.
As you onboard new staff with fresh perspectives, change approaches, or even trial processes for the first time, your SOPs may change. And they should change as and when it makes sense.
“By all means, update the process if it benefits the company, clients, and team. Just make sure the SOP is updated and the update is communicated so that everyone can benefit,” says Katie.
Katie reiterates updating the process and SOP documentation “can be done when following the SOP at any moment.” And if the SOP hasn’t been used for a while, Katie recommends “a quarterly SOP audit to check for efficiency improvements.”
The bottom line on agency SOPs
Agency SOPs transform chaos into consistency. Consistency means better capacity planning. You know who you typically need (and how much) against tasks. That insight helps with pricing and scope creep. SOPs also help balance workload, which means happy, healthy, and high-performing teams.
Long story short? Agency SOPs are your ticket to sustainable scaling and operational efficiency.
You can create your own agency standard operating procedures in three phases. First, you should zoom out and adopt the right mindset. Second, you’ll need to create your agency SOP structures and templates. The final phase involves getting stakeholder feedback, releasing SOPs company-wide, and improving them when it makes sense.
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