Advertising Agency Process and Profitability

The Right Process = Advertising Agency Profitability

download-processWarning: While not as sexy as a new Instagram video plan, this in-depth 3,500-word post is all about advertising agency profitability.

OK, OK, as an ex-agency CEO, I will admit that profitability is rather sexy. Sexier, that is, than Instagram.

By the way, if this post is too long for your online perusal, I’ll send you a PDF version. Just email me at 


A bit of background. When I worked at Saatchi & Saatchi one of the accounts I ran was Northwest Airlines. At that time, a time when airlines spent big bucks, their media budget was $60 million per year. At the standard 15% commission, we generated $9 million in agency revenues. $9 million! Ah, the good old days. Days when an agency minted bucks even if some of our processes were a bit wanky. That isn’t the case anymore.

Today, process: the art and science of managing client relations, agency staff, expenditures and time, is critical to your growing profitability.

A Wonderful Process Plan

I have a Texas advertising agency client that isn’t anywhere near as profitable as they should be. Their problem isn’t having the right clients or clients that want great work, or clients that spend money. Their problem is not having the right workflow process to ensure that these clients are profitable.

And, worse, because the agency appears to be always overworked, they don’t have the time or energy to run a smart and consistent new business program. A 24/7 program.

I built this client process plan for them and thought, why not share it? To protect the innocent, this full-service ad agency has been renamed… Wonderful Advertising. I think that these general principles and actions can be applied to any communications agency type.

The Wonderful Agency: Background

Wonderful is an integrated marketing communications agency based in Dallas. Wonderful describes itself as (from Wonderful’s Twitter profile):

“A full-service advertising and marketing agency blending traditional and non-traditional media with digital services, graphic design, and social media.”

A bit boring, but at least they’ve made a statement.

Wonderful: Management Issues

Wonderful is entering a next-stage business phase where it would like to add larger national clients to its roster. In order to do so, it would like to set up client management systems to improve its workflow efficiency and to improve and manage its client relationships and most importantly… increase agency profitability. The agency must also build a business development system that will help them entice and land the type of clients that they need for agency growth. 

Based on my prior discussions with Wonderful, I have developed a set of agency objectives.

  • Primary:

Wonderful would like to improve how it manages its clients and client jobs. At present, the agency is suffering the agency malaise of trying to manage a large and demanding daily workload while improving its profit margins… and find the time to market the agency to prospective clients.

  • Secondary:

Increase its awareness as a leading marketing communications company in its regional market. This will lead to an increase in the number of meetings, request for proposals and new business pitches. This additional workload must be managed within the new management system so that agency leadership can focus on agency planning, growth, increasing net profits and owner compensation.

In respect to new business activity, I think that a good way to manage the business development process is for the agency to view business development as an agency client with its own clear objectives, strategies, timetables, specific responsibilities and assign it a job number for tracking.

The point: Treat agency marketing as a client job.

Here is a system for an existing client, new business, staff and revenue management.

The System

This provides my approach on to how to manage client relationships and agency workflow. The goal is to have happy, long-term relationships with highly profitable clients that want brilliant agency work. And… to make sure that agency staff has fun. yes, fun.

Let’s start with how to manage a new client. You need to get this right from Dat One.

New Client On-Boarding

Over the years, I’ve used a variety of approaches to new client onboarding. The goals of a strategic approach to onboarding include:

  • Gaining a clear understanding of the client’s business goals. If need be, spend the time to help them clarify their goals. Many, even sophisticated clients, have trouble enunciating their goals.
  • Reviewing the client’s products / services and markets.
  • Informing the client about the agency’s workflow methodology. Be very clear that agency process is a critical element in the client’s success.
  • Making sure that the client understands their role in the creative and media planning process.

Given the variety of clients (size, goals, budget), I don’t believe that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to managing the understanding of goals and process. However, I think that an agency-client questionnaire and a well-managed kick-off meeting work best. The questionnaire and meeting should be tailored to each client.

The Wonderful Agency questionnaire should help the agency to get the client to:

  • State its business objectives. They should be as quantitative as possible.
  • Know what success looks like to the client is critical at the start of the relationship. help them establish success metrics.
  • Describe the product or service, its history, market, competition, and past marketing efforts.
  • Discuss what has worked or hasn’t in the past. The goal is to understand any prejudices early. Often a client will say something like, “I tried direct marketing and it didn’t work.” It is the agency’s job to understand why DM didn’t work. It might have been due to a poor execution rather than the choice of media.
  • This is a good time for the agency to describe its production process (it would be good to share any paperwork like Creative Briefs) and the client’s role and responsibilities within that process. Your goal here is to establish a sense of partnership and state shared objectives – and a daily working system.

Workflow, Efficiency and Time Management

Agencies that succeed at being more efficient and more profitable are very purposeful at how they run their daily operating process. In my opinion, Wonderful needs to be more purposeful about its daily system.

As an example of how to build the “best system”, I have tried to put forth a template for a daily operating system based on my understanding of Wonderful’s current client base.

Note: This multi-part system may appear daunting. However, it most likely reflects many of the process points that you are already performing. My goal is to codify the system’s flow and documentation.

I also think that it would be a good idea for you to share the client-facing elements of the system with your clients via a document or meeting (depending on client size and sophistication) to help them understand that you have a system that increases efficiency for them.

Describing your process will also serve to make sure that they understand their roll in the briefing and approval process.

You will see titles used in the suggested system. I realize that Wonderful has employees that wear different hats. I don’t believe that the titles are critical – just the job function.

Step 1

The New Project:

Every client has a different way of working. However, it is incumbent on the agency to make sure that both parties are very clear about the objectives, timetables, details and responsibilities and budget (if there is one – if not, help them establish the budget) before a job is started.

After a job is requested and discussed, the agency should create a Conference Report for the client and agency staff to ensure that all parties are in agreement with the objectives and details of the job – before the project goes into the agency production system. The Conference Report should be distributed within 24 hours of the client meeting. Account Managers will be expected to produce Conference Reports after meetings either in person or on the phone with clients.

The Conference Report will include: who was present for the client, present for the agency, others to be copied, date, a text review of the meeting, and a series of action items for people to work on as a result of the meeting. If possible, the agency should consider the use of an online “diary” system* to produce and store any client contact reporting. The online system allows web access and enables the documentation to be filed from wherever the account manager may be – a real timesaver.

Step 2

The Account Manager will then file a complete job overview (again, details to match the level of the individual job) including who, what, when, where and why before any job will be opened, or at least within 24 hours of the job being requested and job number being assigned.

The Account Manager opens the job in the agency’s job management system* and creates a production job jacket. The job now exists on the system as an electronic accounting job jacket, and in hard form as a production job jacket. Must be done within 24 hours of job initiation, or sooner.

* Basecamp and FunctionFox are used by many agencies.

Step 3

Account Manager should schedule and run a team meeting, if necessary, and/or file full Creative Brief and full project information within 48 hours of opening job. This is a different filing than the initial “facts / who, what, when, where and why” document.

The second filing of information contains all the objectives, target audience information and insights needed to do better, more creative work. This has been a most powerful step many agencies have installed to make the creative better – and to reduce the number of revisions.

Good Creative Brief skills will be important at Wonderful. The Creative Brief will guide all creative development. In most cases, the client should approve the Creative Brief before work is started. Here is a sample Creative brief with notes on each section. I hope that I am not being too pedantic.

Creative Brief Elements



Product / Service:


This section includes any pertinent background, product/service details, market information, etc. that will help frame the job.

The budget.

 Due date.

The objective of the project? A very clear and concise enunciation of the objectives. Less is more.

The target market.

Describe the primary, and if required, secondary target markets.

What does the target market currently thinks – their starting point:

This is an important section that provides a description of the current mindset of the target group that might affect how any future messaging is perceived. It represents the starting point.

Some refer to this section as the Accepted Consumer Belief. Example: Beer drinkers could not have believed that a beer could be “less filling and taste great” until lite-beer was introduced. This insight framed the creative strategy.

What we want them to think and what action do we want them to take.

This should be a very direct statement about the sales goals of the project.

The message that will move this target audience to action.

 What is the one thing that we can tell the target market to have it do what we want them to do?  This section should help the client focus on a single-minded message.

Message Support Points:

What is it about the product or service that supports the core message? I suggest listing about three points. Not all of these points have to be included in the final creative.

Program Elements:

List any media or production elements that must be included in the program.

The brand’s character.

It is important to be clear about brand character. Is it serious, helpful, friendly, smart, etc.?

Note what is mandatory? (Tagline, logo, contact information, legal, etc.)

List anything that the client must have in the final execution.

Client Sign-Off.

Some agencies request that the client sign-off on the Creative Brief before any job is started.

Step 4

Agency production management establishes a dated critical path for the job. Historical templates help do this faster.

Step 5

The producer will use an estimating worksheet (or digital system) to calculate and coordinate project estimate. This matrix needs to be highly customized to make sure the estimating categories exactly match the agency billing categories. This matrix, or worksheet, should include every possible step the agency could take on a project, including time, outside costs and miscellaneous charges. Historical templates also help in this area.

The job now has a critical path and an estimate.

Step 6

The new project should be added to Wonderful’s traffic system that includes all other agency projects. This grid is updated every day.

Step 7 – A Daily Review

Each day the agency traffic manager will release a version of the grid (Daily Hot Sheet) that deals only with the jobs and steps that are important to the agency that day.

Because the grid is easy to update and easy to produce new versions, this daily update can be revised instantly if needed. Everyone will have access to this report. A 15-minute “stand up” traffic meeting will be held each morning to clarify the issues of the day. The person responsible for traffic runs the meeting.

Step 8

All agency employees will be required to post their time to projects on a daily basis. This is mandatory so that the agency can have a daily update on the progress of projects.

As I said above, since there will now be an estimate live and on-line and employees will post their time each day, you should teach employees to look at estimate vs. actual on a regular basis. This includes both creatives and account managers.

Step 9

All employees will be required to fill out a request for purchase orders and submit them to agency management in order to make any sort of agency production purchase.

Production management will a request for a quote from appropriate vendors based on the purchase order request received from the employees.

Upon acceptance of a bid, a purchase order from the system will be issued to the vendor.

Step 10

As the accounts payable are received, the agency finance manager will first make sure the payable is OK, and then post to the system.

Step 11

After a project is completed, the finance manager will pull a pre-bill summary of hours, buy-outs and miscellaneous charges from the computer system and submit it to the Account Manager for approval.

Billing will be posted to the accounts receivable module.

Step 12

The finance manager will take all of the billing on a monthly basis and publish a series of profitability reports, P&L and Balance Sheet. And…. manage receivables.

Really… 12 Steps?

12 steps may seem complicated. However, this approach is the basis for a new, more efficient and more effective workflow system for Wonderful.

Of course, this proforma system will have to be modified to suit. I am sure that you understand the need to improve the operating system before you grow more and it becomes difficult to implement change.

Most importantly, the new system should:

  • Help to manage client-agency communications and reduce any misunderstandings.
  • Improve workflow.
  • Reduce the number of revisions and agency time.
  • maintain a positive agency-client relationship.
  • Improve Wonderful’s bottom line through greater efficiency.

Ongoing Client Relationship Management

 We’ve discussed the art of listening to clients to determine how they feel about agency service and the quality of the creative product. This is clearly an ongoing, daily listening test.

I think that the agency should also plan on adding scheduled client / agency reviews to the mix. Here are two suggestions:

  1. At the end of every major program, schedule a brief review of objectives and results. This is an opportunity to ask, “How are we doing?”
  1. Schedule an annual agency review. I’ve used questionnaires based on assessing key relationship and work satisfaction attributes. I have also employed the use of a single piece of research based on the simple question “would the client recommend the agency?” You can read about this in the HBR article, The One Number You Need to Grow. The single question approach is tough one to decide to use. But, I’ve used the background of the questionnaire to support our use of it and to help our client understand just how smart we were. Regardless of the type of questionnaire you use, you have killed two client-service birds at once.

Business Development – Process

download-salesBusiness development should be considered as important to agency health as good client service and job management.

The art of agency business development combines persuasion, showmanship, strategy and execution and importantly agency energy, time and resource management. Winning agencies have created an internal business development culture dedicated to business development and the ability to sustain the program over time. Business development cannot wait until clients walk out the back door, as some will inevitably do, to kick-start new business activities.

Advertising agency business development is a complex proposition that has been made more complex – yet more efficient – by the use of Internet-based technologies and marketing platforms. It is my experience that a combination of old-fashioned people-to-people and digital programs can increase reach and stimulate business development interaction.

Here is a set of top-level objectives and strategies that I use to build a strong business development program.

SWOT: I am a big fan of doing a SWOT analysis every year and to help guide big decisions whenever they occur. I think that the SWOT process forces honesty.

Agency Brand Positioning: Local agencies can get by being pretty good. Regional agencies need to be better. Regional agencies that want national accounts better have something special to say or they can’t go national.

That said, all agencies have to have some form of point of difference to stand out in the minds of prospective clients. I’ve discussed my perspective on agency positionings here: How To Position An Advertising Agency. One of my clients told me that I am giving my thinking away for free. I don’t agree for two reasons. 1) The devil is in the detail / execution and 2) giving thinking “away” is a key element of my inbound content marketing program.

At the moment, the strongest element of your agency marketing program is your website (I realize that you are working on a new one.) Its design and tone set you well apart from other regional agencies. However…

Inbound marketing: Your website isn’t currently set up to be a magnet for interested client prospects. It could be. This is really all about SEO and understanding what type of clients you want to work for. The website should sell to your local market (via full-service expertise) or go beyond your local geography (specialization) and be a 24/7 sales tool. It is worth asking, why would a client in Overland Park want to work with you and add appropriate messaging to your inbound program to ensure that when they visit your site they will be interested.

Outbound Marketing: Create an “A” list for direct marketing based on a clear set of criteria like, do they have 2 or more of these attributes: 1) They want great work; 2) They recognize that spending on marketing is critical to their success and will be profitable client or 3) They are well-known. Think NIKE as they meet all three criteria.

Before you send anything to your “A” list, study the clients and make sure that you are delivering enticing information that is unquestionably valuable for them. Market insights generally work best. Create a larger “B” list that you will target with more efficient tools.

Business Development Plan: Have a plan (most agencies do not.) It doesn’t have to be lengthy, but it should include your objectives and strategies; your positioning; target markets; messaging; media choices and responsibilities. As I said earlier, make it a part of your agency weekly to-do list.

Create a Business Development Calendar: Meet at least once a month to discuss business development. Schedule your marketing. Assign someone to be the whip. Be realistic (you should be able to get a single-subject email out every month) and be consistent. Not doing this with consistency is how agencies wake up one day after losing a major account to realize they don’t have any prospects in the pipeline.

RFP’s and Pitches: We haven’t discussed how you approach RFP’s and pitches. Assuming that your in and outbound marketing will yield more incoming PFP’s and inquiries, it is important to have an agency marketing template set up that can be easily modified for each situation. I have attached an example of an RFP response that was used by a competitive agency of one of my clients. I think that how it is designed is instructive. You can see where the agency has boilerplate and where they have gone custom. No, Owen Jones & Partners did not win the job. But, they sure looked good.

Wonderful – Conclusion & Next Steps

That’s the roadmap. It might seem like a lot to organize but… not using this level of organization will take longer and will produce more grief for both you and your existing clients

The next step is for us to review this document and decide what can be done or determine where we might need to make adjustments.

Thanks for the opportunity to help Wonderful grow.

Now, how about your “wonderful” agency? Give me a shout at if you want to become more profitable, too.


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