Optimizing Operations: 3 Initiatives for Immediate Impact

From the outside, the back-end of any marketing agency probably looks the same. You have an individual or team handling administrative tasks like running payroll, managing benefits, and sending out invoices, while the strategy team acts as the face of the agency, working with clients and making marketing magic happen. However, having those in operations roles act in an administrative capacity and nothing more leads to missed opportunity and unrealized business impact. When operations team members are integrated with the rest of the business, rather than existing on an island, parts of the agency can be optimized in ways that have a tangible impact on team member engagement, client satisfaction, and management dependencies.

I’ve worked for and consulted with several different marketing agencies internationally in various stages of growth for the past five years. There’s something special and exciting about helping a business define and optimize their structure and operations early on, so when I had the opportunity to do just that with a group of shameless idealists at UpBuild, I had to jump on it. Mike brought me on so that I could focus on UpBuild’s growing operational needs and in turn, allow him to return his focus to strategy and subject matter expertise. Knowing this, I had two goals top of mind when starting:

  1. Create processes and structures that were scalable in addition to solving immediate problems, and
  2. Identify opportunities for immediate optimization in three key areas – client satisfaction, team member engagement, and management dependencies.

To keep this from becoming a book instead of a blog post, I’ll focus on three initiatives that have an immediate opportunity for positive business impact.

Opportunity 1 – Law & Order

Bear with me here – this is not the most exciting part, but it’s critical.

If you’re the first person stepping into an operations role at your agency, it’s likely that prior to that, the CEO or another executive was overseeing operations in addition to the 1 million other tasks they have as a leader of a growing startup. This means that the agency might have policies in place that serve the business and its clients well, but are potentially shaky when it comes to legal compliance simply due to a lack of time for research. At a fully distributed company like UpBuild, this is magnified by having team members in several different states, all of which have different employment laws.

Look at your company handbook and all associated policies – vacation, benefits, alternative work schedules, compensation, parental leave, etc. – and evaluate them against state / federal laws, guidance from third-party HR organizations like SHRM, and resources from your PEO to ensure that you’re compliant. The earlier you do this, the better. Even though risk is low when you’re a smaller company, this will set a scalable and legally sound foundation for your policies as the business grows.

Opportunity 2 – Knowledge is Power

If I were to write the Ten Commandments of agency operations, #1 would be thou shalt not skimp on training and onboarding. One of my past mistakes was thinking that you can compensate for a lack of training with more processes, more oversight, and a “learn as you go” mentality. This is an easy mindset to fall into – agency life moves quickly, especially for those that are growing, and it’s difficult to balance client demands with internal needs. If operations steps in and creates a training framework with support and input from department managers, rather than vice versa, you can create a holistic, comprehensive training program without taking time away from important client work. Looping in other team members with subject matter expertise helps reduce the dependency on one or two people as well, which is why we have Jumpstart Sessions here at UpBuild. Training should be the foundation on which the agency is built.

Initial Onboarding:

  • Clarify the expectations and KPIs for the position. While it may seem straightforward to you, a new team member is bombarded with information during the hiring process and likely doesn’t have a firm grasp on how they’ll be evaluated. This is also a good time to discuss and set expectations for growth potential in this role and the agency as a whole, if you didn’t do so during the interview.
  • Review your company’s history, its mission, and values. Context is important in helping the team member understand the why and the how you do what you do, where their role fits in, and what your team is working toward. When I came onboard, Mike reviewed his background and UpBuild’s beginning in depth, along with the most recent company update presentation. This helped set the stage and provided meaningful context right from the start.
  • Review your policies & procedures, benefits, perks, compensation, etc. This may very well be clearly outlined in your handbook, but give them an opportunity to discuss or ask questions that can be clarified up front.
  • Review the other positions at the agency and how they fit into the broader ecosystem. Then, arrange meet & greets with different team members across all departments. Giving the new team member a glimpse into a day in the life of others facilitates relationship-building and provides further valuable context. When I started at UpBuild, I had a 30-minute 1:1 with each team member so that I could find out more about their day-to-day, what they felt was working really well, and how I could help them improve. This resulted in some great relationships right off the bat and gave me deeper insight into how I could fully support them.
  • Walk through the different tools they’ll use (project management platforms, time tracking, etc.) to eliminate a “trial by error” approach when they first start executing the work.
  • Lastly, educate them on how their work impacts the client’s bottom line. You’d be shocked at how tenuous this connection can often be, and it’s so much more motivating when you understand how your day-to-day work translates into real business impact.

Initial Training:

  • Explain how this role interacts with other roles / departments. This should be a concrete, specific explanation of how they’ll interact at different points during the process of their work, whereas during their onboarding it’s a more of an overview.
  • Walk them step by step through how they do their job. If this seems like common sense, you’re right; but as I said, agency life is hectic, and the temptation to adopt a “sink or swim” mentality is real. Here’s something else that’s real: that mentality hurts clients, results in high client AND team member turnover, and low team morale. More effort and time up front pays off in spades down the road. Take the time to ensure there are no unanswered questions, nebulous concepts, or misunderstood processes.

Ongoing training is also important – it should be individualized according to how each team member is progressing in addition to group training based on new industry trends. But that’s a post for another time.

Opportunity 3 – Show Me The Money

While it’s not necessary for an operations lead to have CFO-level knowledge or experience, there are some key functions & initiatives you should own or co-own:

  • Revenue forecasting & tracking
    • More information is not always better – it’s important to set this up simply. You don’t need in-depth accounting statements when you’re looking at your financial health on a daily or weekly basis. Track your revenue, expenses, and profitability in a way that is easily digestible and allows you to gauge the overall health of the business quickly, and you can dig deeper when necessary.
  • Accounts Receivable
    • Let’s face it – talking about money can be awkward, and it’s best to separate invoices and accounting from client strategy if at all possible. Owning this takes that pressure and timesuck off of your strategy team or CEO’s plate. You can also elevate this from transactional conversations to something more strategic:
      • Educate yourself on where the team is at in the engagement. Are they on schedule, ahead, or behind? This informs your approach – you wouldn’t want to aggressively hunt down past-due invoices only to realize your team is also behind schedule.
      • Build relationships with your points of contact. Psychology 101 – people are more inclined to do things for someone they like, and figuring out how you can help make their lives easier is mutually beneficial.
      • Additionally, analyzing when and how clients usually pay, who your escalation points are, etc. can help make your cash flow more predictable and even improve it over time.
  • Growth models
    • Most agencies do have the goal of growing their business, however rapidly that may be. Looking at different financial growth models can help determine the direction in which you want to take your business, and limit potentially unforeseen risks that are associated with growth. That shiny new MacBook for each team member might be an attractive perk when you’re a team of 8, but it can quickly become a financial burden, if not a liability, when you hit 60.  Growth models also help with capacity planning and informing when you’ll need to expand your staff. At UpBuild, we don’t have a specific growth trajectory we’re trying to hit. Instead, we have three goals: ensure that everyone on our team feels great about the work they do, do the best work we possibly can for our clients, and maintain at least 15% profitability. Looking at different growth models with that in mind can help us map out potential futures without compromising those goals or our values.  

While this list is by no means exhaustive, it should give you a good idea of how you can start to go above and beyond in supporting your team. By partnering with other departments and truly understanding their strengths and weaknesses, you can help fortify your agency and take the business to new heights.

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