This article presents a detailed guide on managing digital projects from A to Z, starting from the beginning of a project through its conclusion and follow-up activities.
We focus on tools and processes that are flexible enough for agencies working in any vertical (service type) or location (geographic) at any scale (one person team up to more significant organizations).
Digital agencies often fail to deliver an effective service or create an efficient working environment. The ones that succeed generate value for their clients while keeping their team happy and engaged in what they’re doing. This is one way to do it (and this is not even scratching the surface).
So, here’s the ultimate guide to project management for digital agencies.
Keep a Project Within Budget, On Track, and On-Time
There are several ways to keep a complex project on track. First off, the agency should easily track tasks in their internal project management system (a reliable tool like Basecamp or Trello is good enough). This allows them to assign any number of people to specific parts of a project, giving them an overview of what everyone is doing at any point in time.
This helps allocate resources effectively if there are scheduling issues during development work (the client will be happy to see that someone’s working full-time on their project even though they only bill for 8 hours per week).
These systems also allow agencies to break down large chunks of work into smaller pieces so that developers can work on parts of a project in parallel. Having an idea of how long specific tasks take also helps estimate the time needed for future projects (which we hope this guide has been helpful for).
Agency projects tend to be complex beasts, but they’re grounded by deadlines and budgets – which makes them very similar to B2C software development projects. Both projects can benefit from agile development methods and timeboxing, even if they don’t always work out that way.
For example: if you’ve promised a client that their new website will be live before Christmas, you better make sure there’s enough wiggle room built into your schedule so that those last-minute design changes won’t delay the launch.
Streamline Communication During a Project
Efficient communication between agency and client is key to avoiding misunderstandings and communicating the status of a project effectively. Agencies should aim to avoid lengthy email threads, instead preferring real-time chat tools which allow for quick back and forth discussions (Skype is good enough).
These conversations typically start as simple project management chats before moving on to design or development issues once work has begun.
Agency staff should also ask their clients about their preferences regarding tool usage.
For example: if you’re asked to post case studies on your client’s website, they’ll usually expect you to write up an article using that fancy content management system they’ve paid thousands for (rather than asking you to copy-paste a few screenshots into a newsletter template you designed for them).
This is part of setting proper expectations. We’ve all been on the receiving end of those emails with images attached and requests like “let me know if this works.”
Finally, it’s essential to ensure that someone on your team (ideally from marketing or account management) is always assigned as the main point of contact between client and agency.
This person should be someone who knows everyone by name, can keep track of what needs to happen next in each project, and will be able to answer any questions that come their way without having to ping multiple people around the office.
That last one is key: there’s nothing worse than sending out an email wondering about the status of a paid project, only to get a reply pointing you to someone else who can give you an answer.
Automate Your Way to Efficiency
An advanced project management software like Function Point is a good start for agencies wanting increased productivity and better client communication. Still, it’s far from being all they need (after all, having no one in front of their computers doesn’t do much good either). So, what sort of automation should digital agencies look into? Here are two ideas:
Automation tool #1: ‘Backburner’ tasks: Every once in a while, higher-priority projects will come along and bump back lower-priority ones on your team (not everyone has time to work on everything at once).
This is the perfect opportunity for an effective tool like Backburner, which allows you to post these tasks as “on hold” somewhere visible for everyone on your team.
This way, developers can keep track of what they’re working on without having to ask around every five minutes (“can I work on that webinar plan now?”), while account managers can give clients status updates by simply attaching their next task to a note.
Automation tool #2: Process minimization: Back when agencies were running off Excel spreadsheets and good ol’ fashioned Post-Its (at least in our dreams), it was easy for them to make changes (or even completely new processes) whenever they needed to. After all, creating charts and lists is a lot easier than doing complicated programming.
But with custom-built content management systems, making any significant changes to your project process becomes a whole different story, especially considering how unwilling most clients are to add new features or go through an entire rebranding just for the sake of improving internal workflow efficiency.
This begs the question: why not build some frontend interfaces that enable account managers to control everything from client onboarding through milestone checkouts on their own?
Not only will this save you time by allowing more people in your agency to get involved in running projects, but it’ll also keep both project managers and designers free for more pressing matters while still allowing them to have input when needed.
Avoid Bottlenecks in Digital Project Management
With most automated or delegated tasks, you might assume that there’s little room for bottlenecks in an agency’s workflow. But unfortunately, not all things are so easy to hand off.
For instance: when is it ever a good time to take on new clients? What if the client who has been with your agency for two years suddenly decides they want a website refresh? How do you know when to ask them to re-design their branding?
Another common bottleneck in digital agencies is back-and-forth emails between departments (e.g., marketing asking devs when certain parts of an app will be finished). These can pile up into days worth of communication that takes place over weeks or even months before the task at hand is completed.
For this reason, it’s key to hire the right people for specific client-facing tasks (e.g., account managers who are good listeners and creative problem-solvers) as well as make sure teams can work directly with one another without having to go through you every time (the beauty of digital project management tools like Trello lies in that kind of flexibility).
Get Your Estimates Right and Maintain Profitability
So what’s the magic number you should be charging clients? Well, first things first: start by asking them how much they’re spending on marketing every month. There’s a good chance they’ll underestimate their monthly spending if they’re not aware of all costs going into their current campaigns.
Although there are several ways to calculate your rate, including percentage-based rates for different stages in a project, the easiest way is by setting a fixed dollar amount for every hour someone spends working on your client’s projects.
This way, it’s clear to everyone when they need to take breaks or go home at night (i.e., when their budget runs out), and if you factor in the time required to handle client onboarding tasks, this tends to work pretty well both from a client’s perspective and an agency’s.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that no one should ever spend extra hours doing what they do best. After all, building long-term relationships with clients means going above and beyond to ensure they’re happy with both the responsiveness and quality of work your agency provides.
Manage Client Expectations
So how do you avoid such bottlenecks? Well, it all starts with setting the right expectations early on. Say you’re just starting and don’t have much work lined up. In this case, it’s vital to be upfront about it and let the client know when they can expect to hear from your agency and when they can expect a finished product.
On the other hand, if you’ve got too many projects going on, well, here’s where flexible teams come in handy: if you work with good people, then they’ll be able to handle a little more while always having the client’s best interests in mind.
And last but not least, it’s essential to keep your clients informed every step of the way, especially when things go a bit off track and you need a couple of extra days to complete a specific part of their project. As much as possible, shoot for weekly check-ins that allow them to ask any questions or request changes without feeling ignored or neglected.