News Analysis: Map your route to agency success

The managing director of Shine Communications argues that robust management systems enhance rather than detract from agencies' creative sparkle.

When we founded Shine eight years ago, we wanted to build a creative and award-winning agency - as well as a fantastic environment in which people are happy to work. Immediately from launch we challenged ourselves to put tools in place to measure success, to ensure efficient planning and provide greater accountability to staff and our clients.

How was client satisfaction to be measured beyond the fact that they were retained and increased their budgets occasionally? How was staff happiness to be calculated other than on the basis they had not walked out the door? One popular misconception among sceptics is that too many processes can stifle creativity; in fact, we believe business objectives and management processes - developed and delivered by all staff - can actually foster a creative environment.

Three leaps forward

In my opinion there have been three waves of creative agencies in the UK. First-age agencies threw their doors open to a bunch of 'creatives', provided a collaborative working environment and left them to it. Brilliant work was produced, but sometimes at the cost of long-term viability. Accountability was a constant challenge: financial control was perceived as a barrier to creative thinking - possibly until many agencies paid a heavy price during the 1990s recession.

The best second-wave agencies were born out of these ashes. The Red Consultancy and Lexis PR are both examples of well-run, well-respected agencies that consistently deliver award-winning work. Several other like-minded agencies ensured that the UK industry came of age.

Third-wave agencies have evolved further. I believe this is due to the creation of a vision on day one - effectively making their ethos and values a founding principle of the organisation. Such agencies define what they want to achieve, then map how best to get there, creating management systems that make this journey possible - all of which are measured and tracked.

At Shine, the highly integrated approach we take to business planning ensures six defined business goals are reflected in every facet of the organisation - from our client promise through to staff competencies. These goals are: Help People Shine; Hire the Best to be the Best; Exceed Clients' Expectations; Build an Enviable Client List; Managed Growth; and Be Financially Successful. Staff are crucial not only in the delivery, but in the setting of these measures.

The goals are woven through the business with our Business Objectives To Help Ensure Results Every Day (BOTHERED) process - a prime method of change management. Allocated teams set measurement criteria for their activity, while quarterly deliverables are tracked on a quarterly basis. This allows us to match performance of the business plan against the performance indicators.

Any issues can be quickly identified, with activity redirected if appropriate.

We know our organisational structure is effective if we consistently hit our business and financial performance indicators, which are also benchmarked annually.

This sounds boring - but it is the foundation that enables us to continue running creative campaigns while retaining our staff.

Another factor affecting staff retention - and one of the biggest challenges facing our industry - is the effective management and use of people's time. We have done a huge amount of work in resource planning, and thankfully can point to a staff retention level of 90 per cent as a measure of how important resource planning continues to be.

Staff, clients and finance

Other processes to ensure consistent and high-quality delivery for clients typically fall into three areas: staff (retaining a well-motivated team through clear objectives and well-structured reviews); clients (setting expectations and clear deliverables that are reviewed regularly and evaluated consistently); and finance (delivering the product to the client within budget, using the right agency resources).

The Shine Business School, which we introduced last year, is another means of affecting change. These learning and change management modules for senior staff cover strategic selling, recruiting for success, entrepreneurial thinking and strategy review and analysis. Each monthly session creates its own product for rollout by the appropriate director to the company: this led to a new approach to account management at the agency.

Does it all sound too like admin? Too much like an Excel spreadsheet view of creative life? To me it is an essential dimension of creativity, a framework within which it can flourish.

This ethos is flourishing in the public sector, a sector perhaps too often overlooked or dismissed by London-based PR consultancy types. In terms of benchmarking, target setting and sometimes financial controls, we can learn a great deal from them.

Management systems are simply a framework for what we do - not a replacement for creativity. They provide the backdrop for the delivery of memorable campaigns, and for achieving results for clients. Perhaps most importantly, they protect and develop an agency's greatest asset - its people.

Shine Communications won the Management Systems gong at last month's London Excellence Awards 2005

TEN AGENCY MANAGEMENT TIPS

- Management processes should be fluid and tested for growth - identify risks and plan to control them.

- Ensure the business plan is realistic, specific, measurable and time-framed.

- Establish objectives for employees, explained as part of induction process.

- Benchmark performance, processes and strategies against competitors.

- Cash management is critical, as is financial and service-level reporting - control overservicing and analyse time management reports.

- Evaluate campaigns to ensure effective account management and fee return.

- Implement client satisfaction tracking, addressing all elements of the service.

- Ensure business development strategies are appropriately resourced and analysed periodically.

- Conduct a training needs analysis for each member of staff.

- Use the PRCA's Consultancy Management Standard for audits.

Source: PRCA.

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