How Does The Agency Work?

I receive a lot of calls/emails about how the agency works within the University of Notre Dame.  I was at a conference recently and a lot of people there were interested as well.  One email in particular had a lot of great questions and I decided to try and give it some good answers.

From the email:

Who are the people that work at the Agency?
I’ve a got an awesome bunch of guys and gals that make up our team.

A web team with four developers, two designers, one information architect and an interactive director.

A print team with two designers and a print production person part time along with the print director. We’ve also got creative director who oversees creative for both areas as well as our one photographer.

For project management, we have one project manager, one account manager and one scheduler.  There’s also an office coordinator.

How does the Agency run?
We run things close to a traditional shop and we charge for our work for certain clients – the university administration doesn’t pay but they “sponsor” about half the costs of the shop.

All projects have creative briefs with the marketing story, target audience, measurement, etc…  For web projects, we’ll have wireframes, mood boards, and IAs flushed out before we being with design.

All designers keep up with the latest trends and we try to stay focused on retail and larger web sites then mimicking other universities.

We have our own homegrown CMS system built in Rails.  It’s worked well for us and people can manage their own sites once they are up and running.  It’s called Conductor.

The person then shot back a series of questions.

Here are some questions that would be extremely helpful to know the answers to, in addition to a simplified version of “this is how things are done around here.”

How do you manage working with different clients? Do certain groups/organizations in the college have more importance than others when planning for different projects?
Managing multiple clients is difficult for us due to the fact that we are currently overloaded.  We don’t have enough account managers right now so between three of us we have 40+ clients and about 200 simultaneous projects.  But it should work out to have about six account managers managing each one of the schools and major clients like admissions or development.  We’ve started a Preferred Vendor Program to help pick up the slack and help clients that we can’t help due to resource limitations.

Yes, some groups are preferred partners.  These are clients who have decided to work with directly with us as partners.  There are a handful of these and we work very closely with them compared to clients that just come in for project-based solutions.  These include some of the colleges, administration and university relations.

Do you have rush orders and if so, how do you deal with them and fit them into your list of projects and priorities.
Right now, we just handle them but my dream is to have 20% extra time each week to handle these emergencies.  But the preferred clients are all developing communications strategies with extra planning to try and keep these at a minimum.  We also charge double for rush projects to discourage people from not planning.

Who meets with clients initially? Who is the main contact for the client after that?
I do or the account manager assigned.  The account manager is the main contact at all times.  Sometimes this is not always available and it would be given to the web director/print director or creative director.  We try to keep these at a minimum.

Is each project assigned a designer and developer or is it based on who is available and when?
Both.  If one of our designers has been chosen by the client then we always try and keep that designer with the projects.  I only have four so if the designer is swamped another one can step in.  We try and keep all the designers engaged together (creative director handles this) and they talk constantly.  They also share both internally and externally designs of what they are working on for feedback.

Who controls the content of the websites? Is there a full analysis and rework done?
The clients always control the content of their websites.  We may help write the initial launch of the website but we turn the content management system over to clients after training.

Not all websites can have a full analysis (some websites aren’t worth it considering their construction) but we have an information architect who will do an analysis along with the account manager and then discuss with the client.  Some clients handle this on their own as well as they do a lot of websites.

Do you encounter resistance with clients on web standards and if so, how is that solved. Essentially, what effect does politics play in your process and final product? and if you do have to deal with it, what are some effective strategies you have in place for it?
When I first came here, there was some resistance to the ideas the agency presented to the clients.  There was a lot of reason for this but EDUCATION was by far the biggest thing missing.  So along with the team of OPAC, we created a bunch of different educational groups and we are currently working on a series of classes like “web certification courses”.

There’s a linkedin community that is closed where we all discuss marketing in general, we have brown bag lunches and webinars and we have a large campus communicators summit every six months.  This has been helpful and we are doing more education at the beginning of projects in initial meetings then just presenting solutions.

How does the university view your department and its role in meeting university goals?
This is tricky question.  We are trying to be more than just a service provider.  We want to be viewed as a leader in this area as well as a partner to their most important assets (colleges/admission/university relations/colleges).  I believe this will be changed by leading with education and producing good work.

If you are viewed as an outside shop, what determines your rates? How are budgets and billing handled?
We are internal shop with inexpensive prices.  We determine the rates based on our internal budget.  But we run $75 for most digital projects.  Print a little less.  Project management and consulting at $50. Budgets and billing are handled as well as time tracking for all staff with a service called workamajig.

Do clients sign contracts and what types of things are covered in them?
They don’t sign contracts.  They sign agreements.  In the agreement is the creative brief, project summary, rough costs and timeline.  We only charge for the hours used – nothing is fluff.

Do you have expectations for them to adhere to a timeline and if so, how do you encourage/enforce that.
Timelines are pain and sometimes clients don’t seem to be on the same timeline that we are.  But this was a source of frustration in the retail world as well.

We try and remove the things that will cause slow downs.  This is usually content.  So we are trying to get them to let us do the content of the initial launch and then they can take it over.  If we handle it all, we hit our deadlines.  If they do the content, there’s a pretty good chance it will be delayed.  Everyone always underestimates the amount of time it will take to do the project.  Us included.

Do the timelines include what is needed from them and when milestones of the project maybe achieved?
Yes, we have all the meetings laid out and when things are due.  We don’t stick to dates as much as average time between meetings.  Dates tend to burn us and not the clients.

If a client changed their mind on the navigation after approving it and the design mocks, how would your department handle that? Would the projects timeline change or just the navigation? Do you have them sign-off on different stages?
We have Change Orders for massive changes to different pieces.  This way they know this is going to cost more money.  Personally, this tends to happen a lot with different clients.  With those clients, we know how we should build the navigation to allow for changes.  That’s the best thing about CMS, we have no problems with changing navigation on the fly.  We shy away from horizontal navs for clients that are unsure about growth.  I think sign-offs would help discourage changes but sometimes it just leads to client frustration.  I think a lot of these issues can be solved by education up front.

What do you do as a team to ensure that your group’s resources (time, manpower, etc) is respected by clients and the university? What systems do you have in place to prevent scope creep and other issues that may impede progress?
Charging clients usually helps us with scope creep but spending a lot of time on IA, wireframe, design and creative brief (we always go back to the creative brief) has helped us tremendously.  Those Change Orders are effective as well when they see the costs of changing their minds.  Plus pushing projects back.  We also remind them of their timeline and how we can make changes after the launch.

Do you have a project manager, in the traditional since? How are maintenance requests, project requests and other random e-mails managed?
We have an account manager and a project manager.  Account managers deal with strategy and clients.  Project managers are internal.  I wish we had more.

Maintenance is handled by our Web Support Developer.  He does everything and charges for it and only brings in the account manager if the change is bigger than he can handle on his own.  He logs all of his time in workamajig and charges out for it.

If you do offer maintenance and a CMS, what agreements and rules do you have in place for these services, if any.
We don’t do agreements for the CMS and support – it is just provided.  We are currently running into some issues with costs with the system we built and are in talks with OIT for internal support.  We charge the clients but haven’t been taking this system into the initial costs of the billing.  This may change soon since our system is getting bigger.  150 sites and growing.

Hope this helps.  BTW, we always tweaking the system.

Then I asked the emailer if I could use this as a blog post.  They said, “Yes.”  So here it is.  Any questions?


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