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Creative operations in ad agencies

What is creative operations?

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Creative Operations (sometimes referred to as Agency Operations) is a concept that’s fairly new to advertising agencies. In fact, I’m sure that the only reason that it is gathering momentum is that digital media agencies have this discipline in place and the ‘traditional’ agencies are following suit. So, let’s answer the question, what is creative operations (Creative Ops for short) and why is it so important.  

What is Creative Operations?

The history

Most industries have an operations department. This department manages the administrative and logistical operations of the organization to efficiently function on a day-to-day basis. The specifics of the departments responsibilities depend on the industry, but its main responsibilities include:   

  • Design, document, and implement the internal business processes  
  • Standardize them to ensure consistency  
  • Analyze these processes and identify areas of enhancement  
  • Ensure that the processes are aligned with the overall business objectives. For example, reduce costs if cost is important, improve quality if that is the main goal, etc.  

The head of this department is the Chief Operating Officer. This is an executive who sits on the board and reports directly to the CEO of the organization and will be part of the management team with the CFO and other C-level executives. While a CEO is concerned with long-term business goals, the CFO with the financials, the COO is tasked with implementing daily operations, aligned with that goal and the company’s strategies.  

This may seem academic to you because very few advertising agencies have an operations department and fewer have a COO. This is because most agencies have believed that operations do not relate to people businesses like theirs. Let’s also face facts. Most agency leaders find the thought of process improvement, documentation, implementation tedious and fear that these things will distract the business from client work and will somehow kill creativity. They believed that creative operations and creativity are mutually exclusive  

The reality  

Why are creative operations important

The idea that creative ops and creativity don’t mix is rubbish. Nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, creative ops brings structure, process, and metrics to the creative process to optimize timing, capacity, and costs. It looks at the creative process to figure out where to optimize each step to produce more with the same (or fewer) number of people. The truth is that much of the work that agencies do is not creative and needs proper management and control. In short creative ops answers the client’s challenge. How can you do more, with fewer resources and in less time?  

Many agencies argue that they don’t need a separate creative operations department as they already have project managers (PMs). While it’s great that they have PMs, these folks tend to be fairly junior and will only have responsibility for the projects that they manage. The key difference between operations and project management is that the former is responsible for the entire business while the PM is responsible for a particular project. In an ideal world project managers together with the project management office (PMO) – we explained the importance of this in a prior article – will report to the COO. 

Why is creativity important in business?

When I was working for Added Value (now part of Kantar) we used the analogy of the “leaky bucket” to explain why creative operations is so important. The bucket represents the organization and the services and products it sells. The leaking holes represent the loss of profitability of the agency as potential revenue leaks out of the business. These could be things like:  

  • Hours worked not charged to the client 
  • Expenses/costs incurred not charged to the client  
  • Contractors hired when internal resources were available  
  • Work done on the wrong version of a file 
  • Errors and rework required  
  • Rebates not claimed  

The objective of the operations department is to plug as many of the leaks as possible.  

Some great examples of this are:   

Briefs: work with the agency to create a standard briefing template for each type of delivery that clearly states the number of revisions allowed and the costs of additional revisions. The department will then track completed projects to assess how many of those are being delivered to scope. This allows them to identify trends, problem clients, PMs that need training and improve “scope compliance.”  

Timesheets: Develop a timesheet policy including incentives for staff to complete their time before they leave at the end of the week. Identify tools that facilitate/automate timesheet completion. Install ERP systems that prevent users from accessing the product until timesheets are completed.  

Budgeting: Ensuring that all types of work have a standard budget that is automatically applied to newly created jobs. Working with finance to review unprofitable projects and follow up. Developing and monitoring processes for review of client estimates for quality.    

Resource management: Implementing systems that show real-time resource availability (excel is not a system.) Ensuring that staff is properly aligned to the work. Ensuring that freelancers are used when required. Managing culture. Driving innovation.  

Reporting: The standardization of reports and relevance to KPIs. The reduction of time of report generation. The implementation of real-time reporting.  

These are just examples because the scope and size of the operations department will very much depend on the size of the agency. The purpose of this article was to answer the questions: what is creative operations and why is it important, and I hope we have done that.  

Finally, I thought I would end the blog on a lighter note and share and old’ish YouTube video which shows what can do wrong if there is no creative operations in an agency.

If you want to go further into the topic. I strongly recommend that you check out the 4a’s webinar on “The Future of Agency Operations” for last year.

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