How to Organize Your MarCom Projects With Only 2 Hands

This post originally appeared in Forward Thinking, the Turnaround Marketing Communications blog.

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As a principal at Turnaround Marketing Communications and its creative director for two decades, I feel your pain. Many’s the day I felt like an octopus—or wished I was one—trying to keep more than 30 clients’ projects on track. My experience in the creative communications trenches taught me about good design, positive client relations, effective team management, quality control, and achieving stated goals in marketing pieces. It also taught me about organization and time management.

To keep all the balls in the air, I instituted policies and procedures that ensured effective workflow so that small projects wouldn’t slip through the cracks and large ones got the attention they deserved. Though we only had two designers, we produced many award-winning, results-driven marketing pieces with the aplomb of much larger firms. You, too, are probably charged with doing a lot with a little. (How many arms does your boss think you have?) It can be done.

In higher ed, communications offices call their colleagues in admissions, development, alumni relations, etc., “clients” and treat them as such. In best practice situations, they meet with the client for intake about the project, ascertain goals, ensure brand adhesion, develop a production schedule, assign duties, submit comps for review, design the project, revise it, get final approval, produce it, and follow up to measure results. They frequently bill clients for services rendered by taking money from other offices’ budgets and moving it to theirs. You could call these offices “internal advertising agencies.”

Communication offices in independent schools, in higher ed, and firms like ours want to get design projects from Point A (a new job ticket) to Point B (delivery):

  • efficiently (save the most money for the school and the firm),
  • effectively (get the results sought),
  • accurately (get as close to perfection as possible),
  • creatively (create the most compelling designs within designated parameters),
  • on time (keep to the deadline), and 
  • on budget (or as close as possible given circumstances not always in our control).

Here are my suggestions for effective workflow procedures.

Create a master job sheet to keep track of all projects. Or how someone else can get up to speed quickly if you disappeared tomorrow in the witness protection program. This is a view of all current projects from 30,000 feet. It covers the major milestones, but doesn’t go into much detail. Creating a job sheet is easily done in Word or Excel. Columns could include job number, “client” (admissions, development, etc.), project, first-proof due date, in-hand due date, and notes. At Turnaround, we also include scope (hours budgeted), and hours to date (see time-tracking software later in this post). 

Develop and use a creative brief that outlines in detail the job’s scope including goals, budget, and deadlines as well as personnel assigned to it, printing guidelines, etc. Or how put all details of a project on one doc for focus and fast reference. Make sure you ensure brand adhesion by aligning key messages with your school’s brand messages. 

Hold regular, weekly meetings of your team even if it’s just two of you. Or how to avoid the dreaded, “Gee, I thought you were doing that.” Run down the job sheet and update each project’s status. Don’t skip projects unless they are completely idle. There were many occasions when this weekly meeting saved someone’s rear end at our firm.

Create a job folder for larger projects using anything from a simple file folder to a bigger job jacket. Or how not to lose the critical information that was scribbled on a post-it note. Label the folder with the job number, client, and project. We used to use colored folders that matched one of the school’s colors. You might want to assign one color each for admissions, development, alumni, all-school, etc.

Establish an approval process, and don’t veer from it. Or how to protect your patootie and your colleagues’ as well. At Turnaround, we require a sign-off when a job is approved. This can be as simple as an email with the last PDF that says "Go." Clients sometimes wonder why we are hard-nosed about this, but we have found it keeps everyone on the same page and prevents problems about which version was the final.

Determine the number of revisions. Or how to prevent revision after revision, after revision, after revision, and a pile of your hair accumulating on your office floor. If you tell clients you expect two rounds of revisions, they will generally be more thoughtful about changes. Then you’ll end up with three or four rounds. If you let them revise ad infinitum, believe me, they will. (The record at Turnaround was 31. We instituted our policy after that.)

Label final files "FNL". After you're on your 12th revision and you get the green light, but sure to save the final, final, final file with "FNL" at the end. Or how to be sure you've really, really got the right one. 

Use time-tracking software. Or how to learn from your successes… and your mistakes. Though small independent school offices may not need it, this kind of software shows how long each project and its components took to complete, which will help you predict future projects. It also points out “problem” projects, which helps with internal time management and workflow as well as assessing which projects should be outsourced. Hubspot has some suggestions for you.

So is all this worth it? Or why would anyone in their right mind want to do this? If you use these tools regularly and track results, your office will become more efficient, productive, and valuable. And, hey, this can only help when asking for a raise or more team members.

Be sure to listen to our podcast with Caitlin Garzi of Cheshire Academy on Project Management.