Holding up the mirror – how agencies can grow by applying data to their own business

Holding up the mirror – how agencies can grow by applying data to their own business

Many communications agencies are failing to apply a data-led strategy to their own workplace, despite using it for their clients. Katy Woodward, Director of Strategy at MediaCom UK looks at how agencies can use data to recognise the realistic output of their workforce and avoid waste and overworking employees.

Using empirical evidence at every step of the communications process has become standard practice in creating effective and engaging work for clients. We all scrutinise numerous data sources to gain a better understanding of customers, to deliver meaningful insight-led opportunities and drive business growth.

Yet, how often is this approach applied internally at communications agencies? In a 2019 Forbes article, Ben Zimmermann argued that “we have always done it this way”, is the most dangerous phrase in business. He observed that companies reluctant to adapt to the times often fail, citing the fall of Blockbuster and subsequent rise of Netflix as a perfect example.

So how often as an agency are you measuring and analysing team performance to improve relationships with clients, the work delivered, and not least the working lives of employees? Perhaps not often enough.

Over the last year at MediaCom we have been futureproofing for change by empowering our people with agile working methodology across the business. In agile working, we use simple methods to measure and understand team performance such as Sprint Velocity, Kanban and Retrospectives Sessions. So far, we have trained over 1,100 staff across departments ranging from Planning to investment to HR, Facilities and beyond.

A big driver for this transformation was the opportunity to use a simple framework to collaboratively agree on ways to improve our output based on some of the most valuable data we have at our fingertips – our own.

With that in mind, these are the three core methods that we as a company are applying from our learnings.

  1. Plan your workload to match your capacity.

Work ethic is vital to any role, but not at the expense of employee’s physical and mental wellbeing. Death due to overworking is so prevalent in Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea, and China, specific words exist for the cause of death – karoshi, gwarosa and guolaosi. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a similar effect on the UK population. Wildgoose reported that in the last year 44% of employees were expected to do more work. A worry statistic when considering that 54% of all working days lost are because of work-related stress, depression or anxiety, costing businesses annually over £5 billion.

By measuring Sprint Velocity – which helps to measure our team’s capacity to get work done – we have been able to identify the realistic outputs of any given team. On a particular client facing team, we recognised that on a fortnightly basis an average of 30 tasks were completed, yet often the team was overworked with almost double that figure.

Simply by actively prioritising workload to match our regular achievable rhythm, our work satisfaction and team motivation improved significantly. Also, client satisfaction scores increased 10% by focusing our efforts on our client’s greatest prioritises and maintaining a sustainable pace of productivity. Now we look to the benefits of optimising individual workloads.

  1. Visualise your workload to identify waste.

One of the most powerful data visualisations in agile is the Kanban board which gives an immediate, current, and fully transparent view of a team’s workload. It also reveals pressures on individuals, help to limit WIP to improve workflow and offer clarity on where employees prioritise lie.

Using this data to help identify and eliminate areas of waste within the team can be instrumental in improving productivity. While some areas of waste in business are obvious, some are more nuanced such as skills being underutilised and unnecessarily complex tasks. Kanban helps to manage and eliminate many aspects of waste related to resource and workload management.

In one cross functional team, through implementing Kanban we were able to streamline workloads by sharing resource more efficiently across the team. To alleviate strain on overworked employees, we reassigned their tasks to others in the team with a transferrable skillset, to speed up task output. The team were more balanced and clients got what they needed quicker. All made possible with the implementation of one simple tool.

  1. Prioritise regular reflection as a team.

Statistician and business consultant, William Edwards Deming (1900-1993), is widely considered a leading management thinker in the field of quality. He also championed using data and measurement to understand and quantify performance. Like Deming, agile working actively encourages us to regularly reflect on our own data.

Retrospective sessions are arguably the most valuable aspect of agile working as it creates a safe and blameless space to openly discuss what, as individuals, we observed and explore why that happened. Within the sessions, we draw on regular actionable insights on both performance and behaviour. From there, we collaboratively agree as a team the improvements we need to make and what elements worked well. In my own experience these sessions have become one of the richest sources of insight we have, to improve the output of our teams.

Agile is a simple framework that encourages the valuable habit of data interrogation and data-led problem solving that actively foster across our whole business. Its methods make regular use of some of the most valuable data and insight we have within our business. In doing so, we are empowering individuals and teams to make data-led decisions on how they can remove barriers to grow together quickly and effectively. However, more importantly it encourages our teams to take a people first approach to improving our productivity, our work, and the mental health of our people.

By Katy Woodward

Strategic Planning Director

MediaCom UK