As the Cannes Lions Festival is wrapping up this week, we’re seeing the annual breathless, self-congratulatory statements coming out of agencies with photos of their awards and sun-tanned creative teams sipping champagne.
They should feel proud. They’ve achieved a huge accomplishment that has been the recognized stamp of credibility for advertising creativity since 1954.
How do agencies win at the Cannes Lions festival?
When I worked at the big ad agencies, I was often shocked at how they used clients’ budgets for the purpose of winning awards and self-promotion.
I’ve seen ad agency executives planning how to maximize their billings for minimal work and use their clients’ budgets to submit campaigns for awards.
I vividly remember, shortly before I walked away from my ad agency career, being part of a team that created a poster to promote a lightbulb.
It involved an elaborate set rental, professional photography shoot, intensive image editing, and ultimately cost the client $17,000. For a poster.
It did nothing to communicate the benefits of the lightbulb for consumers. And there was not a single conversation at the agency about how we should measure results, or even what the goal was for the poster.
Was it a failed poster campaign?
It certainly didn’t achieve the goals in the official creative brief.
But, it did win a prestigious award for that agency and the creative director.
It was certainly a clever (if not esoteric) concept with beautiful, subtle photography, but it was entirely useless as an ad.
I watched as the client contacts turned a blind eye to the waste, knowing that they would be repaid with lavish expense account dinners in exchange for handing over their company’s cash.
Today’s CMOs know award-seeking agencies don’t care about their clients. Much less their clients’ customers.
They know that too-clever ads often don’t achieve results. Their digital transformation is changing their priorities. Data-informed ad campaigns are now revealing how ineffective the old gut-feeling approach can be.
They are seeking alternatives, and finding them in the Zen Marketing approach that balances intuition with data, big ideas with bold experiments, inspiration with rigorous validation.
The alternative to cleverness is customer insights that are validated by robust data.
The alternative to awards for cleverness is measurable results lift.
I’m reminded again, in this Cannes Lions Festival season, of why I started WiderFunnel to be the “anti-agency.” And again, why we will never make a recommendation if we haven’t tested its ability to lift the client’s revenue.
So, the next time you’re in an agency pitch where they’re bragging about their awards, don’t walk; run away from hiring them. They’re telling you they don’t care about you.
Why we will never win a Cannes Lion award
Short answer: Because we will never submit for one.
Digital workers, especially web designers and developers, need to recognize that policy influences their products online much as it does offline. Whatever the scale of our enterprise — whether a large corporation, small digital agency, software company or personal venture — we must work within this system of legislated regulations (what we simply call “policies”) in order to maintain our compliance with the law.
Our present regulatory environment is a world of rules we must navigate every day at the workplace, especially if we own a business. Why, then, should we expect the digital world in which we build websites and transact business to be any different? It isn’t — in fact, if anything, the regulatory environment on the web has grown more complex and codified in recent years, with new requirements arising quickly for accessibility, cookies, online privacy, the right to be forgotten, the exporting of personal citizenship information, and so on.
The start of a web project is an exciting time. You’ve met with the client, agreed upon the goals for the project and mapped out a plan for the development of what will be an awesome new website or application — except that is not always how it turns out. Sometimes, despite your careful planning and best efforts, a project will fail.
Failure isn’t something many of us like to think about, but preparing to deal with failure is as important as planning for success. Articles and tips on how to kick off a project right and build a long-term client relationship are helpful in this industry, but if you only focus on what to do when things go right, then you will be ill-prepared for when things get so off track that you are unable to complete a project.
Over the 15-plus years that I have been a web professional, I have enjoyed many successes and endured my share of failures. In this article, I will share the hard-won lessons I have learned during that time for facing failure and handling a failed web project.
Preparing For Failure Does Not Mean Admitting Defeat
Someone once told me, “Preparing for failure means admitting defeat before a project has even begun.” That’s like saying that wearing a seatbelt means admitting that you’re about to get into a car accident. That is obviously not the case. You wear a seatbelt to protect yourself in case something goes wrong during a trip. The same can be said for having a plan in case a website project goes wrong.
If you have a good team and a solid process, then failure will be rare. But it does happen. Having a plan for when things go wrong — really wrong — does not mean accepting failure before the fact, but rather preparing for anything that might happen in order to protect your company, your fellow team members and even your other clients.
Knowing When To Say When
Determining when a project is beyond the point of no return is always a challenge. No two projects are alike, and you must handle each project on its own terms. You do not want to admit failure too early, but you also do not want to hang on when there is no hope of success. This is a balance you must strike as you decide whether to save or abandon a project.
There are always unexpected bumps in the road and unforeseen challenges, but those challenges alone are not a reason to call it quits. Be prepared for those challenges, and do everything you can during the process to get back on track. This could include revisiting a project’s scope and budget to address inconsistencies between what was initially planned and what is being developed now.
If communication is the problem, then you might need to bring in new people from your agency or see whether someone on the client’s side should be involved in the project. You might even need to bring in outside help if you find that you have taken on more than you can handle. There is no shame in asking for help, either internally or externally. That is much better than declaring defeat when a helping hand could have made all the difference.
If you have tried all of these things and the project is still failing, then you will have to say “Enough is enough” at some point. Again, every project is different, so you will need to determine where that point is. Sometimes, as hard as it is to admit, failure is inevitable, and if you keep pushing forward, then you will only be delaying that outcome.
Prepare To Have A Difficult Conversation
This is, without a doubt, the toughest part of a failed web project: sitting down with the client to discuss the situation and to share your assessment that the project cannot be completed as discussed and that you are stepping away from it. I say “sitting down with the client” because this absolutely has to be done face to face — if not in person, then at least via video chat if the client is not local. Do not ever do it by email, as tempting as it may be to hide behind it. That is not acceptable. Remember that you are a professional, and a professional handles this type of situation personally.
I have had this unfortunate conversation a few times in the course of my career. It is never fun or easy. Some clients got anxious about what would happen next. Others got furious and screamed at me. Whatever happens, I have found that the following helps:
Now is not the time to put your spin on the situation. It’s time for an honest conversation. The only caveat here is that, while you do need to be honest, you do not want to trash the client and lay all of the blame at their feet (more on that shortly).
Explain what’s next.
This is a scary time for the client. Even if they are furious and lash out verbally, they are probably only doing that out of fear. This is when you need to be a leader and lay out the steps for what comes next for them, including how you will transition them away from your company.
Keep your cool.
Even if the client insults you or threats legal action, remain professional and keep your cool. Nothing good will come from firing back, even if you feel it would be justified.
Speak To Your Lawyer
It’s an unfortunate reality that we live in a very litigious society — and the untimely end of a web project that someone has paid for, at least in part, is a pretty logical reason for that person to seek financial restitution in the form of a refund or even compensation for damages. As you can probably imagine, this situation can get ugly, especially if you are not prepared to deal with the legal side.
When you are preparing to pull the plug on a project, speak with your lawyer. In fact, you should have had this conversation with your lawyer at the beginning to ensure that your contracts include the proper language to protect yourself as well your company in the event that something does go bad.
Many web professionals, especially those with small or new practices, often eschew a lawyer in favor of contract templates that they find online and repurpose for their own use. Those contracts are a great starting point, but you are probably not an expert in the law (I know I am not!), so you will be unable to assess whether those contracts really protect your business. Even if you start with one of those templates, consulting a lawyer to ensure that everything you need is in place still holds immense value. Yes, a cost is attached to that engagement, but the alternative could be far pricier for your agency.
Part On The Best Terms Possible
As mentioned, there is a good chance that your client will ask for a full refund at some point. Be prepared for this, and know your contractual obligations, but also do not hide behind that legal document. Sometimes, you will need to bend a little, even if you are not legally obliged to, in order to amicably resolve the failed engagement.
I remember a situation like this a number of years ago. To make a long story short, the project was a failure, and while blaming the client for all of the problems would have been easy, the reality is that my team allowed the situation to get as bad as it did, and we certainly had our share of blame. While we were not obligated to refund the client any of the money they had paid us, when we sat down with them to have this unfortunate discussion, they did indeed ask about a refund. Rather than deny them outright, we asked the client what they thought was fair. In the end, the client ended up using some of what we created for them, and we refunded a small percentage of what they had paid us. While we could have stuck to our guns and refused any refund based on our contract, we owned up to our failings and tried to do what was right for the client without hurting our company.
An interesting end to this story: A few years later, we were talking with a potential new client who mentioned that they knew someone we had worked with in the past. When we asked who that was, they referred to this failed project. As you might expect, we didn’t think that was a positive sign, but what we heard next surprised us. When we asked what had been said about us, they told us that the former client acknowledged that there had been some difficulties in the project, but said that we had “treated them right and done everything we could to help them out.”
In the end, even though the project had been a failure, our commitment to part on the best terms possible ended up getting us positive comments.
Do Not Play The Blame Game
At times, I have faced a project’s failure knowing that the reason was the client’s disfunction. Blaming them and letting them know that they are the reason why the project has crashed and burned is tempting, but that isn’t the right course of action. Playing the blame game doesn’t help anyone, and in truth, even if a project’s failure is due to a client’s insanity, that isn’t the whole story.
Remember that you are the expert, not the client. They hired you to manage this project and bring it to a successful conclusion. So, even if their disfunction has contributed to the failure, you allowed it to get that bad, and you must shoulder some of the blame.
If I am honest with myself, most of the failed projects I have endured in my career were doomed from the start. Either the project or client wasn’t a great fit or I mistakenly took on the project because the price was enticing or the client would have made a nice addition to my portfolio. In these cases, even if the client’s actions (or lack of action) contributed to the project’s failure, I also share the blame because I decided to enter into a relationship that I knew was not a great fit.
If the client’s actions played a role in the project’s failure, then be honest and discuss it during your “break-up” meeting. But also be prepared to own up to your own failings as you focus on what comes next.
Stick To Your Decision
You might be surprised to learn that about 50% of the clients I have had to walk away from come back to me within a few months to ask me to reconsider my decision. This often happens after the client has shopped around for another provider, only to discover that what I had been telling them all along was, indeed, true and that starting over would not be easy. If this happens, taking another shot at the project will be tempting, but if you were honest with yourself about needing to end the relationship, then stick with that decision.
Are the problems that doomed the project in the first place suddenly not a factor any longer? Promises of better communication, clearer direction, a bigger budget, reduced scope or whatever will “fix” the problem might sound like a reason to jump back in, but those problems will rear their head again eventually, and breaking up a second time will be even harder than the first.
Have I ever succumbed to this temptation and taken a project back on? Yes, I have. Has a project ever ended successfully the second time around? No, it has not. Eventually, it was back to the usual, and we had to start the break-up process all over again. Stick to your decision, and save yourself the headache.
Learn From The Situation
While I have made my share of mistakes over the years, I am proud that I have learned from those mistakes and avoided repeating them in subsequent projects. There is no way to avoid mistakes completely. Even the most well thought out, thorough process can break down. The important thing to do when a project goes bad is learn from it. Once the dust has settled, sit down with your team and take an honest look at what went wrong. Again, own up to your own failings, and do what you can to make sure they do not arise again.
Do’s and Don’ts
Not every project is perfect, so be prepared to handle bumps along the way.
Do not hang on to a project that has no hope of success, simply delaying the inevitable.
Speak to a lawyer, and legally prepare in case a project fails.
Plan to have a difficult and honest conversation with the client.
Be authoritative, and outline the next steps for moving a client and project away from your company.
Do not lose your cool, even if the client attacks you verbally or threatens legal action.
Part on the best terms possible, and be flexible during this unfortunate time.
Do not play the blame game by laying sole responsibility for the project’s failure at the client’s feet.
Accept responsibility for whatever part you had in the project’s demise.
Do not backtrack on your decision if you have been honest with yourself and determined that you need to walk away.
Learn from your mistakes so that you do not repeat them in future.
Back when my agency started taking content seriously, we invested a lot time in developing a process to produce content. The biggest challenge was always figuring out how to get clients onboard with this new process.
Most of our clients were totally happy riffing on how to meet the business objectives of a project or how to approach the visual design, but they always struggled to get to grips with our process for producing content. We found that the most effective way to get their buy-in was to run a content-planning workshop.
Workshops work really well to get everyone onboard with how to produce content (while also clarifying how to agree on content). By involving as many people from the client’s side as possible in these workshops, you can really underline people’s responsibilities, while also highlighting that this process won’t happen overnight.
In this article, I’ll share the approach we developed to run content-planning workshops with our clients. While you will need to adapt the format to your scenario, you should be able to apply most of the steps.
You’ll have to sort out a few things before inviting your client to the workshop. These workshops have a few components, so put in the work beforehand to make sure everything runs smoothly and you don’t have awkward pauses during the session.
Find a Venue
You’ll want to get a room with a large table and a whiteboard. You could bring the client to your agency’s boardroom or do the workshop somewhere off-site that you agree on. Having an inspiring new environment is always good for the client. Sometimes the client will be engaged, but I’ve been in a few workshops where no one wanted to be there and were constantly checking their email or not taking it seriously. Working off-site might hold everyone’s interest better; it also makes it easier to set ground rules (no phones, for example).
Invite the Project Manager, Project Owner and Senior Editor
These roles will vary hugely according to the project. Either way, involve some kind of senior manager and someone on the ground who will actually be producing the content. This way, you’ll get buy-in from the top and a realistic plan from the bottom.
Invite a technical person, too, so that they can talk about CMS formatting and any details regarding migration and publishing processes. By inviting people who represent key areas of the project, you are minimizing risk. I’ve been in workshops where someone from legal turned up and effectively redefined the requirements by sharing important legal requirements.
Invite Representatives From Different Teams
Invite one or two representatives from each of these groups: writers and producers, subject experts, and digital producers. Again, these roles will vary according to your situation. Essentially, you want to get managers from a cross-section of departments, as well as the people who will actually be carrying out the production process that you map out. Be aware of organizational politics and the workloads of the people you’re involving.
Bring plenty of sticky notes and markers and some big sheets of paper. These will be used throughout the workshop, and you will need enough for up to three groups.
2. Map Your Process
First, look at the production stages that a piece of content will need to go through before it is ready to be published. This generally starts with identifying the key content types (for example, “product pages,” “course summary pages,” “how-to guides”). Content types are not necessarily “pages” as such, but could be more modular components of the website — things like product specifications or staff biographies.
Once you’ve identified the main content types, look at what’s involved in taking them from a basic page brief (which outlines what an item of content is supposed to achieve) to a product that is published and maintained.
Choose a Content Type
Choose a content type that you expect to appear on your new website, such as a service or product page, a blog post or a course outline. Choose something that everyone can relate to; avoid specialized content types such as legal documents and engineering reports.
Map a Publishing Process
In groups, map out a production process to get a single piece of content published on the new website. Again, this will vary a lot according to your team (for example, depending on who will be doing the heavy lifting of producing the content).
A simple workflow might look something like this:
Edit tone of voice
Get approval from client
Optimize for search engines
Import to CMS
Review web page
The workflow will vary considerably from project to project. You might need to account for legal and compliance reviews or technical accuracy, or you might need to specify phases for formatting and publishing content (such as formatting for mobile or converting items into downloadable PDF documents). This is another reason to start with a fairly generic piece of content, and then move on to creating more elaborate workflows for specific content types or sections of the website.
The bias that stems from people’s roles in the project is always interesting to see (which is why having people with different roles involved in the workshop is so valuable in the first place). You might find legal representatives claiming to need four separate stages for legally reviewing every page, while a copywriter might want to break the editing for tone of voice into multiple phases. A concerted team effort should result in a workflow that is balanced, realistic and agreed on.
3. Assign Responsibility
One of the most powerful things about these workshops is that you assign responsibility, making clear who exactly is accountable for which work. Failing to clarify responsibility over content is one of the most common causes for delays. Bottlenecks happen usually because people simply do not know they were expected to produce content or because responsibility has all been put on one person. This part of the workshop should prevent such trouble.
Annotate each stage on your sheet with the person or role responsible for it. This might look something like this:
Draft content: subject expert
Edit tone of voice: copywriter
Review internally: senior editor
Get approval from client: project owner
Optimize for search engines: SEO editor
Import to CMS: CMS editor
Review web page: project owner
Publish: CMS editor
Maintain: subject expert
Identify Lack of Ownership
Mark any stages that don’t have a clear owner. This is often a huge revelation. “We need to hire an SEO editor!” “We need a copywriter!” “We need a pastry chef!” By simply highlighting the parts of the process for which no one is responsible, you’ll quickly see where the challenges for your project lie. By acknowledging these now, you will save a huge amount of stress down the line. You might find that the plan is solid and has no gaps, or you might immediately see that hiring a copywriter will save you a whole lot of trouble. Either way, this part of the workshop is critical.
Ask, “Do the people responsible know they are responsible?” This is another great opportunity to minimize risk. Make sure that everyone knows what’s expected of them, and see whether anyone has too much on their plate. A well-organized content inventory or dedicated project-management software comes in handy here.
4. Identify Risks In The Process
Building on the previous step, make sure the following questions are resolved to avoid bottlenecks.
“Do Too Many People Have a Say?”
Multiple heads are sometimes not better than one for producing content. Keep an eye out for pages or sections of the website that have a lot of editors and reviewers involved. I’ve seen so many projects delayed because content was bounced between editors for days on end, often just leading to over-edited and nonsensical text.
“Is One Person Overburdened?”
These workshops are the perfect time to assess the volume of work assigned to individuals and assess how realistically they can get it done. Give less outspoken people a chance to air their concerns, which is a lot easier when you’ve estimated the hours of work involved. Speak with each individual to review their workload.
“Do We Have the Skills Required?”
Is poorly written content a risk? Or could the content be misinformed (due to a lack of expertise)? Will the content be optimized for search engines? Go back to your content requirements and make sure you have the manpower to meet them all. If you don’t, call for some outside help.
“Where Might Things Get Political or Contentious?”
It’s an awkward subject to broach, but organizational politics could pose a serious threat to the project. I’ve often seen people hold back their opinion (or, more dangerously, overestimate their ability to deliver work) due to certain people being in the room or politics. The best way to deal with this is simply to treat all team members as equals and to ask probing questions of everyone in the room.
5. Estimate Hours
It might not be easy, but try to calculate the man hours of work required to complete each stage of the process. This isn’t the same as calculating how long it will take to complete a stage, although both are important when planning resourcing.
Estimate (in fractions of hours) how much effort is realistically required to complete each stage. Once you’ve come to an agreement on the time required, write the number beside each stage. If the debate about estimates is taking too long, you could try adapting the “planning poker1” technique used in scrum.
Add up the time required to complete all stages. This might be a good time for a break.
Estimate Total Workload
Multiply the total time by the number of pages anticipated for the website to get an estimate of the total amount of effort required for all of your content. As mentioned, you might be dealing with modules or items of content (things like product specifications or staff biographies), rather than pages. Either way, consider the average size of these items to get a realistic estimate of the time required to get the work done. I often group together additional content, such as microcopy, treating it as a single item in the calculation.
The calculation might look like this: 4 hours (time to produce and approve one page) × 125 pages = 500 hours of work.
6. Present The Process
Everyone should review the process at the end of the workshop to be clear on what’s going to happen, who is doing what and how it will be implemented. This is also a good time to outline the next steps.
Walk Through the Process
Each group should walk the whole team through their process (on a sheet of paper) and then open up the presentation for discussion. The person facilitating the workshop should go around and get input from everyone in the room. Address any concerns or anxieties immediately. Concerns tend to focus on whether there is enough time! Also, address any technical issues that people might not feel confident asking about.
Try to film the presentations so that any absent stakeholders can keep up with the discussion.
Following this discussion, move on to the slightly more serious task of setting realistic deadlines for the content and assigning responsibility. Talk about the software you might use to host your editorial calendar2, once you have a clear idea of the process that the software has to support. Choosing the software first could lead you to have to shoehorn the process in; this is best avoided!
That’s the process we’ve developed to run workshops with our clients. Hopefully, this template will help you to run successful content-planning workshops of your own and, more importantly, help you to get content finished on time and to a high standard.
With everyone on the same page (literally), the risk of delays with content production will be far less.
As mobile designers, we have a stark decision to make: do we spend time learning new tools and changing our design processes to create our own transitional interfaces, or are the tools that we’ve been using good enough?
There’s an old writing adage that advises writers, whenever possible, to “show, don’t tell” when bringing characters to life. The goal is to reveal the story through the character’s experiences instead of the author’s.
A lot of mobile-minded talented folks across the globe produce great work, but yet sometimes you still hear many of them complain about their relationships with their clients. They often mention feeling isolated and not truly understanding what the client really needed.
This lack of personal interaction often leads to misunderstanding, as well as less awareness of and appreciation for all your hard work. While involving clients in your mobile workflow can be challenging, really working together will make a big difference.
We all make mistakes. Whether in our design and development work or just in life in general, we all do it. Thankfully, even the biggest mistakes carry valuable lessons.
As a contrast to the many Web design articles that focus on successes and what we can learn from those triumphs, this article looks to the other end of the spectrum to explore what failures teach us.
Further Reading on SmashingMag: Critical Mistakes Freelancers Make Marketing Rules And Principles For Freelancers On Design Systems: Sell The Output, Not The Workflow 20 Time-Saving Tips to Improve Designer’s Workflow Along the way, I will share stories of some of the missteps I have made in the course of my career and the lessons I’ve learned in the process — being ever mindful of composer John Powel’s words: “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.
As Web designers and developers, we see the value in supporting mobile devices every day. We’re well-versed in tactics and techniques for adapting our work to mobile. Our challenge is to be equally well-versed in selling our clients on that value as being something in which they need to invest precious budget dollars. [Links checked February/09/2017]
The Mobile Imperative I’ve been describing what I call the “mobile imperative” for a few years now when talking to clients or advocating support for mobile devices in Web design projects.
Twenty minutes after unboxing my first iPad, I realized this device’s potential to revolutionize the world of kiosks. Ten years ago, my team and I worked with Honda to develop touchscreen kiosks for its dealerships. Potential buyers could customize their purchase with a few touches of their fingertips. While innovative at the time, these early interactive kiosks didn’t come cheap, running Honda $3,000 to $5,000 per installation. Today, we can create such a kiosk for a fraction of the price.
When one goes to the professional, one expects to invest in his expertise. This investment requires no great leap of faith, as it is supported by a trust acknowledged among the general populace and duly warranted by the traditions of the profession. The standards and practices of an individual professional in the fields of, say, law, medicine, or aviation seldom present any great challenge to their clients’ preconceptions. Strict standards and regimented practices are the baseline assumption for all involved.