It’s nearly impossible to talk about agency/client relationships without coming across the classic story of then-Avis CEO Robert Townsend’s “Advertising Philosophy,” in which he codifies the working relationship between his company and their newly hired creative agency, DDB. It’s a simple document with six declarations. Without rehashing the whole story, which can be read many places, I want to point to list item #4, which, in addition to being my favorite, is the directive that seems most difficult and perhaps even out of step with current trends.
#4 reads: “To this end, DDB will only submit for approval those ads which they as an agency recommend. They will not ‘see what Avis thinks of that one.’” [View larger image.]
It’s simple and powerful. And it’s the only honest way to win the client’s full confidence—in their arrangement, Avis can never suggest whimsical edits or nitpick over details. But in an age of 37signals, Google, Agile development, and iterative development cycles, the logic seems outmoded.
In their second book, Getting Real, 37signals presents a chapter titled “Race to Running Software,” which is a series of essays on iterative development and getting something in front of users. The second essay in this section begins with the sentence: “Don’t expect to get it right the first time.” This philosophy is diametrically opposed to the one espoused by Townsend and DDB, right? The idea that we should get something into the world, let users (readers, clients) interact with it, respond to it, break it, and help us grow toward an improved product?
This is a big, hairy problem that I won’t try to solve for myself (much less anyone else) within this single post, but as something I deal with on a daily basis I can at least distill my thoughts into a few groups as I move forward.
First, unlike in the 1960s, we now have access to an unbelievable amount of feedback in the form of analytics, video, heat maps, and so on. We can get more out of “What do you think of this one?” than we could 50 years ago.
Second, we are expected to turn things around more quickly. Designers and web developers I talk to, especially those who have been working for over a decade, talk about their shrinking turn-around times. There’s less space in the day for deep creative thinking, all of the process that could help internalize the testing or incubation period. How can I be expected to come up with that ad or that creative or that workflow that I can mark with my theoretical “approval” stamp if I only have part of an afternoon to work on it? Indeed, the number of people I talk to who feel they have sufficient stretches of time to be creative is very small.
What do you think? Am I comparing apples and oranges? Have times indeed changed? Am I missing the point? I’m curious to hear how other people deal with the confluence of creative work (I only want to produce that work I’m most proud of) and iterative, fast timelines.
The dust is settling on the new switchyardcreative.com. What we’d like for you to see here is more than a redesign — it is a realignment of our site to the strengths and vision of a time-tested Switchyard Creative.
When we began this thing over a year ago, most of our (beloved) clients were as green as we were. Which was exactly what we wanted: together we linked arms and forged a new trail for small and medium sized businesses who deserve the same type of digital content tools, analytics and process automation as their big-dog competitors. As a results-driven agency, however, that did not provide us with much time to see the fruits of our efforts before the all important (and slightly embarrassing) v1 of our website was set to launch.
So, this is v2 — and being who we are, we focused heavily on the process. Here are three of the major guiding strategies behind the process for the new launch:
1. Don’t Do It Yourself
In a previous post, Thomas described our intentions when we decided to contract for our redesign. I echo his sentiments and also recognize one other incredibly important part of this exercise: we were put squarely into the clients shoes. As an agency we pulled in some valuable experience being on the other side of the table.
2. Show and Tell
When we made the move from “Portfolio” to “Case Studies,” our desire was to highlight more than just the aesthetics and technology and instead describe process and outcomes. These projects and strategies we deliver to our clients are still living and we consider their studies to be living documents as well.
3. Eat Your Own Dog Food
We believe in staying current and we take our recommendations seriously. With this redesign, we wanted to become familiar with the latest version of WordPress — one of our most trusted platforms for small and medium sized businesses. When we tell clients to move to Apps for Domains, host on Heroku or Webfaction, move their document storage into a Github backed repository, send their receipts to Shoeboxed or manage their projects in Basecamp, it’s because we trust the technology enough to use it ourselves. (Although, no solution is ever perfect!)
Almost exactly six months ago, Steven Walling wrote about why every employee in a web startup should learn how to code. He composed a two-part post on the subject, in which he shares excellent ideas about how non-coders should start engaging code, starting with a toe in the water (for example, Joel and I had to get up to speed on GitHub pretty quickly, since we share and source control all of our documents there), then upping the ante a little with a side project.
I’ve taken Steven’s advice to heart over the last year or so. I work with living code every day of the week, and I wouldn’t be anywhere near as comfortable if I hadn’t started back at OpenSourcery learning how to use Subversion on the command line, committing all of my marketing materials to the same trunk where developers were building applications every day. My first few attempts were nerve wracking, of course, since I had no idea what I could and could not screw up. I thought I was one sudo command away from wrecking the whole ship.
Flash forward to today, when I spend a lot of time training clients on Drupal projects or making relatively minor updates to client projects. If I weren’t also working on my own side projects, where the stakes are much lower, I wouldn’t be nearly as comfortable in a teaching role.
The last questions I want to ask here is — beyond my personal desire to understand what’s going on below the surface — what is the real value of non-developers writing code. The best answer I’ve found so far is that I’m able to unstick myself without stopping Sam or Joel’s work; I become a problem solver and I’m not afraid to do a little deductive thinking based on what I do know. And as any developer knows, even the smallest disruption or context switch can seriously kill productivity.
There’s a saying: The cobbler’s children have no shoes. You hear variations on the theme across a whole slew of fields: the carpenter’s cupbords are unfinished; the teacher’s still working on her book; and, of course, the scrappy web developer’s site is under construction.
When we started Switchyard almost a year ago (!) we spent considerable time working on the messaging behind our first public site, dedicating those hours to both presenting a fresh face and honing our service offerings. The identity of that site was part “What skills and philosophy do we bring to projects?” and part “What kind of projects do we want to attract?”.
A lot of companies our size have to go through a similar process of internally developing that first public site. You focus your own time and mental resources creating every detail, from word choice to development framework to detailed CSS work. You completely own the identity, but at the same time you risk losing perspective.
So this time around we decided to hire a designer to take the reins and guide us. It seems bizarre at first, like a mechanic taking his car into the shop for a tuneup. But we decided it would be better for us to concentrate our energy on client work, first of all, and perhaps more importantly we wanted to get an outside opinion on our ideas, or design concept, and copy. We contracted Daniel Christopher of LucentPDX to create the designs and implement them in WordPress.
Personally, I enjoyed being the client for a while. Not only were we able to observe a design approach different from our own (and learn some good ideas/approaches/philosophies), but we were also able to spend time in our own clients’ shoes. I was reminded of how difficult it is to create all the content necessary for a successful launch. For example, we didn’t maintain a blog on our first site. We were writing, but the copy we created didn’t have an audience, and the purpose for writing was less clear. Now, as we approach the launch date, deadlines become a very real thing. I think it’s important for businesses like Switchyard to check in every so often and see projects from other angles.
The process comes to fruition this week when we release the updated site. Overall, the project has yielded the desired results. For this iteration, Switchyard was able to spend more energy on the content itself rather than on the actual implementation. And by relieving any one individual from inside the company from being responsible for the look and feel, we were able to be more honest about those elements we liked and those which needed to disappear.
As anyone with even a fleeting interest in sales knows, the great scene of Alec Baldwin’s career boils down to the axiom ABC: “Always be Closing.” And as anyone who watched Glengarry Glen Ross to its conclusion also knows, such thinking, unchecked, leads to grand larceny, alcoholism, and general decay of the moral structure. Are we to understand that Mr Baldwin’s advice is of no value? Not necessarily.
At Switchyard we’re keenly aware of how quickly technologies and philosophies change. An important part of our mission is to test new ideas — whether through conversation or internal projects or collaboration — so we can quickly understand what works for us, and what we can safely remove from our radar.
Hence our adjustment of Always be Closing into Always be Learning.
ABL is about speed. Take for example the proliferation of invoicing software available for small companies such as ours. We did our research, we made a software choice, and we gave our chosen software a run for its money. We tested every use case we could predict. And the software failed to meet expectations. (The details re. what software we chose don’t matter, but the process does.) So we decided to take what we’d learned and go back to the start. Research. Select. Test. Decide. We went through two failed applications before settling where we are now, and while we’d like to have gotten it right the first time, at least we moved quickly. We kept our standards high and our leash short. In essence, we learned about our choices every day.
The same is true of our internal processes. Each of the three Switchyard founders brought different ideas to how (and when) we’d communicate about ongoing projects, or how the sales workflow ought to look. So we listened to each other, constructed a process based on the best ideas from each of our backgrounds, and built in time for retrospection. Let’s call those times “meta-meetings.” On the surface that approach may seem counter to the current zeitgeist (as encapsulated by the 37 Signals books and the sense that any meeting is a pointless meeting), but we think the essence is the same: clarify your goals, find what seems the best solution available, and don’t waste time hemming and hawing.
I have yet to meet a non-profit that is not understaffed and under-funded (to some degree), large or small. There are always more needs and ways the organization can do more. In addition to growing the organization’s support base, nonprofits are always looking for ways to make the day-to-day operations more efficient and free up resources to be directed towards their mission. Below are seven or our favorites that we feel help with most common day-to-day needs. Our goal is to spread the word within the nonprofit space that there are affordable tools for expanding your organization’s reach while making staff lives easier.
Drupal is a flexible and powerful web application platform. It’s a great fit for building non-profit websites for a number of business and technology reasons. First of all it’s easy for non-technical staff to change the site’s content on the fly from any browser. The framework provides the ability obtain a custom site much more rapidly than what previously required all custom coding. You’ll only have to call your web site person for major site modifications. Because Drupal is open-source and free to download, organizations only incur development costs. Features that aren’t included in an out-of-the-box Drupal install are often available as contributed modules for handling e-commerce, events, donations, analytics, constituent tracking and reporting and communication with various user groups.
Keeping constituents informed and involved requires regular communication, which requires lots of time. Mailchimp has done the legwork to make communicating with your audience quick and easy. It allows anyone to create and organize segmented mailing lists so targeting specified sub-groups of constituents is simple. Once these lists have been set up, all of your mailings can be scheduled months in advance.
Adding or deleting constituents from mailing lists between mailings is not a problem because the system checks the list right before the emails are sent. It offers the ability to import, sort, label and manage email groups. Mailchimp has contributed countless hours into streamlining this entire process. Another great advantage is that Mailchimp makes your organization look like you have a full time graphic designer on the payroll. Their HTML email wizard allows even non-technical users to create really professional, aesthetically attractive emails. Mailchimp offers email campaign tracking so results and ROI may be calculated. The service is free up to 500 subscribers.
For organization that sell materials and event tickets or take donations, Ubercart may be your new best friend. It’s a contributed Drupal module that handles the processing of product purchases, event fees and donations, inventory tracking, shipping and fulfillment — basically, the brains behind your online store. A far cry from using the phone and spreadsheets, Ubercart works with a number of payment gateways and has the ability to accept multiple forms of payment including ACT, CODs, paypal, and credit cards. The added benefit of using Ubercart for all e-commerce needs is in the reporting, tracking and accounting activities. Paired with Drupal, staff can get very granular reports and the ability to export transactions for accounting software.
If your organization is using a web platform that provides modules, plugins or extensions such as Drupal, WordPress or Joomla, Wufoo Forms will not help you. If you have an older site or perhaps one built in custom PHP or .Net, Wufoo Forms will make it very easy to build forms for collecting information, conducting surveys or taking payments quickly. It’s friendly for non-technical staff, as much of the work creating forms is as simple as clicking, dragging and dropping. There is no code that needs to be written. Once information is collected, it may be exported as reports so staff can look at the activity.
With over 50 themes, there are many ways to make the forms look great and fit with the rest of your site. Cost is very reasonable too. To start, you get three forms for free. The cost for 500 entries, 20 reports, 10 forms and 250MB of storage is $14.95/mo.
Striving to be the next generation television network, Blip.tv is an excellent alternative to video hosting and sharing. The company is geared towards producing and managing television series, so it offers plenty of sophistication as well as a clean user experience. Organizing videos is simple as dragging and dropping and syndicating a video is as easy as checking a box. Their platform offers the ability to embed videos in websites and video hosting in High Def (1280x720 resolution). By default there is no advertising. Instead their offer includes a 50/50 split from revenue they pull in from their network of advertisers. Another feature that I really like about this service is the level of statistics they provide.
Google Apps offers office tools at a fraction of the cost. The most expensive, all-inclusive version costs only $50 per user per year. When you compare this to Microsoft Office 2010, at anywhere between $120 and $450 per license according to Bing.com/shopping, the value is pretty clear. Word Processing, Spreadsheet, Calendar, and email tools come standard. Email and calendar tools sync with mobile devices via IMAP and Pop so you can stay in the loop on the go. Storage is never a problem, and various security measures keep data safe. Going this route can greatly lower IT expense and hassle. Since they’re cloud-based, you can easily share documents and have multiple people viewing and editing them at the same time.
In the non-profit sector, there is always more work to be done and more people to reach. It’s our hope that we can assist these organizations become more productive without having to add to their bottom line.
We are excited to announce that we will be helping non-profit, The Ultimate Journey with their online strategy and as part of their recent rebranding, designing and developing their new web application. The Ultimate Journey has been gearing up for national expansion, but needed help attaining the technology and automation needed to manage such growth. The finished application will effectively allow half a dozen staff members manage several thousand constituent relationships within the United States and the business operations surrounding those relationships.
This is an exciting project for us because the Drupal application we’re providing them will eliminate a number of pain points understaffed non-profit organizations commonly endure. Our goal is to build it in a way that will soon benefit many non-profit organizations.
The Ultimate Journey’s primary goals are fostering constituent growth and participation without sacrificing personalized care. The Ultimate Journey is also very interested in attaining methods for learning about what’s important to each constituent. Knowing their constituents’ likes and needs will enable them to more effectively serve them.
The application automates many of their staff’s daily tasks. This includes communication with constituents and donors, receiving and fulfilling product purchase orders, providing relevant information to constituents during specified times throughout the courses, and processing donations. The increase in efficiency will allow staff to focus their attention more deliberately on their core mission and activities that directly add to constituent growth and program reach. Course leaders, responsible for teaching groups, will also have the ability to communicate with members within their group.
We are pleased to be working with the very capable leadership at The Ultimate Journey.