How agile transformed our entire business structure
We ran our shop, The Engine is Red, on a standard waterfall model for six years, and felt all the aches and pains you’re all familiar with. We didn’t know any better at the time, and it wasn’t until frustration peaked that we changed.
Then we learned about agile -- a flexible and efficient project development method used widely by tech startups engineering teams, whose hallmark is breaking down big projects into small cycles focused on iterative progress over fixed deliverables or tasks. We were intrigued.
We’d used it here and there for projects, and found it refreshingly effective. Projects were completed faster, better, and best of all -- our clients really loved it. There were many challenges, but we stuck to it, figured out the difference between normal and abnormal growing pains, and kept going.
As we tested on a project level, a bigger idea came along: what if we took it all the way, extrapolated the flexibility of this new process against the way we staff, bill, and even how we write our contracts? What would an agency rooted in agile look like from an accounting perspective?
Almost three years later, we are all in on agile. And we’re never going back.
The biggest change: we now charge our clients by the day, even for years-long relationships. No retainers, no bloated project fees, just a bill at the beginning of every week.
It starts with planning, breaking work into goal-based phases: discovery, building/creation and then implementation/optimization. Each gets a time estimate, presented as a range from minimum to maximum time needed to get the job done. Clients choose how deeply to invest in each phase and we build the work schedule.
We axed time sheets, restrictive scopes and Gantt charts, got much better at scheduling, assessing how much time was really needed, and focused less on finding ways to “use the entire budget” just to boost profit.
At the beginning of each week, everyone knows exactly what they’re working on, when and for how long. Since the work is broken down in small chunks, and because we work really hard to make sure only 1-2 client projects are being serviced by a particular staffer on given week, it’s common for the office to empty out by 6 pm. We rarely, if ever, work weekends. And our dance card is always full.
I'm not going to lie here, not everyone was a fan - at first. This was the case for larger institutions that work with lots of agencies and built their systems around managing agencies. Naturally, there was some retrofitting done to make our model work within existing systems. Not to worry though. The benefits so outweighed the structural shifts, everyone got on board.
The plus sides include shorter project durations. We get projects through strategy to implementation in a few weeks. We often finish ahead of schedule, freeing budget for other things. Best of all, we end up on the same side of the table as our clients. They’re really part of the process, meaning feedback isn’t divisive, it’s collaborative. Projects are as much their work and ideas as ours.
Again, agile isn’t for everyone. We lost a few people, and though we wish we hadn’t, you can’t make everyone happy. The team we have now really love having time to focus on single projects, better work life balance, and clients working side by side - meaning more time playing offense than defense.
As a CEO, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is not to have to worry about revenue. It’s all about profitability. When a project gets done on time and on (or under) budget, that means we’ve made our piece and might get another chunk of revenue from our happy clients. We don’t have fun with numbers anymore. We just have fun.
I could go on here, but want to use these last few lines to encourage anyone looking to make a structural change to read agile project management book Scrum and consider shadowing a company that uses an agile structure.
Chris Denny co-founded The Engine is Red in 2008. He leads the Engine team—developing inspired brand strategies, campaigns, and interactive experiences for national and regional clients.