When Good Projects Go Bad
September 23, 2021
Out of curiosity, I asked Annie to look back over our last 34 years of business to determine how many client projects we worked on with clients. She found we completed over 300 projects per year (large and small), totaling over 10,000 projects in our three-plus decades of business.
The vast majority of those projects went well—with great design, happy clients, and reasonable profits. But they didn't ALL go well. I mean, if only 1% went seven slightly the rails, that's still over 100 projects that required some degree of damage control. So, while we don't enjoy dealing with issues, we learn a lot from them. So, what went wrong with that 1%?
- The work took longer than estimated due to scope changes made by the client or us that pushed the project over budget
- The client's personal art preference affected marketing business decisions, diluting the creative concept, influencing the design.
- There were ethical or personality clashes between the client and the design firm.
- The original deadline was too tight or the budget too small to create something great.
- Our expectations and the client's expectations veered away from each other during the project.
- Key decision-makers weren't involved at the beginning and appeared at the end, derailing the project.
A Few Memorable 'Disasters' and How We Salvaged Them
I remember meeting with a corporate client regarding a new website. Ten people on the client-side attended, with nine excited about the project and eager to contribute. However, one person was outspokenly negative and argued with their team stating at one point, "I don't even know why we're spending money on a new website. It's stupid!"
Knowing the company was committed to launching a new website, after several rounds of negative responses from him, I decided to get to know his thought process and asked him about it openly. The conversation went like this:
ME: You have strong feelings about this project, but your opinions seem to conflict with the rest of the group. Do you often find you're the voice of reason and that you see potential problems better than other people?
NAYSAYER (replying proudly): You bet I do!
ME: That's a really valuable skill to have before deciding to move forward with a project. But after the group decides, questioning the decision bogs down the process. It also causes frustration and makes it harder to get to completion. Don't you think?
He looked at me and the others on his team.
NAYSAYER: I guess so…
That was the last thing he said during the meeting.
Nine people were on the client-side at the next weekly meeting as the Naysayer stepped away from the website team. The rest of the website project went smoothly, and it was a success. However, the business would have never experienced that success had he stayed on the team.
What We Learned
Sometimes, you must be respectfully but brutally honest.
The Campaign That 'Wasn't Worth a Shit'
Years ago, we launched a new product sales campaign for a high-tech manufacturer. Unfortunately, between the campaign's development and launch, the company hired a new CEO, replacing the person we had worked with for years.
Immediately after starting, the new CEO had his assistant schedule a meeting with me, so we discussed the campaign results.
After arriving at his office, I waited for twenty minutes past the meeting start time while he flipped through the local newspaper. Finally, his assistant said, "He will see you now."
As I walked into his executive suite, he met me just inside the door. Without an introduction or handshake, he shouted, "So, you're the guy who was in charge of our last campaign that wasn't worth a shit!"
Standing face-to-face with the new CEO, I replied, "Our campaign brought in double the number of qualified new leads your marketing team requested. If your sales team converts those leads into sales, that's a sales department problem, not an advertising problem."
The CEO got a slow smile on his face and said, "Have a seat," while gesturing to his conference table and chairs. We had an hour-long discussion as equals, which resulted in a great working relationship for several years before the company was sold to a large competitor.
What We Learned
Track your results and don't be afraid to stand up for the truth.
Can the Annual Reports Deliver Before I Approve Proofs?
Years back worked on an annual report for a large central Washington energy supplier (not Avista). The project was going well, but our client had difficulty reviewing and proofing the mock-ups. Sometimes we didn't hear from him for weeks, and he didn't respond to follow-ups. We figured he knew when the annual report was due, although he hadn't shared a specific deadline with us and must not be concerned about the delivery date. He'd managed annual report projects previously and should have known it would take at least a couple of weeks to create printer proofs, print and press check, bind and trim, and ship the annual reports.
After days of not hearing from him, I received a call. "Just thought I'd let you know that I need the annual reports delivered by Friday." FRIDAY?! That was only four days away and he hadn't returned the first round of printer proofs yet. We still had to make any changes, get the printing scheduled, the project on the press, bound, trimmed, and shipped! How could he think he could sit on the printer proofs for a couple of weeks, then expect the project to deliver in just a few days?
Sometimes you gotta call in a favor, and we did. Our printer stepped up in a big way, somehow getting the job scheduled, printed, run through bindery, and we personally delivered the annual reports by the client's impossible deadline.
What We Learned
Don't assume the client understands the details of producing their project.
Insight for Navigating Successful Projects
Here are insights design firms and clients can use to improve the odds of managing a successful project:
- Develop a clear understanding of project needs and scope before starting the work.
- If the project scope changes, communicate to the client how those changes affect the timeline and price. When projects go over the agreed-upon budget, either the design firm or the client will absorb the cost. Ensure that everyone understands it before doing the work.
- Focus more on client and project management than on the end product. Clients can't always recognize "great" work, but they will always notice bad project management.
- Protect your staff by discontinuing relationships with clients who abuse you or your employees. It's never worth it.
- Focus on creating great work and serving clients well. Don't get wrapped up in client politics or emotions.
- Maintain focus on the project goals and outcomes. If designers allow personal needs or fears to influence their work, they will make decisions that can veer a project off track. For example, 1) decisions made on fear and assumptions can cause a project to go over budget, and 2) needing to be the project hero can push employees and vendors too far.
- Understand that "perfect" is the enemy of "great." The time required to turn an "A+" design into an "A++" can take as long as achieving an "A+" in the first place and is the biggest way to kill profitability. Most of the time, your added time will create negative returns. Furthermore, only other designers will likely notice the extra work.
- Foster relationships with clients who want your insight and strategy, not just your technical abilities.
From a Client's Perspective
Nobody Wins When Good Projects Go Bad
Client's win when they and the designer work together in a valued partnership, with each respecting the expertise and goals of the other.
- Clients can help the success of their project by hiring a firm that feels like a good fit—one with people they relate to and has similar values. This relationship may not come from the lowest-cost provider. But, paying a bit more for a better experience is worth it.
- Expect that changes in the project scope can affect the price. Even if you approve an estimate, plan for extra budget to cover change orders or more rounds of proofs. It's challenging to provide a "to the penny" estimate before the project starts. However, a little budget buffer goes a long way towards making the project successful for everyone.
- Trust your designer. If you hired a qualified firm, it's not their first rodeo. They've likely done projects like yours many times. So ask for their opinion and listen. If you can't decide which design option to approve, ask the designer what they think is best… then go with that one.
- Remember the old phrase, "Speed. Quality. Price. Choose any two." There's a lot of truth to that. Designers want to create great work. Always. Tight deadlines and low budgets sometimes make that difficult to do profitably. If design firms don't make a reasonable profit on your project, they won't be around long to serve you.
It Takes Two to Tango
The best way to ensure a successful project is through communication between the client and the design team. Talk regularly with the account coordinator at your design firm. Be clear with your expectations and open about any concerns. They are there to help you.
If budget is an issue, say so. Then, if the design firm agrees to accept your budget, realize that they will do the best they can but may not be able to execute everything you'd like. Sometimes it's a delicate balance to achieve the trifecta of design satisfaction, a happy client, and profitability. Communicate clearly and often with your design firm to ensure that happens. We'll do our best to do that too.
Clients and designers shouldn't be at odds with each other, ever. We're all working for the same goal—effective visual communication resulting in the action your organization desires.
We can help you get there by working together to keep good projects from going bad. Give me a call to talk about your project (509) 456-5576 ext 113.