In his book, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, Edward Luttwak explained that early Rome built its empire not only with brilliant generals and great warriors, but also with well established systems. While individual strength and talent certainly played a role, it was disciplined attention to logistics, detail and a reputation for success that grew the empire. Essentially: Power meant never having to use it. Agency startups often start with strong, entrepreneurial creatives and/or account people. They get that first client and impress them with great thinking, break through creative and responsive attentiveness. Then comes the next client, with again great work and great results. Then there’s a third, bigger client followed by tightness in the chest and nervousness about being able to keep up. All of a sudden there are five, six—ten balls in the air and some are falling to the floor. The attention is on still doing great creative and big picture strategic thinking. But now not enough attention is paid to drop-dead due dates and inadequately explained invoices—and you just lost that first client. Jay Chiat, founder of Chiat Day, once asked, “I wonder how big we can get without getting bad?” John Webb, Crowley Webb & Assoc., one of the most significant creative reputations to come out of our market was heard to say, “The most important person in an advertising agency is the traffic/operations manager.”
It was Rome’s generals that built the legions, and it’s warriors that won the battles—but it was their ability to manage logistics that kept them in the game. Great agencies will gain and service clients through smart thinking and good creative. But they will keep clients gained, by keeping promises and meeting deadlines. At some point, agency management won’t be able to hover over every client relationship and project. Responsibility for oversight will fall to capable subordinates, well-managed systems and established routines. Meetings will be followed by comprehensive conference reports; projects will be preceded by well written creative briefs, cost estimates and production schedules.
At the core of this process and procedure effort, is the traffic department. Another term might be the Promise Management Group. And just a comment about traffic: traffic managers and their minions have to be given the high level of respect due them for the very difficult job they have—dealing with often hard to reach account people and prima donna creative directors. They have to enforce the laws laid down by the founders. And often, the best way to traffic a complex project is to get ugly early—when’s it due, what’s the budget, what are the expectations, etc.
Just as Rome’s attention to logistics, road building and supply chains to back up its generals and warriors made it possible for the empire to last a millennium, it’s an agency’s attention to polices, procedures, promises kept and traffic that will keep it growing.