It’s really hard for me to write in the negative—I’m much more comfortable with “carrot” than “stick”—but will do so to make an important point. Marketing communications projects do fail, often for simple reasons that can be avoided.
Failure in my book means that a project stalls or never finishes, greatly exceeds the original budget, and/or leaves both client and vendor feeling dissatisfied. For the record, we’ve had very few problem projects in our agency’s 20-year history; but remembering any one of them makes me sick to my stomach. For example:
Exciting growth company hires us to create a white paper. Client asks us to work with her subordinate, but client/subordinate want different things from the paper and take turns providing feedback to our writer, who (suffering in silence) delivers more drafts than scoped, using too much budget. At the 11th hour, client finally reads paper and dislikes its structure and content (which the subordinate had approved), and wants the paper rewritten again. Writer reveals that he has already exceeded his total project budget, and is beyond frustrated. Client feels blindsided when we ask for more money, as we hadn’t alerted her sooner. Client feels ripped off, writer feels ripped off. The Content Bureau finishes the paper, going into the red to make everyone “happy.” But the experience feels awful to all involved, and we lose a promising client.
Ugggh. I really hate to admit that this happened, but it did, and we could have SO prevented that failure!!
Here are some key factors that contribute to marcom project failure, and how to avoid them:
1. Unclear ownership. Projects that fail often have more than one owner, or the wrong owner, or an owner that changes halfway through. Before projects start, we now ask our clients to appoint a single subject-matter expert, the “content owner,” to work directly with our writer. The content owner needs to proverbially raise her hand in front of all others on the project and say, “YES, I OWN THIS, because I know the content well and I really want this marketing asset for XYZ reasons that will help me succeed in my job.” All other reviewers are stakeholders.
2. A weak client-side project manager. Projects that fail often lack a smart, persuasive, politically savvy client-side project manager (PM) who connects our writer directly to the content owner, circulates our drafts for review, collects actionable feedback from all reviewers—including execs who might otherwise try to jump in with big content changes at the last minute—referees disputes, and returns consolidated feedback to our writer. The PM ensures project team members are clear in their roles (owner or stakeholders) and manages the schedule. This person has to be a total rock star and take great pride in his PM work. However, and this is critical: he must also understand that he isn’t the content owner (see point #1). We have worked with a few PMs who acted as gatekeepers—they insisted on filtering communication between the content owner and our writer—and who thereby caused their projects to fail. We now insist that our writer have direct access to the content owner.
3. Sneaky scope creep. Scope creep isn’t necessarily a bad thing; projects change for many reasons. Projects fail when they go over budget AND the client is upset about it because he wasn’t first presented with options, such as “keep the original length and pay the same” or “ask us to deliver a longer asset, or more drafts, and pay more.” Our clients are smart, reasonable people. They appreciate being reminded of where they are in our agreed-upon process, so we can together stick to the original scope and budget. They also appreciate being offered choices before we do extra work that will cost them money.
4. No deadline. If there’s no specific deadline for a project—the marketing asset isn’t needed for an event, a campaign, etc.—the project is at risk of failure. We’d rather have a crazy deadline than no deadline, because projects without deadlines tend to be low-priority; they drag, they change halfway through, nobody cares about them.
5. New relationship. If the relationship is new, it’s high-risk. If we’re working with a new company, or a new client, or we’re using a new resource on our team, I’m now copied on every email to ensure the project runs smoothly.
Please note that I did not include “difficult client” on the list above. Sure, we’ve worked with some challenging personalities over the years. With very few exceptions, we’ve gotten to know those clients and worked with (and around) their issues—fear of failure, rival colleagues, personal pressures and complications—to help them be successful.
For me personally, there is nothing more gratifying than turning a “problem” client into someone who loves and trusts our work, and knows we’re committed to supporting her success. In fact, we credit one of our most “difficult” clients with some of our greatest innovations as a company. She has pulled us into totally new creative directions over the years, and we thank her for that.
Want to talk more about project failure (because it’s so fun—ha)? Come chat with me on Facebook.