Written by William Parry, MercerBell’s Technical Director

I recently gave a talk during one of our Publicis Groupe agency tech meet ups about a topic dear to my heart: automation. When I sent out the AllStaff invite I added the caveat that the talk was going to be less sexy than VR and the like, but that it was just as important. Admittedly this did affect the turnout, but then again, the topic of automation is for most people a touch abstract, techy and in some cases scary.

The media (and me when I’m being dramatic) portrays automation as the end of the human world where there will be mass upheavals as people lose their jobs to machines. And while that may be true to an extent, what automation is for employees is a fantastic opportunity to grow their career and help their company flourish.

However, automation is not a simple thing for a company to encourage despite its apparent benefits. Done right it will improve your company’s bottom line, staff retention and client relationships. Done wrong and it will alienate your departments by putting pressure on areas of the business that are responsible for profitability, utilisation and growth. Understanding the challenges and opportunities that come with automation projects across all areas of your business is key to its success.

In a competitive industry landscape with a generation of employees driven by self-improvement and fast career progression, it becomes difficult for agencies to provide opportunities and career growth when their pipeline of work is filled with Business as Usual (or “BAU”) work. When a team has a high degree of BAU it gives less time for them to work on exciting and interesting projects, which will eventually demotivate them.

Automation, while not a panacea for agency woes, can certainly help.

One of the benefits of engendering a culture of automation in your business is that it gives your employees work diversity and variety without impacting the day-to-day production. With a mindset of seeking to optimise, BAU tasks are looked on in a different light; people in the business begin asking themselves how they can perform tasks faster and better. The insights they find can then manifest themselves in the form of templates, communication strategies, or tools.

As an example, a developer who is tasked with copying and pasting text into an HTML email or web page isn’t developing in the figurative or literal sense because anyone can do it if there’s software that makes it safe for them to do so. By building a tool to allow others to do the task the work can then be moved to non-developers, and this means the work is more aligned with the required skill to do it.

Not only does this have the potential to increase your profit margin and ease production bottlenecks, the developer now gets to work on interesting software and upskill by building the tool, which keeps them happy.

What this symbolises is a subtle shift from exclusively BAU work to “Software for BAU”. This shift provides opportunities over and above staff morale and production efficiency; it means that you can spend some allocated BAU production time in the maintenance and development of the tool, and if the tool is generic enough there’s the potential to license it to other agencies or even the public as an open-source or commercial product.

Right now many of you will be thinking that this is all well and good but does the cost involved in making the tool outweigh the potential benefits? To tackle that question I’d challenge you to think how often your team suffers client feedback delays, or when work is finished faster than scheduled. If you say “never” then you’re not paying enough attention to your pipeline! I’d say pretty often, at least in small chunks (an hour here and there).

Herein lies the opportunity to capitalise on the agency phenomenon of downtime.

We all know the nature of agencies is that they run in peaks and troughs no matter how well things are planned, so within reason there must be some downtime granted for all the extra hours people put in (otherwise they’ll burn out). That said, it’s during this time you can encourage your team to jump onto structured automation and innovation projects to mix things up from their regular work. Not only is this time now utilised, it is giving people the chance to improve their day-to-day situation through automation tools, and perhaps build themselves into doing cooler work by delivering a piece of innovation.

Agency growth with automation:

Agency growth with automation:

And it’s not just production teams that have potential to optimise and automate their work. In Account Service identifying repeated actions such as briefing and client feedback processes, and building internal CRM tools (where the C stands for Client in this case) means they will spend less time on arduous process and more time servicing and developing their accounts. This is all to the benefit of your clients as consistency is improved, timeliness is increased and costs are reduced.

Costs are reduced? Oh no…

Here’s where you need to be careful.

Having a proactive team going off and happily optimising your business out of profit isn’t going to do anyone any favours, but stifling automation because you’re precious or comfortable with the status quo leaves you weak against hungrier competition (and you stand to lose your best staff).

This is why it’s important to shape automation in a way that makes sense for your business, which means you need strategies for how you develop and maintain your automation projects, and for how you fill the pipeline that’s just been opened up. Think about how the extra hours you’ve gained can be geared towards adding extra value to your clients and how that might lead to some exciting new opportunities for you both. With the plethora of prototyping tools and cognitive services available today, it is relatively quick and cheap to demonstrate to clients customer touchpoints and experiences they may not have considered.

So how do you get started? Consider these three areas:

Defining scope: Automation projects are (in the early stages at least) non-billable and paid work will always take precedence, so you must make sure that you keep scope limited, and make sure they get finished.

Setting projects: If your team is over capacity then no one is going to be interested in automation; they just want to get the work done and go home. However, you can still have a meeting with your team to think about ways they could improve efficiency and have a project ready for when they have time.

Celebrating and selling: Taking initiative and building tooling to improve efficiency and quality should be celebrated both in the company and to clients and the public. This boosts the team’s profile and encourages others to think about automation.

Speaking of which, here at MercerBell we embrace automation in the tech department, but also reach out and encourage others to think about it too. Recently our studio came to us about an idea to allow Art Directors and Designers (and even Account Managers and clients…) to test a variety of different, pre-determined, crops on images directly in the browser. This would save time by allowing a designer to quickly test a variety of crops without having to download them first. Great idea!

Check out the Alpha here