Digital development: how to avoid a budget blowout and scope creep

October 09, 2015

The day-to-day oversight of a digital development project will typically fall to a Project Manager, rather than an Account Manager. However, the buck will completely stop with the Account Manager to make sure that the project is finished on time and on budget. Given that you may not be very hands-on with your dev team, how are you supposed to keep the job on budget and avoid scope-creep?


What is "scope-creep"?

"Scope" or "scope of work" refers to all the work that both agency and client agree will be completed for the project.

"Scope creep" refers to additional specifications/requests/actions that are outside of the agreed scope of work. Scope-creep can easily derail a project in terms of both budget and time.


The brief

Like all agency projects and campaigns, every digital project must start with a water-tight brief. This is your first line of defense against scope creep. It's important to nail down exactly what your client wants to achieve so you can figure out the best way to deliver the results and create the framework for the project.

To ensure you are asking the right questions for website and app development projects, here are some resources that will assist you:



Reverse brief

Not all agencies prepare a reverse brief for their clients, but it can definitely help avoid scope creep.

Once a standard brief is taken, the Account Manager will send their client back a document outlining their understanding of the requirements. This serves to eliminate misunderstanding and make sure everyone is on the same page. Creating a reverse brief could save you a huge amount of time and anguish further along in the process.


The proposal

Once the reverse brief is approved by your client (preferably in writing), you can then prepare a quote or proposal.

Often it is a member of the digital team who will quote on digital projects, rather than the Account Manager. Your brief and reverse brief become the base from which your team can think, plan and then quote.

The proposal should be highly detailed. It should explain what is in scope and what is not. It may also include a section covering "exclusions and assumptions", covering what has been intentionally left out of the project and any assumptions that the team has had to make when preparing the proposal.

It is also recommended that text along the following lines should be added to your proposal: "Any additions, alterations or changes to this proposal will be invoiced at $xxx per hour." Trust me, this simple sentence can be a life, budget and bacon-saver!


Meeting reports

Take detailed notes at each of your client meetings and send these back to your client in the form of a meeting report. The report should clearly outline any requests or actions to be performed. This is a great way to retrospectively prove what both agency and client have discussed and agreed to.


Email Trail

It is essential to keep all email communication between yourself and your client. Not only does this provide a "paper trail" to refer back to, emails are also admissable in court (in many countries) should anything go seriously awry.


One port of call

Ensure that all communication from your client goes through you, rather than directly to your developers. You may feel like a middle-man, but it's the only way you will have a solid handle on all the requests and changes being made...and your dev team will thank you for it!


Jump on it

Talk with your client as soon as you notice requests that are either excessive or are going outside the scope of the project. It may be that you can rein in the activity, or you may need to talk with your client about additional charges to cover the work.


Change is inevitable

As with a lot of digital development, the full potential of a project may not be apparent at the beginning. Clients get excited when they see the project taking shape and new ideas can bubble to the surface.

If you find that the specs of your project are changing, and it is obvious that you are moving out scope, then you need to have a dialogue with your client - quickly. Better an easy conversation now than a "please explain" conversation at the end.


He said-she said

To ensure your development project remains profitable and smooth sailing, it is vital that you have a water-tight brief, a highly-detailed proposal, a record of conversations and requests and open communication when the change requests are made.

Without this arsenal of proof, deciding what is in or out of scope, what is chargeable or not, and what the client is liable for can turn into a bun fight. If there is disagreement on what was discussed you can end up in a "he said-she said" situation, when you'll have no choice but to give your client the benefit of the doubt - and that can be very, very costly.


Plan for digital success:

  1. Ensure the time-consuming (but necessary) paperwork is done at the start of your digital project.

  2. Watch both your dev team and your client like a hawk.

  3. Get the train back on track if it starts going off the rails.

  4. Sit back and bask in the sunshine of your profitable bottom line.



    Leave a comment

    Comments will be approved before showing up.

    Also in Latest Tips & Tricks

    Client profitability - part 2, Loss Leaders

    September 23, 2018

    There are times when ‘loss’ (low, zero, or negative profit) is the aim rather than a healthy profit. These clients (or projects) are called ‘loss leaders’. When might you want to use a loss-leading tactic in your agency?

    View full article →

    Client profitability - Part 1

    September 09, 2018

    Having profitable clients and campaigns is what agencies strive toward. Your daily account management decisions will make or break the profitability of your accounts - from quoting to setting price structures and retainers, coordinating internal teams and handling client changes. Remember, if your work is not profitable, you (and your colleagues) won’t have a job (no pressure)!

    View full article →

    Research: pre-testing and post-testing

    August 29, 2018

    Research activities are typically initiated and conducted by your client, as part of their marketing remit. However, there is another type of research that is advertising-specific and is more likely to be initiated (or at least recommended) by your agency rather than by your client. The two main areas of research that an agency would get involved with are ‘pre-testing’ and ‘post-testing’.

    View full article →

    Our gift to you!