You are working on a campaign for your biggest, most profitable client (Client A), and one vital campaign component needs to be completed today. Client B sends you an email requesting an urgent update to one of their brochures. Meanwhile Client C phones you to say that that their website has gone down and they are losing money because customers cannot buy from their website. What do you do? How do you decide which issue to attend to first, and how are you supposed to get everything done on time?
On the battlefield, medical officers need to make quick decisions about how best to help the wounded. They adopt a "triage" system to determine the priority of patients' treatments based on the severity of their condition. This helps to ration patient treatment efficiently when there are not enough resources for everyone to be treated immediately.
In a similar way Account Managers have to make a decision who to help first when timelines conflict and curveballs are thrown.
"Urgent" must be one of the most over-inflated words in agency-client language. If a client tells you their problem or request is "urgent", then you need to clarify exactly what that word means to your client. When is their absolute deadline? Is the deadline movable? What will be the repercussions if the deadline is not met?
In our example, Client C's "urgent" is obvious - their website has gone down and they are losing money. Client B's "urgent" is that they would like their brochure delivered in one week's time - which your client thinks is urgent, but you know that you can turn the job around in four days rather than seven.
Maintaining a firm grasp of all your project timelines, milestones and deadlines is super-important.
Every project needs a deadline, but not all deadlines are set in stone.
Some projects - such as an Annual Report - are governed by deadlines which have legal ramifications if they are not met. Some, such as a product launch or TV campaign, may not suffer a legal fallout from a missed deadline, but could have huge financial consequences or be damaging for brand reputation. For other projects the deadline - though perhaps inconvenient - may be quite movable, and may be the lifeline you need when caught in a jam!
One of the limiting things about being in a service industry (like advertising and design) is that you only have one pair of hands and 24 hours in the day to do your job and make money. You either have to do the work yourself (knowing that you may not be able to complete everything you'd like to do), delegate to other team members, or contract the work out.
The first thing you need to do is to decide who is going to action the task at hand. Are there any urgent tasks that you can easily hand off to someone else to look after (without abdicating responsibility)? Great, do it!
If you have tasks that require the input of other people, it is best you get those wheels in motion as early as possible. It is those types of tasks which often take priority over tasks that you will wholly action yourself. Why? Because if you don't, you are putting your team under unnecessary pressure, deadlines can be missed and the bottleneck will be all because of you (and you won't want that!).
For example, you could immediately notify your developer of Client C's website issue and ask them to see to it as quickly as possible. That way the developer now has the responsibility to action the task, you retain oversight to ensure the task is completed, and you are now free to move on to the next item on your triage list.
If you waited for an hour before talking with your developer (because you were attending to other "urgent" tasks), then your client will be one hour more irate, plus you just robbed your developer of one hour of time in which they could have solved the issue.
If you have very small tasks that can be actioned quickly, it sometimes pays to kick them out of the way before tackling a larger, more time-consuming task. Be careful though...working on small or easy tasks can be an excellent tool for procrastinators!
If you really, truly, have to action all the tasks yourself, then it is highly likely that you will occasionally drop a ball or two. If you can see this about to happen, talk with any clients who will to be affected. It is far better that you give them the heads-up before the event than after, and a prior warning may be enough to extend the deadline, or - at least - mitigate any fallout.
Learning to prioritise tasks comes with a lot of practise. Every single day you will need to choose where you invest your time; how you attend to issues and requests; and whether Client A will come before Client B (or vice versa, bribes welcome!).
Having a solid handle on all your projects and timelines is a good start, and knowing how your client ticks and their tolerance level is vital.
You'll need to stay in regular communication with your team so they are aware of your client's timelines and requirements, and so you are aware of team capacity, availability and stress levels.
Eventually you will be able to recognise the warning signs that something is either amiss or about to go pear-shaped. You will be able to pre-empt problems before they arise, and deflect off incoming bullets with Wonder Woman (or man) precision. Start flexing your triage muscles today!