From their provocative documentaries to their incisive reporting, VICE has been a force in the media since it first exploded into popularity at the turn of the millennia. The company now represents the success of a veritable media empire, with everything from news shows to meal kits appearing in recent years.
But one part of the VICE family that you’re probably less familiar with is Virtue, the creative agency by VICE. They’ve crafted campaigns for everyone from Lululemon to Mercedes-Benz. We were given special insight to this well-oiled machine from Mischa van Lomm, Senior Project Manager at VICE Media in Germany.
He answered our biggest question: how do they do it? How do they execute with their signature high quality every single time — even for true industry challenges, like a client that requests a range of social assets be produced in under a month, or making a client’s wishes come true and not going over budget?
They manage their projects meticulously. From planning who is working on what for each day of every week to doing full post-mortems on large projects, Virtue maps out what exactly should happen at every step of the way using Harvest and Forecast.
The level of granular, transparent planning they can do with software outpaces any manual system, and is the key to success in the fast, hectic world of advertising.
Clearing the red, day-by-day
Every project begins with planning, and that’s an especially crucial step in the agency world, where things move at a blistering pace. It’s critical to keep every project on track without overwhelming team members, which means nobody has any red— overbooked time —in their schedule. This is a line that Virtue walks by implementing weekly planning with frequent check-ins.
“It is a rule — an unbroken rule — that every project manager looks every day into Forecast and make sure that there’s no red.”
For team leaders and project managers (PMs), this means sitting down and planning for their team before each new week starts. Leaders need to see exactly how projects get distributed over their team, and they use Forecast to get that transparency. “Everybody knows that Forecast is updated so everybody can plan the team they need accordingly. This needs to be done by Friday, when we have our general planning meeting,” says van Lomm.
(An example from the Forecast demo that shows a team member is overbooked in red.)
As the week shapes up, PMs and team members check in regularly to assess how projects are going and make sure that plates are full but not overloaded. Again, they turn to Forecast to make that happen.
“So on a day-to-day basis, you need to clean up Forecast and you need to clean up the setup of the team. You talk to the individual team members and say, “This is what you’re going to have to do today. How do you feel about that?” We can plan ahead for a week, but it never quite works out that way.”
Balancing the demands of a fast environment, where any person may be working on any project, all starts with a clear look at everyone’s workload. “It is a rule—an unbroken rule—that every project manager looks every day into Forecast and makes sure that there’s no red,” says van Lomm.
Without this look into individual projects and schedules, their organization would not be able to keep up with their customers’ demands.
Feeling overloaded? Forecast can back you up
Even the best-laid plans do not stand up to how hectic the workplace is. Advertising is the opposite of the rule. “The advertising agency and the advertising world is just a very demanding, stressful world,” explained van Lomm, “and that [helps make it] exciting.”
But if it’s unclear how projects and teams are handling their load, that pace and demand can easily put strain on operations. Virtue’s focus on planning helps everything run smoothly, and planning in Forecast is an important part of that.
This starts with long-term planning. “If there’s too much red in Forecast for the coming month, […] we can send out a request for a freelancer from our network, or potentially—if this is a longer thing—for a new member of the team,” says van Lomm. In this way, upper management can see exactly what project managers and teams are facing, and preempt an overload to keep everything on track.
We rely on Forecast and Harvest to make sure that management and Finance has all the facts. [So when we need a freelancer or new hire] we don’t just say, “Oh, we’ve got so much to do.” Instead, we say, “Listen, we need help on this project and here’s the data for it.”
In turn, that helps team leads advocate for themselves, and builds a relationship with upper management. “You don’t need to get a team to say, ‘We’re very busy.’ You can show management and say, ‘We’re busy and here is why.’”
This broader, transparent view of what’s happening in Virtue is a key component of being able to execute every project, every time. Management is able to foresee problems in the pipeline when people are overbooked and can compensate with outside resources, and teams can outline how they’re struggling if they are asking management for help.
The project manager’s post-mortem
Taking one more step back, Virtue uses Forecast to keep an overview of completed projects, from project managers to the finance team. Beyond planning for team members or looking at a weekly view, Virtue uses Harvest and Forecast to inform their post-mortems and to track their own success.
Every medium to large project gets a full analysis and review, including receiving client feedback, using Forecast and Harvest to compare project projections vs. actuals, and using Harvest to analyze where time was spent where (and why).
Post-mortems also allow teams to look back on their completed work and celebrate big wins, like when a big-name German company recently asked Virtue to crank out a film in a few short weeks:
“A three-week turnaround to put up a finished film is an incredible challenge and [when] we deliver this next week and the client accepts it, it will be like one of these “Whoo hoo” moments, where everybody high-fives and we’ll go out to dinner because we’ve done something insanely amazing.”
For PMs, post-mortems mean learning from Harvest’s reports to help keep future projections in Forecast accurate. “There’s a lot of reporting you can do,” says van Lomm, “[and we use] reporting on hours and clients.”
For the company’s finances, both management and their Finance/HR teams run project analyses once they’re finished.
“We do a review of how everything went,” says van Lomm. “We have a scorecard that covers a host of different topics, like client communication, client feedback, how was timekeeping done, how was a margin held, all the things that come with finishing a project”
But the tool’s usefulness for Finance doesn’t end there — just as it opened a path of communication from teams to managers, Harvest and Forecast help managers communicate with finance at the completion of projects, as well.
“We use Harvest and Forecast to really show how much work went into the actual project and to prove to Finance what went right and what went wrong on any particular project,” says van Lomm, again highlighting how the tool bridges the gap between different parts of the company.
These more analytical aspects of Harvest and Forecast give more transparency into how projects have progressed both for teams and for clients. This helps Virtue determine how to structure future projects and make sure that everyone who worked on a project is acknowledged, even if they were only pulled in for a day or two.
Keeping up by looking ahead
There’s no easy way to manage a business that is as demanding as advertising. Creative projects can be notoriously hard to predict, clients want more than you have time to give them, and everybody’s looking at a full calendar every day.
That’s why tracking and planning projects is so critical to Virtue’s operation. VICE Virtue has used Harvest and Forecast to help them stay organized and make their best work.
They learn from each project to better predict the next. They check in weekly — even daily — to make sure that all projects are on track and nobody is overbooked. They have an open line of communication between teams and management to give everyone the resources they need to finish every project strong.
In the agency world where VICE Virtue operates, this emphasis on planning and communication is a key reason why Virtue keeps their edge.