Insights from UK MDs of agencies, consultancies and other project-based businesses



This topic currently has 6 articles.

1. Gaining financial control

Do you feel you have complete control over the financial aspects of your business?

It’s fascinating to hear how many MDs and FDs concede that they don't. It's one of the key reasons they get a management system.

So what’s involved? Julie Cole, Financial Controller of EDP, volunteered these details of what Synergist does there:

All team members are now connected to the same project, time and expenses information. The system manages:

Timesheet and Expense Capture. Invoicing, including the drafting of invoices now quickly produced by the project managers. Project Financials (Fee, Costing, WIP). Reporting, including time and utilisation reports. Seamless integration with their accounts System Integration. Post-project reviews. Utilization Reports acting as a key indicator in monitoring the business performance as a whole. Project reports available to Project Managers, analysing chargeable work against fee proposals, and showing variations in pounds and percentage.

She told us that financial control includes the need to link data cleanly together:

“Compared with EDP’s previous manual (Excel) processes, the seamless way that timesheets are automatically uploaded into the system is appreciated.”

“The integration with Sage accounts has assisted with recording sales, leading to quicker debtor analysis and debt chasing, therefore improving cash flow for the business. Costings can now be analysed and lessons learned, leading to better project management in the future."

“Perhaps the single biggest benefit of all is the instant way we now get the overview of all the projects summarised together at any one time, showing values and work in progress.”

What's the scope of a typical implementation? The Finance Manager at a 60+ strong agency, told us:

“As a large marketing agency with multiple products and diverse services, it is critical that we remain in constant control of what is happening in terms of work progress and the resultant impact on finances.

“With Synergist we were immediately able to access high quality detailed reports that told us everything we needed to know about job progression and any associated up-to-the-minute financial data.

“This encompasses all our internal and external costs and agency time and we can easily see where jobs are in terms of budget using the innovative traffic light system.”

When discussing the need to gain financial control, it's very common to think primarily in terms of profitability. Sara Blannin, Finance Director of environmental consultancy ECUS, told us:

“Solving the profitability problem was key. Now, our Exec team can go to the Board meetings every month and say ‘We’re getting it right!’ The list of things to sort out gets smaller every month. We’re down to finessing things now."

2. Impressing potential clients

Can your management system help you win new work?

Managers using Synergist often tell us that there’s more to impressing prospects than the quality of the work itself. Increasingly, clients are expecting proof of process.

Steve Laird, Finance Director of On Line Design & Engineering Ltd, explained that clients increasingly want to put their mind at rest that they can trust the communication of key project information, something that only a comprehensive system can provide. Steve installed Synergist.

“Our clients like it and we have some huge clients, like ConocoPhillips, Total and TATA. They like the way we can give them details of time and costs on projects. Today, they want a certain level of transparency, and they demand periodic audits, where they come in and analyse the entire system. We sail through those audits every time.”

Matthew Fairweather, founder of the creative design firm in his name, told us that detailed project information is needed by both sides of the equation:

“Clients need to know where we are and how much we are spending, and we need to keep up with profit levels, time spent and the degree of progress on individual jobs. Having made the decision to install Synergist we have not looked back”.

We would say that there are five characteristics of a good project-based management system that clients are beginning to expect to see:

  1. Improved transparency.
  2. Proof of robust tracking mechanism.
  3. Automatic alerts giving early warnings of problems, giving time to act.
  4. Efficient processes, leading to leaner organisations with lower overheads, less time wasted on administration and better focus on clients.
  5. Customer queries answered fast and accurately. No more waiting for someone to search for the information.

Chris Ross, MD of RLH, believes that trust is at the heart of it all. One reason RLH implemented Synergist was to help their procurement processes:

“Our clients' procurement teams are also happy. That’s because we are transparent and so we’re seen to be trustworthy.”

3. Seizing the magic growth moment

Are there magic moments of decision-making in business? Do you ever hear a crack of thunder to tell you that Now Is The Special Time To Decide? Sadly, no.

But there clearly are turning points in any company's life. How should you approach such moments? We asked four business managers about it. All use Synergist today.

Gareth Moore, Chief Operating Officer of Creative Jar told us:

“A key element of success is in seizing the moment. You have to look yourselves in the mirror and decide what you want to create. You have to decide to make it happen. Everything flows from that.”

Mark Beaumont, founder of Dinosaur would certainly agree. He said:

“There comes a time in every agency’s life when you stand back and have to decide where you want to take it. Do you want to just carry on being a neat SME, trying to navigate the ups and downs? Or do you want more than that from it?

“We decided to get serious. Preparing the agency for growth, getting the basics right, making sure you’ve got the right people with the bigger picture mind-set, having them run proper little cost centres and so on…and getting a serious system to drive through the efficiencies, give you what you need and be able to grow with you. These were long-term decisions. Getting Synergist was a key part of it, and I’m glad we did it.”

Simon Butler, co-founder of Purestone, told us that sometimes such decisions take place when you are setting up the business in the first place:

“We planned from the outset that ours should be a growth business, not a lifestyle business. Synergist allows us to scale. It also helps us know what sort of projects we can take on. It tells us our current capacity as a business.”

But as for finding the mythical magic Moment of Truth when deciding to grow, or even when to get a management system, Steve Revell, Managing Director of Maleon told us:

“We decided that there’s no magic perfect time to install a management system. We’d recommend that firms should just do it as soon as they can. Bite the bullet!”

4. Making your business scalable

By ‘scalable’ we mean having the ability to support a business growing from (say) 10 or 20 people right up to five hundred, all with exactly the same software, safely and reliably. The last thing any company wants is to discover that they have suddenly outgrown their system during a crucial time of growth.

How could they outgrow it?

  1. Technical limits have been reached.
  2. Information limits have been reached. As businesses grow, new needs for information arise.
  3. Accessibility limits have been reached. The system may not have been planned for multi-platforms and phone and browser access from any location.

So, scalability is a big issue. We talked to a number of managers who have had to wrestle with the problem in their previous systems. Rob Hill, Managing Director of HMA, described their old methods:

“It wasn’t scalable. We needed a system that would take care of the business agency fundamentals and allow us to grow when we chose to.”

He also talked about the type of growth he was planning. Gone are the days when a business would simply grow. What type of growth was HMA looking for?

“One big reason for implementing Synergist was to avoid wasting so much time running the mechanics of the agency when we want to focus purely on clients. So, when planning our growth we went for ‘lean growth.’”

Scalability is one of the most commonly-cited reasons that our users give when choosing Synergist. For example, managing growth was high on Tayburn’s agenda, as Steven Clark, their Financial and Commercial Manager, told us:

“Synergist gives us scalability. It’s all about growth. It makes growth more manageable.”

Many of our users have indeed turned out to experience impressive growth levels. Steve Laird, Finance Director of Online Design & Engineering Ltd, told us:

“While with Synergist, we’ve grown from a £12m-£13m company to one that is about three times that size. Synergist has played a part in that.”

For some, ‘scalable’ means ‘scalable processes’. Mubaloo, another Synergist user, have become the UK’s leading mobile consultancy. Having robust processes are important to them. Sarah Weller, their Managing Director (London) told us:

“When working with FTSE 250 companies, you have to prove that you can do complex work, satisfy client requirements and always be professional. This comes from having the right processes and systems in place that grow with your business.”

For others, scalability is more about removing bottlenecks. Clevercherry’s Managing Director, Nigel Wilson, explained:

“Synergist has helped us be more scalable. People are more empowered now. Decisions that used to drop relentlessly into my lap every day are now taking place with no fuss. That’s a payoff that keeps on paying.”

David Ladds, Director of Bladonmore, has an uncomplicated way of looking at scalability:

“Thoroughly understanding time and the value of time is key. For us to have scale we need to know exactly how we spend our time. It’s that simple.”

We obviously recognise that growing a business involves far more than the choice of the management system. However it does have a pivotal role, not least because getting the wrong system can act like a brake on growth, and switching system in a hurry because the old one is broken is a grim and even dangerous state to be in.

In summary, Synergist is built to facilitate growth. Gareth Moore, Chief Operating Officer of Creative Jar, had this to say about it:

“Synergist is the foundation of our business growth.”

5. Continuously developing your business

When London-based agency Draw implemented their Synergist system they discovered that it offered an unexpected bonus. Kent Valentine, a Director there, told us:

“It all stems from something a teacher once told me: ‘Kent, if the world isn’t a better place for you doing what you do, then you’ve no right to do it.’ This was both a revelation and an inspiration — the idea that continual improvement should not only be baked into what we do, but that it’s also our responsibility.

“We have picked this up at Draw because it speaks to both what we do (making things, better than other people do), and our belief in iterative improvement and transformation.

“The concept of marginal gains in elite sport was made famous in the London 2012 Olympics when Team GB cycling won a record 8 gold medals. It’s all about making aggregated small gains in many areas to improve overall performance, sometimes with massive results. Our new system makes it easy for us to do precisely this now.”

How feasible is it for the principle of marginal gains to be applied outside of sport? One example is the ease with which it has been embraced by the education world. Alex Quigley, an English subject leader at Huntington School, York, wrote a blog published in The Guardian:

“One simple, but highly effective, lesson learnt from the Olympics has been taken from the story of the brilliantly successful cycling team, and their visionary coach, Dave Brailsford. Brailsford believes that by identifying every tiny aspect of an athlete’s performance and then making just a 1% improvement in each area the athlete’s overall performance can be significantly enhanced.

“His concept of ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’ has been making transformative ripples in classrooms and schools ever since. My GCSE students were soon speaking with the self-reflection of a highly trained Olympian athlete - well, nearly. They really did improve their ability to self-assess their learning and take real ownership of their own ambition.”

So the concept’s universality seems assured. From an agency perspective, what Kent Valentine of Draw is saying is that Synergist delivers the information that makes continuous improvements measurable and manageable by the team, and it delivers results.

It is not known whether Dave Brailsford expected the tool he popularised would not only win gold medals for Team GB but help pupils write better English essays, win him a knighthood, and inspire Synergist users to be more successful. Not bad going...

6. New business opportunities

When we ask our clients why they decided to get a management system, they rarely mention that it is to help manage new business opportunities. It’s just not usually in the centre of their radar.

It tends to be one of those nice-to-haves, almost a by-product of getting the system. Here’s what Gareth Moore, Chief Operating Officer of 46-strong Creative Jar told us:

“Synergist delivers powerful data, including the management of the production process, the new business opportunities, the invoices, statistics, everything.

“Synergist feeds into everything we create and do and use, right up to Board level.”

Sarah Weller, Mubaloo’s Managing Director (London) also sees it as a part of the whole:

“Synergist helps us throughout our whole process. From monitoring our lead generation, pipeline and new business activity all the way through to setting up client projects and monitoring their health.”

Synergist's approach is to:

  • manage and follow up your new opportunities
  • track all leads and see they have been effectively followed up
  • create action and to-do lists with email reminders for follow ups needed
  • view sales to both new business and repeat business opportunities - with a drill-down of details
  • new business reporting and analysis to help overall business forecasting

Sarah explained the frequency that they check their new business opportunities at Mubaloo:

”We check the business pipeline weekly with Synergist – it’s essential. Which projects are 95% likely to come in? 75%? 50%? It helps us decide what resources we need to start pencilling into projects.”

“Things happen fast here. You have to keep on top of it.”

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