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Agency SOPs – What are they and how can you create them for your agency?

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Updated on:
February 23, 2024
Table of contents

Consistency.

Without it, your agency is destined to fail. You’ll see this in the branding arena, with 85% of companies claiming that they have brand guidelines. Those guidelines exist to ensure the messaging those companies put out stays consistent.

Why?

When you have inconsistent branding, you have no trust. And with no trust, you have no customers. If you’re delivering mixed messaging to clients, they’re going to get confused about who you are and what you do.

However, this concept of consistency extends far beyond what you’re saying to your clients. It should run throughout your agency. Consistent processes. Consistent task creation and completion. The more consistent you can make your agency’s internal operations, the less time you spend trying to come up with ways to complete projects.

That’s where agency SOPs come into play.

What is an SOP for a digital marketing agency?

SOP stands for “standard operating procedure.”

Think of agency SOPs as the little roadmaps that you follow to get your work done. Each one is a step-by-step process – typically documented as instructions – that tells your people three things:

What needs to be done, how to do it, and the result expected from following the SOP.

The idea is to create consistent methods for performing routine activities. As long as the method is followed, the result is practically guaranteed. As an agency owner, you’ll need SOPs to define key processes and, in some cases, ensure regulatory compliance.

You’ll implement SOPs throughout your business.

Client onboarding? That’s a series of SOPs you create to ensure that each new client goes through a consistent process. The same goes for the work you do. For instance, let’s say your agency designs websites. Each project sees you speak to your clients, gather requirements, create wireframes, and everything else that goes into building a website.

Each of those tasks requires an SOP.

Thankfully, there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to create an SOP. Typically, it involves determining where a process occurs and documenting steps for proper completion based on what you’ve done before. In many cases, the software you use in your business feeds into your SOPs. For instance, let’s say you have project management software in your agency. Baked into that software will be SOPs for assigning tasks, creating project timelines, and even scheduling meetings.

Your agency can expand on those in-built SOPs with additional steps highlighting how to use the software correctly.

The point is simple – SOPs are everywhere in your agency and should govern almost everything that you do. Chaos reigns when you don’t have them.

Use a project management software

Using a project management tool is as important as implementing SOPs into your agency. One of the best features of Bonsai is its reliable project management tool. It has built-in time tracking and task management features that can help you achieve a smooth internal process.

Here's how Bonsai can enhance your team's project management capabilities effectively:

Track your team's time accurately

Time tracking in an agency setting is important because it allows your team members to log the time they spend on their tasks accurately. Project managers can easily see their time entries in the dashboard. 

Learn more about Bonsai's time tracking features

With Bonsai, time tracking is simple and easy. You just have to start a new timer and select the project and task that you are working on. Select if the task should be billable or not and add the billable rate, if applicable. You can also add notes to help you remember what work was done during that time.

If your team member forgot to run the time tracker, they can simply add time entries manually. After you add the project details, log how much time was spent on the task and the date it was done. The timer also allows you to pause and resume when needed, making it convenient for breaks or interruptions. And that’s how efficient time tracking can be with Bonsai.

Keep your projects on track and on budget

Aside from accurate time tracking, Bonsai also has a task management feature. You can assign tasks to your team members, set deadlines, and track their progress. The task dashboard lets you see your priorities in either Kanban or list boards. You can also filter the tasks by date, status or assignee among others. 

Learn more about Bonsai's task management features

Creating a task is also a breeze. Simply click the New Task button, add the task name, assign it to the appropriate team member then set the priority and you’re good to go! It also allows you to set the frequency if the task is a recurring one. Adding dependencies and tags helps you organize your tasks even further. Since Bonsai is an all-in-one tool for agencies, it also lets you start timers from your tasks list. This makes it easy to bill your clients accurately.

Marketing agency SOPs – the key steps to creating your standard processes

So, the concept behind agency SOPs is simple:

Identify a process you want to standardize and write instructions telling people how to do it.

The reality is that if it were that simple, no agency would have problems with its processes. But they do. Every bottleneck in your business is the result of a poor – or non-existent – SOP. The same goes for many of the issues you’ll experience with clients and even your own team. Often, it’s the procedures you have in place that are to blame.

And those poor procedures can cost you a lot of money.

CIO Dive says that businesses can lose up to $1.3 million annually due to inefficient processes. That’s why the process of creating agency SOPs should be an SOP in itself – one in which you follow these steps.

Step 1 – Define the end goal

No journey can begin without a clear destination in mind.

If you doubt that, leave your house today without knowing where you want to go. You’ll just spend hours walking or driving around, getting nowhere while wasting a ton of time in your day.

The same applies to the agency SOPs you create.

Start with what the SOP is supposed to accomplish. In an agency, that goal could be something like “create a project timeline.” Every project needs one of those timelines to help you manage its budget and task-related deadlines. With that goal in mind, you’re able to work backward by asking the simple question:

What steps do I need to follow to create a timeline?

Not only does your end goal help you determine what you want to achieve, but it’ll also show you why you need to create an SOP. If you can’t come up with a goal, maybe you’re looking at something that doesn’t need a defined process.

Step 2 – Create an SOP format

To create an SOP, you need…an SOP!

It can start to feel like SOPception. The good news is that your format only has to be created once before you can use it for every SOP. Think of this format as a template for every future SOP you’ll create. It helps you to define the SOP’s purpose, and any relevant details related to its completion.

While you can go freeform with this – creating a format that works for your business – most incorporate the following details:

  • Introduction – A brief mention of what the SOP will be and its main purpose. You may also use this section to title the SOP, give it an ID number, and highlight the person or department that’ll use it.
  • Summary – Building from the introduction, you summarize the SOP in more detail. What does it accomplish? Why? Where will it be applied? Answer those questions and you have a summary.
  • Details – This is where you’ll enter the steps for the SOP, and it’s here where the SOP can become complicated. Some choose simple steps, especially for straightforward processes. But if you’re creating an SOP for a complex task, you may prefer a flowchart or hierarchical steps format.
  • Related SOPs/Checklists – Cite any other SOPs or processes that either depend on your new SOP or must be completed before you can follow the new SOP.

You don’t have to start filling out these details yet. Just make sure you have your SOP format document outline – it’ll come in useful later.

Step 3 – Do a walkthrough

If you’ve decided a process needs an SOP, that means it’s a process that’s already in place in your agency. The problem you have is that the process isn’t defined, leading to the inconsistency mentioned earlier.

Here, you start defining.

Locate the person responsible for the process – assuming it isn’t you – and have them walk through it with you. Ideally, you’ll record this walkthrough (even a video shot on your phone will do) so you can see each step in action.

This recording serves two purposes.

First – and most obviously – it shows you what needs to be done to complete the process you’re defining. However, the second reason is perhaps more important:

The recording also shows you where issues in the process currently lie.

For instance, there may be a bottleneck caused because the person completing the process needs approval before moving forward. Alternatively, there may be a manual task – such as compiling an email – that’s time-consuming. Tasks like those could potentially be automated using the right agency management software.

In short, you want to see how the process works right now so you ensure the steps you’ll outline are streamlined.

Step 4 – Get stakeholder buy-In

No good agency SOPs can be created in vacuums.

If you’re the only person defining processes, you risk sounding like the manager shouting from on high to the “peons” working below. You’ll also miss out on important information. After all, the people who know the intended process best are those who are already completing the task.

All of which means that buy-in from key stakeholders is crucial.

However, in the case of SOPs, those stakeholders aren’t board members and clients. They’re the people in your team who work on the tasks you want to document.

Involve them.

You’ve already started this with your recording. Now, build on it by inviting team members to view what you have and highlight what they like – and dislike – about the current process. Their feedback will prove crucial when you’re outlining your steps. Plus, you’ll avoid the “unheard” issue – 75% of employees feel their voices are ignored by management.

Step 5 – Identify your audience

You’re getting closer.

You’ve prepared the ingredients for creating your new SOP. You’ve identified a task, know how it’s completed right now, and you’ve heard your people.

It’s almost time to put pen to paper.

But not quite yet.

Before you start writing any agency SOPs, always ask yourself about the audience for whom you’re creating the document. What prior knowledge do they have of everything that feeds into the SOP? You’ll need to know that to determine how much explanation you have to deliver regarding specific terminology.

Who is the SOP for?

An SOP created for client onboarding will likely go to your project team, while one for selling a service to a prospect goes to sales. Those teams speak in different “languages” in their interactions with clients. Your SOP has to account for that by speaking in the language that suits the process’s purposes.

Step 6 – Create the SOP and gather feedback…again

Next up is the easy part:

Writing the SOP.

As long as you’ve followed the steps so far, you have a format and all of the information you need. You even have a recorded walkthrough – supplemented with feedback from people on the ground – to help you.

Put all of that onto paper.

As you write your SOP, keep your language in mind. It’s always better to go simple with a step, with clarifications added wherever needed. This shouldn’t be a multi-page document with thousands of words. If it is, that’s a sign that your new SOP is actually several bundled together.

Once you’ve written the SOP, go back to the stakeholders you engaged in Step 4. Have them read and review the process you’ve created to confirm nothing is missing from the steps.

Step 7 – Test and roll out

Having agency SOPs isn’t the same thing as implementing those SOPs. You’re introducing a change – however minor – into your agency with this document. Unfortunately, change can breed resistance. Employees may fight against the SOP, especially if it’s not properly tested. This resistance is one of the key reasons why 70% of business change initiatives ultimately fail.

You’ve gone some way to overcoming that resistance as long as you’ve engaged your people during the SOP’s creation. But it can rise up again if you try to roll out the new SOP without at least testing it first. Any kinks that weren’t caught during the creation process will become major problems once the SOP is agency-wide.

So, test it first.

Have one or two people follow the SOP while the rest complete the process as they did before it was documented. Ideally, that test shows the SOP to be more efficient, meaning you have evidence that it’s ready to roll out. If, for some reason, the SOP is less efficient, that’s a signal to take it back to the drawing board.

Step 8 – Store and refer

Congratulations!

You’ve created the first of what will likely be many agency SOPs that’ll create consistency in your operations. Your final step is to make that SOP – as long as any you create in the future – easily accessible to your people.

In short, you need a knowledge store.

Agency project management software, such as Bonsai, can provide that store. For instance, you could create a project in the software before using its document uploading features to store all SOPs. Grant all employees access to that project and you have an SOP resource for everybody in the agency.

Speaking of access, you can also use this storage to encourage referring to the SOP. Make it standard practice to refer employees who ask questions to the SOP that provides answers, rather than answering yourself. And if there isn’t an SOP that answers the question, then guess what?

You may just have another SOP you need to create.

An SOP marketing example

Now you have the steps for creating agency SOPs, it’ll help to have an example to hand that shows what they could look like.

Let’s assume you’re running a digital marketing agency with a focus on copy creation. The editing process for an article could be governed by an SOP, which might look something like this:

****

COPY EDITING SOP FOR <AGENCY NAME>

SOP ID – 00012

RELEVANT DEPARTMENT(S) – Copy Editing

The purpose of this standard operating procedure (SOP) is to create an editing process for <AGENCY NAME>. This SOP will ensure all articles produced are factually accurate, grammatically correct, and ready to publish.

Summary

With this copy-editing SOP, all editors at <AGENCY NAME> will have defined steps to follow when editing a submitted article. The document is intended for use by the copy-editing team. However, it may also be made available to copywriters, who may use it as a checklist when editing their own pieces.

This SOP should be applied immediately after submission of a piece, and always prior to publication. Failure to follow this SOP could result in the publication of unverified work, leading to reputational damage to <AGENCY NAME> and our clients.

Details

The following are the steps all copy editors should follow when editing a submitted piece:

  1. Open the submitted article in Microsoft Word and activate “Track Changes.”
  2. Conduct an initial read-through to catch and correct spelling or grammatical errors.
  3. Verify each fact stated in the article by tracing it to its original source.
  4. Mark each factual error – or unconfirmed fact – using a comment in Word.
  5. Return the article to the writer to fix any errors discovered.
  6. Upon resubmission, repeat Steps 1 through 5 until the document is ready to publish.
  7. Submit the article to the project lead.

Related SOPs and Documents

The attached documents provide additional context related to the above SOP:

  • Internal Writer’s Guidelines
  • <CLIENT NAME>’s Writing Guidelines
  • <CLIENT NAME>’s Branding Guidelines
  • Internal Editors Guidelines

****

This is just one example of the dozens of SOPs you might create for your agency. Others may incorporate software – such as your project management suite – or have steps that involve specific people.

You’ll also see that this example follows the SOP format mentioned in Step 2 of this article. Again, this isn’t a fixed format that every agency has to use. Yours may be different, depending on the details you want to share in your SOPs. The most important point – again – is that the SOP follows a consistent format to prevent confusion.

Where can you get agency SOP templates?

What if you don’t want to create your SOPs from scratch?

That’s understandable given that each SOP takes a while to produce. Even if you have a format ready, you may spend upwards of 90 minutes on documenting, along with time spent gathering feedback. That’s hours that you may not be able to commit to creating agency SOPs.

Thus, you enter a “Catch-22” situation.

You know that having the SOPs will make your agency and its people more efficient. But you can’t commit the initial time to creating that efficiency in the short term. What’s the solution?

SOP templates.

Again, your agency management software may be helpful when it comes to finding these templates. Take Bonsai as an example. In addition to providing tools that you can build into your SOPs, it’s also loaded with over 500 templates. They run the gamut from contracts to invoices and internal briefs. All can be used either to help you develop an SOP format or to support the SOPs you create. For instance, a new SOP for quoting a client could incorporate a Bonsai quote template to ensure all quotes are consistent.

Create SOPs today, profit tomorrow

Creating consistency is the main reason why you need to create agency SOPs.

But it’s far from the only one. And the other major reason is one that’ll tangibly affect your agency:

SOPs improve your bottom line.

While they don’t make money directly, every SOP you create makes your agency that little bit more efficient. Time is saved because your people aren’t coming up with self-made processes or asking others to help them. That saved time means more completed tasks, ultimately resulting in more money from clients.

Then, there’s the error-catching aspect of SOPs.

Things can go wrong in an agency, even one that has agency SOPs. When that happens, you’ll be able to troubleshoot what caused the problem by comparing the completed process to your SOP. Was a step skipped? Perhaps a step was executed incorrectly? Whatever the issue may be, it’s easier to locate when you have a proven process that you know works. Reverse-engineering the mistake using your SOP helps you spot the specific cause and can serve educational purposes for your people.

Ultimately, an agency can run without SOPs…just.

But if you have intentions to scale, or simply want to be more efficient, SOPs are key. They create consistency. They make you more efficient. And in the end, having them leads to happier clients and more effective team members.

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