Tame Agency Chaos by Implementing Project Controls

An Agency Guide to Implementing Project Controls Hero Image


Project controls have the power to alleviate many of the most common causes of tension at your marketing agency. From avoiding scope creep, to assessing risk, to hitting timelines, and even ensuring that the team stays within the project budget–project controls have got you covered. In this article, learn how to tweak your processes with project controls, and optimize for greater profitability.

You’re in the conference room, it’s round-robin time for project updates. Your project manager, Frank, is sweating bullets. 

“We’ve got our fifth change request on this account. We’re two weeks behind and maxed out on hours. I don’t know what to tell them,” he says. 

Groan. Where did things go wrong? 

The answer might just lie in project controls. Particularly as your agency scales, you’ll need some iron-clad project controls in place to help manage change requests, keep work on schedule, and ultimately help poor Frank sleep better at night. 

What Are Project Controls?

According to the AgencyAnalytics Marketing Agency Benchmarks Survey, the top 3 agency management challenges are time management, employee burnout, and freelancer resourcing.

 bar chart showing the top struggles agencies face at a team-management level

Project controls present a way to ease and alleviate these challenges, producing greater team synergy by optimizing agency workflows. They’re a set of tools, techniques and processes used throughout the project life cycle by project managers to measure and track the six universal project constraints: 

  • Time

  • Cost

  • Scope

  • Quality

  • Risk

  • Resources

Project managers use the data and analysis gathered from project controls to guide their decisions and keep a project running on track. Regardless of what controls you choose to implement, they’re all repeatable processes for measuring current project status, forecasting potential outcomes, and managing the six constraints to achieve the best possible outcome.  

The Difference Between Project Controls and Project Management

Project controls aim to keep tabs on all the moving pieces and manage project constraints to keep the project on track and within budget. It’s essentially the process of a lot of information gathering and analysis. 

Project management on the other hand is much broader and includes all the tools, techniques, and methodologies for planning, managing, and executing projects.  

Main Project Controls Types at Your Agency

Depending on the type of project, project managers will implement different types of controls. For example, a multi-million dollar bridge construction project will focus on different aspects of resource, cost, scope, schedule, and risk management than a marketing agency handling a website redesign. 

Agencies don’t have to contend with potential year-long delays, permit refusals or public consultations. Instead, they need to manage client expectations and control billable hours. Here is a rundown of the different types of project controls and what they’re used for in an agency context:

Quality Controls

Ensure that deliverables meet the client’s quality standards. This could include activities like creative review and approval, performance reporting, and internal quality assurance. 

Time Management

Scheduling and tracking project activities and milestones to make sure they happen as planned. This encompasses setting deadlines, monitoring milestone completion, and charting progress to avoid delays.

Time is everything for a growing agency. Spending lots of time on one task not only has financial effects but it can also burn out the agency owner mentally. This in turn can lead to poor decision making which impacts the business further. Allowing for processes to be simple & effective allows for easier on-boarding of staff members alongside a less stressful environment. This reduces the risk of burnout and improves the longevity of yourself, your staff members & your agency.

Guy Hudson, Founder, Bespoke Marketing Plans

Resource Management, Including Cost Controls

Allocating and using human resources, equipment, materials, and finances effectively throughout the project to achieve objectives. For many agencies, a key component is monitoring and controlling project costs to ensure they remain within the approved budget. Examples of cost control processes include cost estimating, budgeting and variance analysis.

Risk Management

Identifying, assessing, and dealing with potential problems that could affect project success, like how much it costs, how long it takes, or the quality of the results.

Scope Control

Evaluating and approving changes to project scope, schedule, or budget to prevent scope creep and control impacts.

Why Project Controls Are So Important for Benchmarking and Decision-Making

All of these different types of project controls work together to measure, evaluate and report on:

  • Project Baseline: Where you started from.

  • Project Actuals: Where your team stands now and if there are any variances.

  • Project Forecast: If you’re headed in the right direction and whether corrective action is needed to achieve the desired outcome within the project’s limitations. 

Whether it’s a major curveball or death by a thousand papercuts, there are a million ways a project can get derailed. Sometimes, some of them are quite unique. (IT problems, cold feet, the client doesn’t like that shade of purple, or triple-booked meetings.) 

Project controls flag when things aren’t going as planned, so you can examine the underlying problems and course correct, making informed decisions when deviations happen. 

By aligning resource allocation with strategic objectives, anticipating future demands, and proactively addressing challenges, GCC Consulting can maximize ROI and adapt quickly to changing circumstances, ultimately driving greater efficiency and effectiveness in achieving its goals.

Gia Ching, Managing Director, GCC Consulting, LLC

By managing risks, you’ll successfully deliver quality campaigns for clients within the budgeted framework of time, resources, schedule and cost. Being able to achieve this repeatedly is what drives profitability and ensures long-term agency success. 

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Implementing Strategic Project Controls To Resolve Core Agency Challenges

Now that we have an understanding of how project controls help project team members to mitigate risks and maximize project budgets, let’s take a look at how to apply these checks and balances at your agency.

Change of Scope

Scope creep has the tendency to blindside even the best of us. It starts as a simple walk-in order for a single slice of pepperoni pizza and poof, it’s now a hangry football team screaming that their deep dish order isn’t ready yet in time for the game. 

When a marketing project expands beyond the requirements agreed upon during the project planning phase, and additional tasks, features and deliverables are added without the equivalent increases in timeline, resources or budget–the scope starts creeping and is often tough to stop.

There are more subtle forms of scope creep too. Like when more departments or stakeholders get involved in a project, making it harder and harder to gain approval or build consensus. (You now have to cc the CEO, VP, legal, HR and IT.) Or you discover some key competencies are missing to complete a task (Joe does not, in fact, have video editing experience). 

All of this additional work leads to delays, reduced profitability, and strained client-agency relationships. There are three project controls you can use to manage scope creep and keep clients happy. 

Change Request Form

The first is to implement a change request form. All stakeholders, both internal and external, have to fill this out when they want something additional done. The project manager will then review the request, conduct a cost-benefit analysis, and approve or deny the request based on available resources and deadlines. 

The burden of proof lies on the proposer–they have to make their case for why the change should be made, what resources are needed to implement it, and outline all the benefits it might bring. With a change request management process, a campaign will adapt without drifting too far from the original scope. 

Change Management Register

Taking all of your approved scope change requests and consolidating them into a change management register puts the extra work into perspective for clients. A change management register tracks the change in scope from the initial statement of work, highlighting the additional accrued price and time increases. 

Having this in hand makes it easier to communicate the impact of scope creep and get clients back on board for course correction. Because, yes, while changing the logo for the nth time isn’t cost-prohibitive, it would delay the entire campaign by a month and cost more in potential sales than the change is worth. 

RACI Matrix

The third project control is a RACI matrix, a framework that defines all project stakeholders' roles and their level of involvement. RACI stands for:

  • Responsible: Who is responsible for completing the task? 

  • Accountable: Who reviews the work and ensures deadlines are met?

  • Consulted: Who needs to provide feedback because their work will be affected? 

  • Informed: Who needs to be kept in the loop on progress or decisions?

Limiting feedback and scope change requests to a select few helps avoid the ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ conundrum. Setting expectations with your client from the start enables the core project team members to prioritize must-haves from nice-to-haves, to ensure the project delivers maximum value. 

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Workflow and Task Assignment

Assigning tasks matching employees' skills and availability requires some additional project controls for effective resource management. Without them, you risk racking up delays and cost overruns because you lack visibility into who’s responsible for what, and who’s underutilized or overburdened. 

Work Breakdown Structure

Completing a work breakdown structure (WBS) at the beginning of your project sets it up for success down the line. It’s a visual representation of your full project plan, organizing project deliverables broken down by dependencies. 

Say you want to organize a photo shoot: 

  • First, you start with the project objective, which is to generate five new campaign images that will drive summer sales for your client. 

    • The first dependency beneath that in your WBS would be to get client signoff on the creative concept. 

      • Other sub-dependencies could be to source a model, location and photographer. 

In addition to objectives and deliverables, a work breakdown structure should also include timelines, task owners, and costs. 

When it comes to project planning and workflow management, a work breakdown structure is your best friend. Once complete, your entire project is divided into smaller assignments that are more easily manageable for your project team. And because you know the necessary deliverables of every task (along with how well and how fast it needs to be done), it’s easy to identify the right person with the most relevant skills and experience to delegate the responsibility to. 

No more panicky 3 a.m. moments of dread wondering if someone has been assigned a nearly-forgotten critical task–with the work evenly distributed, everyone sees what they’re supposed to work on and what results they own.  

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Budgeting, by definition, is just how you plan on spending project funds. There’s no accountability or feedback built into that process at all. To do that, you’ll have to integrate cost controls as well. This is when you collect and aggregate actual costs side by side with budgeted costs to compare them, revealing areas of overspending and opportunities to minimize costs (which is especially valuable for informing future projects).

Cost Breakdown Structure

A project cost budget begins with a cost breakdown structure (CBS), an extension of your work breakdown structure. It maps all project deliverables and tasks, determining labor, material, equipment, and overhead costs for each. It also defines at what level the costs will be accrued. This project control sets an accurate budget, informing project managers when costs should be collected, recorded, and controlled. 

Quality Assurance

Project quality control ensures all client expectations are met and all tasks are completed. Your agency’s existing creative review, client approval, testing, and performance monitoring processes are all quality assurance controls. 

Making sure you allocate enough time to put together a comprehensive brief, allowing your proofreaders and reviewers time to work their magic, and working through client feedback will also improve quality. 

Creative quality may be subjective but no one can argue with results. Monitoring campaigns to optimize results and confirm quality is how successful agencies distinguish themselves from the competition. That’s where automated client reporting comes into play. 

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Risk Assessment

You don’t want to sit around brainstorming how the world will end for every little project. And there are plenty who say a low risk tolerance kills creativity. But in some instances, like for large-scale projects, more risque creative, or heavily regulated industries, it makes good sense to employ risk controls. 

SWOT Analysis

An oldie but a goodie is a SWOT analysis, where you analyze to determine a project’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. The benefit of a SWOT analysis is that it forces you to consider both internal and external conditions or attributes that could cause potential trouble. The downside is now you’re left with a brain dump of prospective hurts and no plan B. That’s why you’ll want to carry on with our next item, a risk register.

SWOT Analysis Acronym Definition

Risk Register

Your next step is to create a risk register, also known as a risk log. This is a simple document with a few text columns that list potential risks, including information about their priority, likelihood of occurrence, mitigation measures, planned emergency response and the individual in charge. 

For example, let’s imagine that your agency is launching an influencer partnership for your client. After heavily vetting influencers for the main red flags, one risk to register would be: What happens if the influencer finds themself embroiled in a personal controversy that reflects poorly on your client’s brand? How does your agency plan to respond in the event that this takes place?

Now that you’ve identified the most critical risks that could threaten your work, it’s easier to proactively roll out measures to prevent them. A preformulated plan improves your response and mitigates potential damages.  

Who Manages Project Controls at a Marketing Agency?

At a marketing agency, the project manager commonly manages project controls as part of their responsibilities. Because of this overlap, project controls should seamlessly integrate with effective project management techniques and methodologies. 

Central to project control is the management of project scope, timeline, and cost. To accomplish this, a proficient project manager relies on a skilled and dedicated creative team, access to pertinent data for tracking and control purposes, and the implementation of robust processes, including change management and risk control measures.

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Steps To Create a Basic Agency Project Control Plan

There are a lot of tools you could implement when your agency is optimizing your project control processes. Here’s what a pared-down, realistic control plan should look like for a large marketing agency when integrated with robust project management:

Define the Project Overview and Objectives

Clearly outline the project scope, goals, deliverables, and success criteria to set the foundation. This will serve as your baseline against which all other control metrics will be measured. 

Establish the Project Control Team 

The burden shouldn't lie on the lone shoulders of your project manager. Finance, legal, accounts and senior leadership all have important parts to play. Identify the project control team members, their roles, responsibilities, and authorities related to monitoring and oversight.

Develop and Implement the Monitoring, Reporting, and Control Framework 

Determine key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure project performance against baselines. Define the methods, tools, and frequency for monitoring project progress and reporting findings. 

Develop the Work and Cost Breakdown Structures 

Starting from the project objectives, create a comprehensive WBS that breaks down the project into manageable tasks, along with estimated costs for each deliverable. This enables better tracking and control of scope, schedule, and budget.

Establish Change Control Procedures

Develop a process for identifying, evaluating, reviewing and implementing approved changes to control scope creep, capturing potential improvements that bubble up during project execution.

Incorporate Risk Management Strategy 

Include at least a basic level of risk identification, analysis, response planning, and monitoring to mitigate potential risks proactively.

By capturing these elements in a comprehensive project control plan, your project team will effectively monitor project progress, identify deviations, and take corrective actions to keep the project on track for successful delivery.

Three Project Control Best Practices

When choosing and shaping your agency’s project controls, be sure to align with these best practices:

Use Digital Tools To Automate Your Data Collection and Analysis

There’s really no excuse to still be doing things the hard way: manually entering project control data into endless spreadsheets and then screen-grabbing it into slideware for status meetings. 

Take advantage of the wide range of management software available, whether that’s project management software, collaboration tools, or report management solutions like AgencyAnalytics. 

We utilize a combination of tools like AgencyAnalytics, Trello, Slack, and HubSpot to manage our marketing resources effectively. Each of these tools serves specific purposes within our workflow: AgencyAnalytics for analytics and reporting, Trello for project management and task tracking, Slack for communication and collaboration, and HubSpot for customer relationship management (CRM) and marketing automation.

These tools collectively provide comprehensive support for resource management, allowing us to streamline our processes, coordinate tasks, communicate effectively, and analyze performance. This integrated approach has proven highly beneficial for our agency, enabling us to optimize our marketing efforts and achieve our goals efficiently.

Gia Ching, Managing Director, GCC Consulting, LLC

AgencyAnalytics pulls data from more than 80 marketing platform integrations, so all of your clients’ marketing data is centralized in one place. Reporting and data collection is fully automated, and reports and dashboards are created in just 11 seconds.

No more wasting valuable billable hours scraping together repetitive campaign or performance summaries for each and every account. With AgencyAnalytics, project controls to benchmark campaign performance, track ad spending, or monitor customized KPIs become a breeze. 

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Conduct Comprehensive Lessons-Learned Reviews

Chances are, your team experienced something on their latest project that everyone could learn from. Or they tweaked a process in response to a control challenge, improving it that much more, so the upgraded process is rolled out company-wide. 

Encouraging retrospectives upon project closure where everyone reflects on successes, challenges, and areas for improvement is an underrated best practice. Embracing a continuous learning approach like this drives incremental enhancements in project execution, quality, and results.

Integrate Change Management Practices

When marketing crosses over into new territory for a client, that’s when things can get a bit rocky. Project management has to dip into change management’s playbook. Change management is a system for dealing with a transformation of a company’s objectives or processes. The change curve describes how people react to these shifts; emotions flow through shock, anger, acceptance and finally commitment. 

Maybe a client is bringing on an agency for the first time. Or completely revamping their branding after a decade. There might be some Big Feelings client-side because of these changes. Having a project manager who will smoothly implement these shifts and help people adapt to achieve lasting benefits–now that’s a project manager worth their salt. 


Let's check in on Frank, our exhausted project manager from earlier. Since the agency implemented a change request procedure, his projects are almost all in the green. Because, more than anything, project controls are about having the ability, and the confidence, to say yes, no, here’s what we can do, and why. 

When project controls are lacking, projects quickly spiral out of control, leading to missed deadlines, budget overruns, and dissatisfied clients. By implementing robust project controls, agencies will effectively manage change requests, keep projects on schedule and within budget, and deliver high-quality results that exceed client expectations.

Try the client reporting tool trusted by more than 6,500 marketing agency users to streamline and optimize agency projects. Sign up for AgencyAnalytics free for 14 days.

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Written by

Lia Van Baalen

Lia Van Baalen is a Canadian content marketer with a decade of experience writing B2B content for SaaS, manufacturing and renewable energy companies. In her opinion, nothing is quite so satisfying in marketing as a good subject matter interview.

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