We’re all familiar with them — those dreaded assignments needed “ASAP.” You know, the ones that clients feel deserve top priority because “it’s for VP So-and-So.” Sometimes you and your creative team are told these requests are a “light lift” and “should only take 15 minutes” to complete. But when considering how your in-house agency handles unexpected projects with tight deadlines it’s worth asking some questions.

What, exactly, is a rush project?

A rush project could be defined as one requiring faster-than-average project timing. Perhaps, the request involves delivering initial concepts quickly to align with a reviewer’s schedule. Or maybe it’s shortening the planned duration of a project to meet market opportunities. Whatever the reason, sudden requests with tight deadlines crunch what your team is accustomed to for healthy creative development. 

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A common business adage asks clients to pick just two from “good, fast, and cheap.” In reality, those three options are all interconnected. Adjusting one comes with trade-offs on others. With rush requests, clients are signaling they want “fast” to hold greater weight in the mix. Our challenge as creative teams, then, is to use our available tools to keep the overall system — good, fast, affordable — in balance.

Despite the pressure to deliver quickly, nobody wants bad work. But sometimes, there’s “good enough.” After all, most clients would choose getting good work in time rather than receiving perfection later.

Granted, there are situations when creative work simply can’t be done in the amount of time requested, given existing resources or quality expectations. But it’s the situations in which you can do the work — by shuffling other assignments or asking one person to drop what they’re doing and “jump on this other thing” — where there can be a negative impact on the team, the process, or the project.

What makes tight deadlines so uncomfortable?

Loss of control. As a creative, project or account manager, you plan for your day. Rush requests interrupt this. Emotionally, people understandably want to feel in control and that they’re making progress toward goals. Feeling out of control too often can erode job satisfaction and lead to disengagement or retention issues.

You take pride in your work. Good creative work takes time to develop — considering options, bouncing ideas off colleagues, conducting internal reviews. Everyone wants to feel proud of what they work on. Rushing the creative process is stressful and may rob people of passion and from doing their best work.

A team shuffle. It can be challenging figuring out who can do the work, matching skills and availability, briefing the task, shuffling other projects. For example, I’ve been involved in coordinating the efforts of six people— from Account Manager to Project Manager, Designer, Copywriter, Creative Director, and Proofing — in the span of just two days. 

Knowing the crunch could’ve been avoided. It can be frustrating to work on a rush project that seemingly could have been planned for plenty in advance. What feels like a failure of planning from others becomes a rush for you.

A positive path forward

Given that we all end up from time to time in this uncomfortable place, there are some best practices to help rush requests run smoother. 

Establish a prioritization/escalation mechanism. Get the creative team out of determining priorities across clients. For example, you might immediately escalate rush requests first to the Director of Marketing Operations, then to the VP level. Some criteria that might aid evaluation are who’s requesting the work, the impact on your team’s overall output, and the value to the company. You’d be surprised how often senior leaders aren’t aware that their names are tossed around as validation for rushed work.

Stick to the process. There can be a tendency when things get hectic to skirt process — skipping forms, emailing quick favor requests, bypassing internal reviews. But, in an efficient operation, it often causes more confusion (and lost time) to do things differently. Instead, look for ways to catalyze existing processes. 

Negotiate the assignment. Look for alternative options. For instance, “I can’t get you everything you’re asking for in the time desired, but we can get you X in that time, or Y with a bit more” and let the client choose. Consider the whole project lifecycle, and what could be broken into delivery stages, which can help you avoid giving a hard no.

Examine your process. Do you deal with rush requests often? Do you need a separate track or dedicated team to deal with recurring rush requests? Are there handoff points where projects transition from creative exploration to rapid production? One way to mitigate the pain of losing control is to set up someone’s role with an expectation to not have control. That person’s job is to handle surprises quickly.

Ask questions to get greater context. Understanding the urgency might take some sting out of delivering. Clients could be in the same situation of having work dropped in their laps last-minute. Initiating extra communication might help your team feel like all stakeholders are in it together.

Maintain flexible staffing. Are you able to scale up and down quickly to accommodate unexpected requests? Often, you might find it necessary to tap your experienced, core team for quick-turn work. But having freelancers to backfill the regular team helps, whether to keep other work moving or to help avoid burnout. 

Establish SLAs. Getting work done in three days is great for someone expecting it in a week, but not if they want it tomorrow. Consider implementing turnaround time SLAs (service-level agreements) to align delivery expectations — responding to requests, delivering first drafts, returning edits. If it’s widely understood that your team will typically return work in two days, then it’s easier to negotiate when someone asks for it in one.

Make data-driven decisions. How do you currently perform on rush requests? Cella Studio did a deep dive into the timing of creative development, client reviews and project durations. (You can read the case study in Cella’s 2021 In-House Creative Industry Report.) Understanding your capabilities will help you make informed decisions on how to respond to future rush requests and validate your ability to turn projects quickly.

Push back when appropriate. Ultimately, you sometimes need to say no — to protect your team from burnout or when the effort to solve the balance of resources, timing and cost outweighs the value of the assignment itself.

What kind of in-house agency do you want to be?

How teams respond to rush requests isn’t one-size-fits-all. Rather, it requires a close examination of your team, the needs of internal clients, and the willingness of your company to invest in resources that will allow for a certain level of service. 

It’s also an invitation to examine your unique pain points and ask questions about how you want to be positioned in serving clients. Are you aiming for optimized delivery of production work? Is the goal to be a full-service center of excellence with award-winning campaigns? Perhaps a bit of both? In any case, managing time for rush requests is a nuanced balancing act that requires a variety of tactics, all to keep clients happy, ensure your team is cared for, and complete projects successfully.