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How to Build a Team at a Digital Marketing Agency | Thrillworks

By Alexey Smahtin

Building Teams at a Digital Agency

Building teams that are greater than the sum of their members is a challenge that permeates all levels of an organization. Libraries have been written, thousands of studies conducted and regardless of the volume of literature on the subject there is no reason to assume that team building is going to be a “solved” concept any time soon. There are few business models where this is felt heavier than with professional services organizations. Every project has a unique set of concerns and contexts and sadly often even when that is acknowledged the approach to building teams remains the same.

Staffing vs. Casting

For agencies, this problem is often simplified to staffing vs casting but it’s a fair bit more than that.

Staffing is the task of matching team members based on hard skills (if the project needs a JavaScript Developer, the first available JavaScript developer is assigned the work).

Casting is ultimately about taking a holistic view of each individual on a team and casting based on all aspects of the teams members, the work, and the client.

What makes good casting a rarity across the agency space is a lack of definition and accountability to the concept. It is easy to say, but hard to execute, both due to the correct inputs when creating teams and due to realities of timelines and skillsets. Preamble aside, we at Thrillworks have a few core golden rules that we follow when building amazing teams for any client:

  • Build for cohesion and skill
  • Build for psychological safety
  • Build for clarity

1. Build for Cohesion and Skill

Part of our process when kicking off a project is based on understanding the net of all the people that will be involved. Not just by role, but by personality. This information is tracked, recorded and a requirement. It’s an effective input and often the simple act of incorporating personality fit into the casting conversation has a powerful ripple effect on both the client team and the delivery team. Specifically, on the client-side there is an automatic push to better understand everyone that will be involved, reducing assumptions made. Tracking and recording is important; it is how this has become process versus where it can often be lip service.

2. Build for Psychological Safety

Back in 2015 Google ran a two-year study to find what makes a successful team. A couple hundred interviews later they found there were five key factors that would create successful teams within Google. The number one factor being Psychological Safety.

For us, this is the most important piece to create in each newly formed team and it comes down to making sure that everyone feels safe to take risks. To be clear, risks don’t mean doing silly things with scope or expectations. In our context risks may mean asking more questions, pushing for a certain solution and generally doing what is best versus what may be most comfortable. Achieving this goes beyond a staffing/casting decision and there is a large element of culture and core values to Thrillworks that help to achieve this.

One of the best physical manifestations of this is our “stop” button. Thrillworkers all have a physical chip that says “stop” on it. This is our Andon Cord, a play on the Toyota concept of anyone being able to stop the assembly line in a factory. Playing the chip is done at any time when the holder feels that something is not working correctly and is an automatic escalation. This is not to say a chip must be played. Much like the cord that did not need pulling every time, the focus of the chip is to be a symbol of quality and psychological safety within Thrillworks.

3. Build for Clarity

Ultimately, building teams is all in the name of delivering amazing results. While team clarity is a table-stakes expectation for an agency, the tactical execution of how to achieve it is often where things can fall flat. Clarity on what, clarity on why and clarity on expectations are all essential. To the end of having clarity on expectations, we have our playbook, a checklist that we follow, project to project, and incorporate into everything from Day 1 of becoming a Thrillworker.

A playbook is not a unique concept. Plenty of service vendors post their version of how they get things done. The important thing for us was to capture a step-by-step guide of all the activities and inputs and to track metrics around these activities. From client services to delivery, from ideation to execution. The playbook includes everything from expectations on client briefs, to the timing on internal kick-off sessions through to guidance on user story writing and project launch requirements. The metrics we track during each step are always iterated on. It’s not so much about the age-old adage of “what gets measured gets managed” as much as having some variation of feedback into the system. Less about management, more about always learning.

Fun tidbit, Peter Drucker, the man famous for that saying, never actually said it. Ironic, given the saying itself.

The short of it is that the team has access to every point of communication, every artifact that was discussed/reviewed before the team was formed. Our sprint zeros when kicking off projects are heavily focused on achieving clarity on these points so that in turn the team is able to make decisions on the project with the ultimate goal in mind.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of everything that we do and to be honest, no matter how exhaustive a list becomes there will always be something missed. Team building is about putting humans together and as a result there will always be some level of unpredictability in any approach. If this is something you are interested in chatting about further, please reach out to us.

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