Are Spreadsheets Slowing Your Agency Down? - Image by Pexels from PixabayGlobal economic forces are increasing the pressure on agencies to maximize efficiency, productivity, and profitability. Despite technological advances and the rise of purpose-built software, many agencies are still relying on spreadsheets for both day-to-day project management and staffing needs as well as high-level operational oversight. But with increasing complexity in how jobs are won and run, it may be time to retire manual management methods. Instead, leaders should turn to new technology that can help agencies streamline and optimize project management — from line items to the bottom line.

An Overreliance on Spreadsheets

It’s normal to rely on spreadsheets as a quick fix in a pinch. They’re great for solving problems because they’re easy to use. However, that ease of use can convince teams to hold on to spreadsheets for too long. When spreadsheets become semi-permanent fixtures, version control and data fidelity become an issue.

The business world is rife with legendary spreadsheet failures — from Pandemic case tracking computations to the London Whale incident, spreadsheets are known for their ubiquity, utility and also errors.

But breaking the habit can be hard. An executive of a large public holding company recently told us, “We deploy some of the most sophisticated technology solutions for clients comprised of data science, AI, consumer insights and delivery – yet our clients would be appalled to know how much of our business we run on spreadsheets.”

To better understand the top challenges facing agencies — from 75-person boutiques to global holdcos — and the latest strategies to address them, Kantata and Salesforce recently partnered with Canam Research to conduct a survey. With a focus on mid-size and enterprise agencies, The State of Agency Operations Survey was informed by 51 professionals in various roles, including account director, head of strategic planning, VP of operations, creative director, media strategist, and group program director.

Our survey found that agencies are at a major crossroads when it comes to the use of spreadsheets. According to our research, 72% of agencies see them as an important tool in managing client engagements. Despite their extensive use, spreadsheets have serious limitations when it comes to data management analysis, integration with other important technology, and the amount of work needed for upkeep, input, and general use. That’s why purpose-built technology designed to meet the specific operational needs of modern agencies has come into prominence.

What are the biggest challenges that today’s agencies face? Where do spreadsheets factor in as both a help and a hindrance? And what does purpose-built technology that’s designed for the needs of today’s agencies look like? Let’s take a closer look.

The Top Agency Challenges Today

We asked agency leaders about challenges with their current tech stack in relation to agency operations and delivering client work. The results showed the top three to be integration (34.78%), too much manual effort from spreadsheets (32.61%), and workflow management (30.43%).

Alongside the runner-up issues, data silos and complexity, these challenges complicate everyday processes that should streamline work. Instead of staying focused on money-making projects, critical team members spend massive amounts of time dealing with these issues. For example, they’re often knee-deep analyzing data in spreadsheets instead of using that data to work with clients.

Despite these obvious issues, 72% of agencies say spreadsheets are important to their company’s client engagement management. Most of these firms aren’t exclusively using spreadsheets to run their business. They are using many generic point solutions, with spreadsheets acting as the glue holding operations together, filling in the gaps between applications. This is the status quo for many agencies, but a charcuterie-board of applications is difficult to manage, scale and ultimately — work. More than one in four businesses do not believe they’re consistently able to leverage their workforce for revenue-generating work in a profitable, balanced way. Clearly, these technology issues are impacting business performance.

The good news is that more and more agencies are understanding that they need to make a change. 46% say a top priority in the next six months is to invest in software to improve and streamline operations.

Spreadsheet Setbacks

As Canam’s research reveals, spreadsheets still hold a place of major importance in the daily work of a significant number of agencies. Although many are already aware of how difficult they can be to use, they may still not fully understand the major limitations of spreadsheets, the resulting complications, or the risks of using them.

Whether powered by Excel or Google Sheets, the spreadsheet is essentially a simple and typically self-contained document. Spreadsheets let users collect data, perform complex calculations, and produce detailed results. But this is all done within the document. Challenges integrating spreadsheets with modern systems beyond data export means spreadsheets generally silo all associated data as they’re not part of a larger software solution and access is often restricted.

For the most part, spreadsheets often lack automation, which creates lots of manual work. Team members must sink large amounts of time into spreadsheet management, taking time away from other tasks—including billable work. What automation there actually is often requires close supervision to prevent or correct errors.

Spreadsheets aren’t designed to manage complex workflows. But the longer an agency depends on spreadsheets, the more complex they’re likely to become. As a result, an agency’s most important documents are often extremely complicated to use — not because of the software itself, but due to the massive number of functions being applied. Embedded functions can easily break, and managers will need to restrict access to prevent errors.

Agencies succeed when they combine stable processes with expertise in running projects. While this helps create predictable repeat business even when markets fluctuate, it also means that changing technology and processes can be daunting. Long-term use of spreadsheets can make agencies hesitant to adopt more powerful solutions even when the benefits are obvious, with both management and employees resisting change in favor of “the way we’ve always done things.”

Establishing strong change management processes will help your teams transition away from spreadsheets and take up new technology to power their everyday work.

The Need for Purpose-Built Technology

So, what is purpose-built technology? Broadly speaking, it’s any type of modern software designed for the unique needs of the industry that most frequently uses it. Spreadsheets are the opposite of “purpose-built,” as they’re simply meant for data collection and need to be heavily customized for the unique needs of whoever is using them.

Technology that’s purpose-built for professional services organizations like agencies can support a large portfolio of clients and simultaneous work across multiple projects. That  includes the creation and delivery of products and services that match unique client needs. Combining project, resource, and financial management in one solution, these purpose-built systems give agencies the ability to deliver high-end projects while still maintaining the slim margins and agile teams that define today’s business model.

Purpose-built technology like the Kantata Professional Services Cloud lets agencies review, manage, and improve all of their processes in a single location. These solutions remove the data silos, manual work, and errors that come from working in spreadsheets, delivering accurate, real-time, contextual insights to decision-makers. And they seamlessly integrate with other key software solutions in your tech stack, driving a stronger business that cultivates loyal, happy clients.

For more information on the top challenges agencies face and the main priorities business leaders are focusing on to overcome them, download Kantata’s State of Agency Operations Survey. And be sure to join in as I moderate a SoDA panel discussion, 2023 Year in Review and Operating Priorities in the Year Ahead, where we’ll discuss key findings from the State of Agency Operations Survey – you can find that webinar on the Kantata Events page.

KantataKantata takes professional services technology to a new level, giving people-powered businesses the clarity, control, and confidence they need to optimize resource planning and elevate operational performance. Kantata’s purpose-built software is helping over 2,500 professional services organizations of all shapes and sizes in more than 100 countries to focus and optimize their most important asset: their people. By leveraging the Kantata Professional Services Cloud, professionals gain access to the information and tools they need to win more business, ensure the right people are always available at the right time, and delight clients with project delivery and outcomes.


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