agencies, check your oil often

When you manage people and do your best to help guide an organization you often turn to analogy to help get the point across. In the past, especially when teaching students of interactive, I use the analogy of a house when speaking to the structure of a digital property or marketing strategy. HTML is the structure, CSS is the paint etc… it’s not a hard concept to grasp. Often time’s the people I share this with latch onto the story pretty quickly and can hold on with both hands. But the analogy of building the house falls apart when describing process and responsibilities. Not because it is a limited analogy, but because there can be too many components.

Motorcycles, on the other hand, work just fine. I used to ride dirt bikes as a kid. Not organized dirt bikes. I never had a number on the front of my Kawasaki 150cc. It was strictly a way to piss off my parents. I would take that miniature horse of a machine and drag it out to the dirt lot, over the wall of the complex, kick it as hard as I could to get it to start and just beat it to death. It’s amazing it lasted as long as it did. Now, older, and having held out for a long time, I have the bike of my dreams. A 2005 Harley Davidson Fat Boy Screaming Eagle. More bike than I could dream of needing. And of course being the consummate consumer I am, it has everything. Fifteen-inch ape hangers, Vance and Hines short shot pipes, Marathon high performance tires, chrome everywhere. A legitimate defense to being hit by a car might be, “What do you mean? You didn’t hear me?”

I get on my scoot each morning, annoying the hell out of my neighbors at 6.30am and tear ass from my house towards 93, where if I am lucky I hit 4th gear, (truth be told, I leave that early so I can be assured I hit fifth before the Government Center Exit!)

I got on the other morning and realized that the care I put into my motorcycle, the device that takes me too fast, too quickly, too often, is the perfect metaphor for the process of interactive work. A motorcycle is a simple machine. The engine, though I can’t do it, can be worked on by just about anyone with a mechanical sense. There are a thousand parts of course, but only one way to put them together. The broad strokes are easy to conceptualize. The engine processes the fuel, the fuel generates the engine, the oil keeps the engine running and the wheels hold direction. There are other parts of course, but this relationship is the core. Take away one, you might have a nice piece of art but little else.

Our firm is unique in so many ways I could start a series of posts to explain them, but at the core is the way we work together. Many other firms seem to just not get it. Whether it’s because they are too big, too traditional or too protective I don’t know. Ours is a humming machine. Just like my big badass bike.

Interactive projects have components just like a motorcycle. If you ignore one, the project comes off the rails, requiring all participants to fall in line, do a diagnostic and figure out how to keep moving forward. The engine is the easiest place to start, it makes noise and it maintains momentum. My engine is a V-Twin. Named as such due to the V like shape the engine makes when sitting on the frame. Any interactive project has an engine, the most obvious and identifiable part of the machine that rattles and takes you to your destination. For digital projects this is Design and Development. The user has become savvy enough to know that the front end they are looking at requires development behind it. The two legs of the V, if you will. Engines can’t do much, even if the rest of the bike is built to spec, without the fuel. And contrary to where you thought this little lecture was going, the fuel isn’t Account Services, its Information Architecture. IA is the fuel that powers a project, a team and an application. Solid design and full proof development can’t be achieved without the IA acting as the fuel igniting the spark, letting other disciplines execute their magic to accomplish a shared vision.

I love IA, I fancy myself an information architect among many other things (much to the chagrin of my Director of IA) but this analogy isn’t a soliloquy for information architecture.

Any of you who have driven a car, or even better, and to keep with my analogy, a motorcycle, who have seen the gauges spike, who have heard a difference in performance of the vehicle, sputtering, screaming, pops, puts, coughs and lurches know that there is usually one cause. The oil.

Now, if high performance motorcycles require top line lube, interactive projects overshadow it by a factor. There isn’t a motorcycle enthusiast who won’t tell you, oil is the lifeblood of the machine. Too much and you see smoke, to little and you break down, even worse, seize the engine. Account Services has the same effect. Each day when I take my scoot out to ride, often to get to work, too seldom to have fun, I walk around the bike like a pilot. Air pressure, handle bar position, pipe structure, seat fastening and of course, oil level, is checked.

Account Services, Client Partnership and Production in concert, keep the agency machine running. You can tell very quickly if the oil is low and the engine is working too hard and burning too much fuel: you lose efficiency. Too much, and the engine becomes sluggish and you lose momentum. It is a delicate balance and one which requires training, experience and a wantonness to tune the bike just right; to be able to pass the eighteen wheeler at 120mph as well as down shift and save the brakes. Clients of course, want both. The ability to accelerate to hit a deadline as well as slow to accommodate a stakeholder who can’t make a decision; such is the life of an agency. Just make sure you have high quality oil running through the lines.

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