The trick to a successful creative concept is keeping it going once the honeymoon period is over. 

Anyone who’s worked at an agency – or with an agency – will know the visceral thrill of being close to a fresh idea. The spark of inspiration; the impassioned atmosphere of the pitch; the reciprocated glory of a well-received campaign.

But there’s a boring, unsexy, and nevertheless universal truth behind every fruitful project: in-between the fertile seed of intent and the lush paradise of achievement, there’s a hell of a lot of gardening that needs doing.

The hard work in digital usually entails end-of-life, or project support and maintenance – ‘S&M’, to sex it up a bit. Unfortunately, it’s this detail that agencies often forget to factor in when dealing with the initial costings and timescales.

These phases are essential for every project, and they’re all-too-often overlooked, to the detriment of the client relationship – more often than not the account team will be left to pick up the pieces. 

Support and maintenance are so often seen and heard in the same breath it’s easily forgotten that they’re two separate things. ‘Support’ denotes ad-hoc reactive help – sometimes at all hours of the day (and night), in the most pressing circumstances – while ‘maintenance’ involves scheduled, routine fixes and updates. 

Even when agencies offer S&M services to their clients in good faith, they can’t always predict the resource allocation because they don’t have the background in IT to ‘do the math’. Because, let’s face it, nobody joins a creative agency to provide support and maintenance. You’re drawn to the agency world by the combined temptations of cocktails, power lunches and parties. And you want to be working on the next big thing – not getting your hands dirty keeping the last big thing ticking over.

Agencies end up in S&M territory more often by default than design. And yet it’s absolutely essential for a smooth campaign. Show me a once-promising concept lying neglected in cyber-landfill – or a much-blogged app with a massive take-up and an equally impressive drop-off – and I’ll show you the empty space where the S&M team should be sitting.

But, for creative agencies whose talents lie elsewhere, it’s hard to know what to do. Clients usually ask for a combination of support and maintenance, so it’s only natural that they often get bundled together.

Agencies using this model sometimes make the mistake of charging an hourly rate for doing any ongoing work. This is bad news for all concerned. Here’s why: 

  • Scheduling. If there’s one thing agency developers hate, it’s being pulled off an exciting new project to work on an older project using last season’s technology. They get frustrated, and, if it keeps happening, they leave. There’s also the time lost switching between projects.
  • Resources. Specifically, a lack of allowance for the hardware/software resources required to perform the service. Agencies don’t always realise that they need a ready set of development, testing, staging and production environments for each project they maintain – not just one developer’s laptop. Inevitably, there’s a cost to running these, and costs are sometimes cut back so these environments aren’t available. 

So creative agencies are left with something of a dilemma if they want to keep providing forward-thinking tech-reliant concepts – concepts that require a little S&M to keep them afloat post-launch.

Once the contracts have been exchanged, the oysters have been digested, and the champagne lies still and warm in the lipstick-stained flute, the digital project you’ve just toasted needs to keep going – because if it doesn’t, the client will want to know why.

So what’s the solution?

Well, one of two things: 

  1. Get an S&M department. Charge monthly fees for the maintenance of each environment (including servers). Charge for the time developers need to spend refreshing themselves on each platform – or handing over to new starters. Charge a higher hourly rate for out-of-hours support work, and give the client the choice of postponing work but paying the lower rate. They’ll soon change the priority of each issue to match.
  2. Outsource your S&M to a technical agency that specialises in the relevant sub-discipline. It’ll save you the headache of building up a team from scratch, and leave you free to do what you do best.  

Better either of the above than habitually punish yourself, or your client.