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The pod model can help agencies scale. Is it right for your team?

Breaking down agency silos is key to surviving and thriving in today’s customer-centric business world. The pod model, an agency business...

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5 min read

Breaking down agency silos is key to surviving and thriving in today’s customer-centric business world. The pod model, an agency business model that relies on nimble, multi-disciplinary teams, is quickly becoming a popular way to overcome these silos and scale quickly.

What’s the pod model? It’s a way of working that divides an agency into smaller teams of people with complementary skills. Think of them as clusters that might contain a designer, coder, copywriter, marketer, project manager, and so on, but it leaves out the executives to continue strategizing the bigger picture for the agency. This helps streamline workflows and ensures alignment with client goals and needs.

Each team, or pod, is focused on serving a particular client or project from kickoff through launch. The pod becomes the hub for ongoing communication, project maintenance and troubleshooting for that specific project.

How the pod model is different from the traditional model

Traditional agency structures rely on a top-down approach to management. There's the C-suite who provides broad direction, account managers who maintain relationships with clients, and then a team of specialists who execute the work.

Typically, each new project is assigned to an account manager who then doles out tasks to individuals or teams. Hierarchies like these make sense because they define a clear command chain within each department where roles and responsibilities are (ideally) well-defined.

But this structure slices an agency up by department—marketing, design, programming, and so on—separating people with complementary skill sets. This can make it difficult to get projects done quickly, as teams are forced to communicate across departments and wait for tasks to be completed before they can move on.

This top-down approach also means that decision-making is centralized among a few individuals. This can lead to stagnation, as innovative new ideas are hamstrung by the need to get sign-off from those in charge.

Why there’s a need for the pod model

The pod model reduces the friction of a traditional agency business model. Rather than being reliant on a single point of contact, the pod model assigns an entire team to each project. This team is responsible for only a handful of projects which become their focus through the entire project lifecycle.

The pod model helps align agencies with how their customers operate by blending departments and information more holistically.

To execute the project, everyone within the team needs to understand the client's objectives and work from the same source of information. Marketing must talk to design who must talk to development who must talk to the client. A pod structure enables this type of collaboration and communication across departments.

Benefits of a pod-centric agency approach include:

  • They’re more agile. Designed to be nimble and adaptable, each pod focuses on only a few projects which means they can react, respond and pivot quickly.

  • It’s easier to work cross-functionally: Rather than being siloed by department, pods allow for individuals with complementary skill sets to work together, resulting in fewer bottlenecks and streamlined approvals among team members.

  • You can better cater to your clients: Dedicated pods provide better alignment with each customer, allowing them to fully understand their business needs, goals and priorities.

  • They instill a sense of accountability: Pod members are accountable for their projects from start to finish, ensuring that each one meets the high standards set by the agency.

  • They allow you to streamline your workflows: By breaking down silos and increasing communication and collaboration, pods can work more efficiently and get projects done faster.

Who the pod model is (and isn’t) for

The pod model works best for mid-sized to large agencies that have a mix of projects and clients. It can be adapted to small businesses, but may not be necessary unless the company plans to scale quickly.

The model may not work for agencies with few employees or a limited range of services because it can be difficult to staff pods with the necessary skill sets.

How to transition to a pod model

If your agency is currently structured in a traditional way, making the switch to a pod model can seem daunting. Careful planning and execution can encourage a smooth transition.

1. Start with a single pod

When starting out, it’s best to launch a single pod and use it as a sample project. This lets you test the new system, work out any bugs and adjust before rolling it out agency-wide. Begin by creating a test brief for your team that reflects something you’d receive from a real client, then go through the motions of completing this work. Once everyone is comfortable, repeat the process with smaller clients before forming more pods around more involved client projects.

2. Keep executives out of the pods

While executive buy-in is crucial when reconfiguring your agency approach, it’s important to keep executive leadership out of the pods. Management can (and should) provide strategic direction and support, but they shouldn’t be involved in the day-to-day operations of the pods.

So, leave the executives to define the outcomes, not the process. While it’s important that execs set clear objectives for the pods, it's equally important that they leave it up to pod members to figure out how to achieve those objectives. This allows teams to be creative and come up with the best, client-centric solutions for their projects.

3. Create clearly defined roles within each pod

Remember, the pod system is one that is inherently specialized. That means creating clearly defined roles focused on a specific skill set or knowledge area. This ensures that team members no longer wear many hats, allowing them to be experts in their roles.

To that end, ensure that each pod is uniquely equipped to deal with the clients’ expectations. Projects that are in the branding stages may require an extra designer, for instance, and you may want to carefully select who will be in pods centered around long-term clients.

4. Don't make the pod too big

While you want each pod to have a mix of skill sets, you don’t want them to be too large. Pods that are too big run the risk of becoming unwieldy and difficult to manage. As a rule of thumb, keep pods between five and seven people. Focus on the learnings from each pod, figure out what worked (and what didn't) and use this information to scale.

5. Encourage cross-pod collaboration

As you scale, learn how to work across multiple pods. Each pod group should be comfortable working together and sharing information. Repeat the collaboration and learning process with each consecutive pod you create.

The best way to achieve this is to create horizontal communication channels for each type of role to speak with one another. Whether that’s Slack, or weekly Zoom meetings, designers should learn from each other, as should writers and marketers respectively. The pods still function as usual, but each employee now has access to your agency’s pool of knowledge.

Give yourself a long runway

It takes significant time and resources to transition into an entirely new organizational hierarchy, but the effort could be worth it if you’re struggling to scale. Get feedback from your first pod experiment and use it to develop your next iteration.

Naturally, seismic changes to team formations will impact many people, so speak with your staff and clients ahead of announcing a restructure and map out your timeline for transition.


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