We’re all familiar with them—dreaded assignments needed “asap”, by EOD (end of day), that clients feel deserve top priority because “it’s for VP So and So”. Or, requests that are a “light lift” and “should only take someone 15 minutes” to complete. But it’s also worth asking…

What, exactly, is a rush project?

Arguably, a rush project could be defined as one that requires shortening a standard project timing. Perhaps, delivering initial concepts quickly to align with a reviewer’s schedule. Or shortening the planned duration of a project to meet market opportunities. Whatever the reason, they crunch what your team has determined to be standard practice for healthy creative development.

Or, we could identify “rush requests” as those requiring us to shuffle already-assigned resources. Everyone on our creative team has a queue of work extending 2-3 days out. When a client says, “I need it now”, we know that someone’s work needs to shift to accommodate. It’d be a different scenario if creatives were simply hanging around playing ping-pong.

Having trouble managing time for rush requests?

Good, fast and cheap — you can have all three.

The common adage asks clients to pick just two from “good, fast and cheap”. In reality, they get a bit of all three — but it’s a balance. And, as they’re interconnected, adjusting one for the others comes with tradeoffs.

To illustrate — despite the pressure to deliver things quickly, nobody wants bad work. But sometimes, there’s “good enough”. Our team was recently asked to deliver concepts for a quarter page ad for an event program in two days. Definitely outside our comfort zone, but we had an appreciative client-partner who understood that getting something was better than perfection.

What might seem like an unreasonable fast turnaround for a tier 1 project may be plenty of time for a smaller, tier 3 effort. Or a challenging rush job for your group could be no sweat for a 100-person team with plenty of excess bandwidth. Your ability to handle rush requests is dependent on quality expectations and resources. 

What rush requests do is throw off the typical balance of what (and how) your team delivers work. Clients signal (intentionally or not) that they want SPEED to be a greater part of the mix. It’s like trying to optimize an equation with three interdependent variables to achieve a maximum overall outcome.

How can we respond?

On one side of the spectrum, there’s work that simply can’t be done in the amount of time requested, given existing resources or quality expectations. That’s a clear NO, though one that needs to be handled in as a client-friendly manner as possible. On the other side, the work can be done comfortably within the time requested. You have capacity and appropriate resources.

It’s the middle that feels uncomfortable — situations where you can do the work, but where your typical balance of good/fast/cheap is thrown off kilter. It likely requires shuffling other work around; asking a creative to drop what they’re doing and “jump on this other thing”. That’s a more difficult YES because there’s going to be some negative impact to the team, the process or the project.

What makes it so uncomfortable and the need to be managed?

Loss of control. As a creative, project or account manager, you have a plan for your day. Rush requests interrupt this, leading to frustration. Emotionally, people want to feel like they’re in control making progress toward goals. Too much of a feeling of loss of control can erode job satisfaction and lead to disengagement or attrition.

Pride in your work. Good creative takes time to develop — from considering options, bouncing ideas off colleagues, internal reviews. And everyone wants to feel proud of what they work on. Rushing the creative process may rob people of passion and from doing their best work.

Pressure of a tight deadline. Independent of how long it takes to complete an assignment, few like the added pressure of working under a ticking timer. That alone adds stress to any assignment that may not have otherwise existed.

It’s a team effort. Assignments are rarely as easy as “tossing to someone to work on”. There’s time spent figuring out who can do the work, matching skills and availability, briefing the task, shuffling other projects. One recent request to our team involved coordinating six people’s effort in the span of two days — from Account Manager to Project Manager, Designer, Copywriter, Creative Director, and Proofing.

It feels one-sided. How many times have you rushed to help someone out, and then waited to hear back? It’s nothing but crickets as you’re left wondering whether it was so urgent after all. Rush projects should feel like a partnership — that all stakeholders are in it together fighting the common enemy of time. 

It could’ve been avoided. It can be frustrating to work on a rush project that seemingly could have been planned for plenty in advance — the recurring holiday promotion, a trade show that was booked months in advance. What feels like a failure of planning from others becomes a rush for you.

Choosing between clients. We love all our children equally, right? When rush requests come in without context, it puts the creative team in the awkward position of having to make (and defend) business decisions about where to assign resources. Problem is, we have four other people saying the exact same thing.

A positive path forward or how can we minimize the pain?

Given that we all end up in this middle, uncomfortable place, there are some best practices that may help us move towards the edges — YES or NO. Or, simply ease the pain.

Establish a prioritization/escalation mechanism. The goal is to get the creative team out of deciding on priorities across clients. For example, our team will escalate “uncomfortable” requests first to the Studio Director and Sr Director of Marketing Ops, then to the VP level. Some criteria that might aid evaluation are who’s requesting the work, impact, and value to the company. You’d be surprised how often senior leaders aren’t aware their name is being tossed around as validation for rush work.

Stick to process. There’s a tendency when things get crazy to skirt the process—skipping forms, emailing for quick favors, bypassing internal reviews. But to an efficient operation, it often causes more confusion (and lost time) to do things differently. Instead, look for ways to catalyze existing processes rather than sidestep it. For example, we ask clients to submit rush requests as usual, through our project management tool, but then alert our Account Managers directly so we can put eyes on it sooner than our regular daily traffic meeting.

Adjust the assignment. There’s nothing to say that you can’t negotiate assignments. Look for alternatives — “I can’t get you everything you’re asking for in the time desired, but we can get you X in that time, or Y with a little longer time” and let them make the choice. This tactic often helps your team avoid a hard NO.

Examine your process. Do you need a separate track or dedicated team to deal with recurring rush requests? Can you identify from whom the rush requests most often come? Are there handoff points where projects transition from creative exploration to rapid production? One way to mitigate the pain of losing control over the day is to set up someone’s role with the expectation that their job is to NOT have control. Like triage in an ER — rarely do they know what to expect that day and their job is to handle surprises quickly.

Ask questions. Sometimes understanding why it’s urgent takes the sting out of delivering. Clients who seemingly can’t plan properly could be in just the same situation as us — having work dropped in their laps last-minute. Or, think about things we can do to help them be more proactive in their requests. Communication will help the team feel like we’re in this together.

Examine the WHOLE schedule. Too often we get asked to deliver drafts quickly, but without examination of the overall project schedule. It’s simply “we need the next round turned fast”. But taking a moment to pause and see the big picture helps everyone stay focused on the shared goal. See where accommodations could be made from all stakeholders to meet the shared end goal.

Maintain flexible staffing. Are you able to scale up/down quickly to accommodate unexpected requests? Often, we find it necessary to tap our experienced, core team for quick turn work. But having freelancers to backfill the regular team helps, whether to keep other work moving or to help avoid burnout.

Establish SLAs. Getting work done in 3 days is great for someone expecting it in a week, but not if they want it tomorrow. Consider implementing turn time SLAs (service level agreements) to align delivery expectations — responding to requests, delivering a first drafts, returning edits. If it’s widely supported that your team will return work in 2 days, then it’s easier to negotiate when someone asks for it in one.

Make data-driven decisions. How are you currently performing on rush requests? Our Studio recently did a deep dive into turn times, using Workfront and custom-tagged project templates to enable reporting on turn times, review times and project durations. Understanding our current capabilities is helping us make informed decisions on how to respond to future rush requests and validate our ability to turn projects quickly.

Push back when appropriate. Ultimately, you sometimes need to say no —if only for the sake of your team, to avoid burnout. Or, when solving the puzzle of resources, timing and cost takes so much effort in and of itself, that it greatly outweighs the value of the assignment.

What kind of in-house agency do you want to be?

If you’ve read this far looking for a magic solution, I’m sorry to disappoint —there isn’t one. How your team responds to rush requests isn’t a one-size-fit all type of problem. Rather it requires close examination of your team, the needs of internal clients and the willingness of your company to invest in resources that will allow for a certain level of service. 

It’s also an invitation to examine your own unique pain points and ask questions about how you want to be positioned in serving clients. Are you aiming for optimized delivery of tier 2/3 work? Or a full-service center of excellence with award winning campaigns? Or, perhaps a little of both. In any case, managing time for rush requests is a nuanced balancing act that requires a variety of tactics all with the goal of keeping clients happy while ensuring your team is cared for and that projects are successfully completed.