Every morning, advertising professionals around the globe fire up their mobile phones and computers to start their day. But instead of going straight to e-mail, the people of adland are increasingly turning first to chat and project-management tools that promise to manage their information flow in a more structured and efficient way.
What’s changed? More than 25 years into its public lifespan, e-mail has become to some an unwelcome intrusion and problem to solve. It is often too blunt an instrument for identifying which messages and people to prioritize. The search function on most e-mail platforms is unrefined and the sheer weight of messages — from friendly reminders to newsletters to "urgent" inquiries to spam and everything in between — has simply become overwhelming.
With the new suite of messaging tools, users can scan through hundreds or even thousands of messages in significantly less time and see more clearly which actually require a response. And with messages tied directly to projects and documents, users avoid the pain of having to switch back and forth between e-mail and actual work.
"It has solved a lot of pain points — like file sharing — which should not be a pain in the ass in 2015," says Will Zweigart, a senior program director at 5Loom, an interactive shop that is onboarding all employees to Slack. "Also, I travel a lot. If I’m at the airport and I have 10 minutes, it’s much easier for me to check Slack" than e-mail.
Managing information flow for organizations of all sizes has become big business. Slack, the presumed market leader — at least in terms of buzz — is only two years old but already a multibillion-dollar-valued "unicorn." The business software company Atlassian acquired the messaging service HipChat two years after its 2010 launch and has recently bought its competitor Hall. And don’t forget Yammer, the original "Twitter for internal communications," which Microsoft acquired in 2012 for $1.2 billion. In addition, new companies such as Workamajig, WorkBook, and Clients & Profits are all focused on serving the creative marketing community.
Add to that the broader chat and communications tools Unison, Pie, Kato, Flowdock, Glip and Honey; to-do apps that can be shared by teams such as Wunderlist, Asana, Any.do and Teamwork.com; and project-management apps such as Jira and Basecamp, and there are plenty of options for forward-thinking organizations to improve their information flow.
The emergence of these platforms speaks both to a greater dedication to efficiency and connecting remote offices in a way that feels more instantaneous. At the creative agency The Barbarian Group, some teams are using Slack for "non-essential, ambient communication," according to Colin Nagy, Barbarian executive director, media and distribution.
"We realized everyone’s inbox looked like a nightmare, so we use it as a safe repository for link-sharing, such as whenever someone finds an interesting piece of data."
PHD’s Singapore office has started using Pie for a similar function. The agency likes to share important news and trend stories with clients through periodic newsletters. But the process for identifying and flagging those stories internally was unstructured and decentralized.
"What if we are able to find a secure platform that allowed the whole agency to contribute and also in turn view everyone’s contributions?" asked Penelope Siraj, an associate director at PHD Singapore. "Would that not only be more efficient but also provide a greater depth of content that teams and individuals in PHD can benefit from to keep current, use as research, post opinions and share with clients?" That solution was Pie.
The office will share what it learns with the wider PHD network to see if it makes sense for a larger rollout.
Glip, a productivity platform with messaging, task-management and videoconferencing capabilities, is the key communications tool for the Florida-based digital marketing agency Simply180. "We were looking for a new platform in order to invite clients to have a seat at the table," says managing director David Haut.
The integrated marketing agency Huge valued communications tools so much that it incubated a similar one in its Huge Labs. Dubbed Honey, the product is now used by Capital One, Sesame Street and Lowe’s. Sam Weston, vice president of communications at Huge, says the impetus behind Honey was to democratize communications.
"We tried to create a democratic, flat culture," Weston says. "A platform like this is a place where anyone can post anything" and get instantaneous feedback.
All company announcements now flow through Honey, and the most important ones can be pinned to the topic. The service also prioritizes delivery of messages that have the most engagements.
Employees "can ask a question and will get responses from the person responsible," Weston says.
Huge also supports HipChat as a tool across the organization but does not require employees to use it.
"We made a very strong suggestion to be on HipChat, as most employees and many clients are using it," says Brandon Oliver, the IT director at Huge, "but we don’t want to inhibit people from using different platforms."
"A lot of these tools start with people using them on their own," Oliver says, adding that plenty of employees were using Slack before the agency even formally supported it.
Making the world small
The true test of a collaboration tool is how well it connects people working across borders and time zones. For Simply180, that test came when a client’s preferred contractor left the US for Costa Rica. To try to preserve the relationship, Simply180 suggested they all stay in touch via Glip.
The result? The client was impressed by the speed and immediacy of communication on the platform, and the relationship continues. Glip "re-established confidence that the move is not impacting performance or deadlines," Haut says.
Huge, which has offices in 12 cities around the world including Bogotá, London and Singapore, is increasingly using such tools to help teams stay in touch internally and make it easier to partner with global clients.
"We’ve found these tools play a really important role in creating cohesion in teams that work across offices and countries," Weston says. "If you’re working together in person, then it’s easy to grab a drink and talk through a problem or an idea. But HipChat and Slack provide a way to create a powerful kind of informal communication that’s so important and was so hard to do with distributed teams before you could use real-time gifs to get across how you really feel."
One question facing agencies that come to rely on these tools is whether to invite their clients aboard. For some, it seems a natural extension. For others, highly regulated industries or strict IT departments make it difficult even for eager clients to interface with them so freely.
"We don’t have plans to do it for client communications," Barbarian's Nagy says. "We’re paying attention to see if it gets to the level we want to do that."
Simply180, however, has already introduced the service to many clients, some of whom are actively using it.
"Clients are used to text, e-mail, Hangouts, WebEx etc.," Haut says. "The ‘sell’ on our part was that we’re not changing the way we communicate; we’re just consolidating it in one place."
But Haut points out that the core functionality of most of these products is that they can easily pull in e-mail communications, making it easy for agencies to use the tools even if clients don’t ever log in. "The nice thing about Glip is we can manage the inflow regardless of whether a client actively logs on," Haut says.
Of course, this raises the question of whether giving a client an even more direct line to agency staffers could breed bad habits. Julia Page, the vice president of program management at Huge, says these real-time platforms are just like any tool, and education is always key.
"The same client that is going to overcommunicate on chat would do the same on the phone," Page says. As always, it’s about "setting expectations about communications."
In this case, the response to a non-pressing matter via chat would mirror an e-mail or phone response; simply: "I’m going to get back to you soon."
The goal at Huge is to be platform-agnostic, so employees can easily tailor their communications to specific clients. "E-mail’s never going to die," Page says, "but clients are looking to us to help them find and use the right platforms."
Tools such as Slack were never meant to make e-mail obsolete. Which is good because old habits — even the ones we all love to complain about — die hard. "Asking someone to move away from something they have been doing for 20 years is hard," Haut says.
But such tools do significantly ease inbox overcrowding, users claim, making it easier for employees to find and focus on the most important e-mail messages. "It has freed up our respective inboxes in a pretty good way for mission-critical stuff and client communications," Nagy says.
Zweigart agrees. "It has led to 30-40% less e-mail," he says. "Now people get angry when e-mail chains become too long. Someone will say: ‘Come on, guys, take this to Slack.’ "
That said, all communication tools have their challenges. Employees can easily assume someone closely read a Slack message that, in fact, was only skimmed. And the pings and beeps from some of the more popular tools can drive co-workers crazy, particularly in offices marked by communal desks and collaborative spaces.
But communication technology isn’t known for moving backwards. For teams already committed to using these tools, their drawbacks are assumed to be bumps in the road. Zweigart says, "My assumption is that, if there is a pain point, it will eventually be solved through technology."