Missed Project Deadlines: When is it Worth an Extra Week?

Back in my early days of advertising, I was the “everything” girl at a small agency. Setting up the office, copywriting, managing production, and client services all fell into my court.

I eventually brought in new business. My first client was a social acquaintance that managed a “fancy” restaurant in Hong Kong, and I’d somehow convinced him he needed to do some print advertising. Not bad for a 20-year-old rookie.

So, off we went. I introduced him to our agency owner and creative director, and we kicked-off the project. We set expectations and a schedule, shook hands, and looked forward to producing some fine work.

Difficult conversations

What happened next mortified me. The team realized they needed more time to nail down the creative. They said we could probably produce something that was clever and good looking in that time, but it would be impossible to meet the deadline with solid work that spoke to the target market and addressed the client’s goals — making it likely our first and last project together.

Although there had been no specific business imperative driving our schedule (like a product launch or media buy), pushing the deadline seemed completely unacceptable to me. In my mind, we’d committed to a date that worked for the client and we needed to honor it.

I scoured my brain for any other option that wasn’t “more time,” but there was no getting around it. My team was convinced this was the right approach to take and it was now my job to explain that to my friend/client. Needless to say, he was not happy with the news. I felt like a failure, but had to trust the senior person on our team.

We worked diligently during that painful extra week to refine and articulate the campaign — a campaign that fully addressed the audience, the goals and stood out from all the noise in Hong Kong. When we finally presented our ideas, we knocked it out of the park. Our client was so thrilled, he couldn’t wait to buy the media and get it out there. The campaign was a huge success and the client became a long-term customer.

I was proud of the work we presented, the fantastic results we achieved, and amazed at how the stress of the additional week seemed to vanish in the wake of the business results the client gained from such spot-on creative.

Lessons learned

I had been so fixated on a missed arbitrary deadline, that I neglected to consider the greater good. In this situation, mediocre work presented on time would have gone over like a lead balloon. It would have been a lose-lose situation, and an overall waste of everyone’s time and money.

I learned that sometimes you have to choose the difficult conversation of a missed deadline to ensure you deliver appropriate, impactful work. This is certainly not license to treat deadlines lightly, but sometimes pushing them is in the client’s best interest.

Deadlines are arbitrary, but important

Most deadlines are arbitrary, but they are still critical tools. There’s always the temptation to tweak the copy or a shift a pixel one more time; deadlines drive us to final decisions and action. We need to think of deadlines as inflexible or risk chaos and/or lethargy.

Sometimes, though, we need to take a step back and look at the reasons driving a given deadline. Ultimately, our work is intended to produce specific business outcomes. So, that’s the ball we need to keep our eye on. Sometimes that means pushing forward with slightly rushed creative and sometimes it means pushing back an arbitrary deadline.

In cases where it is clearly the best decision to put more time into the project, approaching your client and having that hard conversation right away is imperative. Be honest and explain the challenges you’re up against. They won’t love what they hear, but they may understand when it’s in their best interest to wait.

How to miss a project deadline without losing your client’s trust:

  • Notify the client ASAP — tell them what you’re up against and make it clear exactly how the project will benefit from more time. Discuss the overall business impacts (if any) to pushing the deadline.
  • Be prepared to keep the original deadline. There may be a business driver that you’re not aware of.
  • Be concise, clear, and confident.
  • Never push a deadline if the outcome won’t be dramatically better. Decent work on time is one thing, but decent work a week later is a totally different story — and not a good one.
  • Don’t make a habit of extending deadlines, and only do so when there is an overwhelming business reason.

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