9 tips for creating an ironclad marketing agency scope of work

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Most marketing agencies want to do right by their clients, delivering outstanding work on time, and reasonably going above and beyond as needed.

However, any collaboration between agency and client runs the risk of miscommunication and misunderstanding. Expectations between the two parties may differ, and presumptions such as, “I thought you were responsible for that,” or, “I didn’t know about this,” can send a project off course in a hurry — even when your agency enjoys a good relationship with the customer.

That risk underscores the importance of a scope of work, commonly referred to by its SOW acronym, for marketing agencies. At its core, a SOW is a document that covers the working agreement between your agency and the client. It cuts through the legalese of a contract (which is still necessary, of course) to define what deliverables you’ll produce, set deadlines, and also detail expectations and goals for the client.

SOWs are great for building a marketing strategy and eliminating any confusion about a project, because you can go back to the document to show what you’re responsible for and what’s outside your purview. However, creating a SOW may feel daunting because so much is at stake. Any missteps with it and you might be on the hook for more work; anything vague or random can lead to disagreements with the client that can strain the relationship and, unfortunately, diminish the finished product and your reputation (even if you were in the right).

That said, a SOW doesn’t need to be scary; if anything, you should look forward to the parameters it provides so you can plan tactics and get down to business. Here are nine tips for creating a scope of work for your marketing agency and the clients to whom you provide excellent service — which will be even stronger thanks to the document’s existence:


1. Get to know the elements of your marketing agency’s scope of work

The term “scope of work” gets thrown around often in marketing agency discussions, but what exactly is a SOW, and how do you write one?

Basically, a SOW defines everything that should be done on a project, from work details to schedules to terms to even anticipated outcomes. Besides making expectations clear and mutually agreed upon, a SOW protects the agency from the dreaded scope creep, in which features, additions, and nice-to-have deliverables balloon a project from what was originally planned — and originally budgeted.

What elements are essential for an effective scope of work? We’re glad you asked:

  • Project objectives: What is the issue you’re facing, and what do you want to achieve with the project?
  • Schedule and milestones: When does the project start, and when, ideally, should it conclude? Along the way, what are the major milestones and phases that should be met — and how will those benchmarks be measured and their progress tracked?
  • Individual tasks: What, exactly, needs to be done — every step of the way — by whom to advance the project toward and to completion?
  • Deliverables: Whether you are producing website content, a social media campaign, a complete audit of the client’s marketing ecosystem, or anything else that gets your customer closer to their marketing goals, when must deliverables be completed, and how will they be created and presented?
  • Payment information: How much will the project cost, how will payment be received, and how will you pay the team you are working with?
  • Expected outcomes: What results are you and the client hoping to achieve? An increase in traffic? Conversions? Sales? All three? Specifically, what numbers are you looking to hit, and how will you measure and report progress — or a lack thereof?
  • Terms and conditions: What terms and requirements, if not otherwise already detailed in the SOW, should be defined and clarified?


2. Write the SOW early

A new project is undoubtedly exciting, so much so that you may be tempted to start writing a SOW in the early stages of the project’s development. This enthusiasm isn’t misplaced — beginning the SOW as soon as possible is a best practice that leads to a clearer vision for the project, a stronger relationship with the client, and, ultimately, better results. Crafting and refining the scope early lets the SOW evolve as the project does, and any changes to the plan can be made carefully instead of on the fly. Moreover, writing the SOW well in advance can show where the project needs more development before it actually begins.


3. Be brief …

So how do you accomplish all of this while writing a simple scope of work?

Detail on a SOW is important to provide direction and state expectations. Too much detail, however, can slow the project down before it even gets started. A 30-page (or more) SOW will require a potentially inordinate amount of time for the other party to sift through it, line by line. Moreover, a longer document may lead to your client involving legal counsel to review it. Although you never want to discourage due diligence, more exclusions, clauses, and exceptions will translate into more time-consuming concern from the other side.

The key is finding the balance between brevity and necessity. Include everything you need in the scope of work — nothing more, nothing less. Ultimately, this will save time and money by avoiding expensive delays while the finer, possibly unnecessary points are ironed out.


4. … but be specific

Not bogging down your SOW with super-picky details doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be precise. Use specific descriptions of project scope, requirements, and goals as you develop the document. The objectives/purpose, requirements and tasks sections are too important to be left vague or open to interpretation. Precise language helps prevent any misinterpretation after the work begins.

If necessary, include supplementary documents with more specific information (and note them within the SOW), such as a request for proposal, statement of objectives, or performance work statement. In the SOW itself or the attachments, avoid listing options or alternatives because they can leave the door open for confusion and second-guessing later on.


5. Break it into small pieces

Project management systems such as Trello, Asana, and Bonsai help break down complex projects into milestones and deliverables that can be defined in the SOW. This approach makes tracking progress — and demonstrating that progress to the client — easier while protecting the interests of both parties.


6. Define success

A marketing scope of work should elaborate on not only what you’ll do for the client (and what is expected of the client), but also how success will be measured. The objectives/purpose and acceptance criteria sections of the SOW should provide details about the project’s goals and what the end result should ideally look like. This definition can also include any criteria that would deem a project unacceptable (e.g., not following the client’s brand guidelines).

The SOW should also spell out what will happen after the work required of you has been completed. Will the contract be a “walk away” agreement in which your obligations end as soon as the client signs off on the work you’ve delivered? Or will you be expected to provide support maintenance, and for how long and to what extent? Besides defining the scope of any post-project work, the SOW should also establish how much you’ll be paid for these additional services.


7. Avoid common mistakes agencies make when writing SOWs

Don’t leave anything open-ended
Not only should a marketing scope of work define what you’ll do for the client, but it should also define what you won’t do. This doesn’t mean you can’t ever take on something minor that’s out of scope — for example, making a small update on a webpage you’re already working on. However, there’s a fine line between simple courtesies and unexpected tasks, which can add up and cut into your productivity and bottom line. If something does arise that isn’t in the SOW, it can be negotiated into the scope, but beware of doing too much for free. Besides all these little tasks adding up, you’re possibly opening the door for the client to expect, even demand, more out-of-scope work from you.

How can your agency avoid this mistake? Make sure you flag any specific needs during your discovery and include any special cases for each client. This is where customizing your SOW to your client’s specific needs is critical.

Don’t get lost in the weeds
A SOW often — and unavoidably — evolves into a complex document, unique to each contract agreement, and varying widely because of the marketing strategy, type of deliverables needed, project duration, client’s industry, and payment model that will be used.

How can your agency avoid this mistake? All parties will need to quickly read and reference the SOW, so the simpler the language is, the easier it will be to use and benefit from. Cut the fluff and make the SOW something you can refer to regularly and easily.


8. Don’t pretend to know everything

If your new client is in an industry you don’t have much experience with, don’t try winging the SOW — your lack of knowledge may show, and the partnership may get off to a bad start. Or worse yet, you may inadvertently put yourself on the hook for a deliverable or deadline you’ll have no reasonable way of meeting.

Ask for help: Seek out qualified writers and experts who understand the client’s industry and the guidelines and requirements that industry brings to the table. A SOW can use multiple writers — perhaps the project manager, a third-party contractor, or the chief information officer — so don’t hesitate to make the creation of the document a team effort.


9. Use third-party tools and resources for help — and consider scope-of-work templates

Don’t feel like you need to write a SOW from scratch without using any outside software to assist your process. Numerous project management tools are available to not only help you manage the work, but also plan the scope of work. Some of these platforms include:

Tools like FormSwift even have free SOW templates you can use to build out your own best practices based on your specific client situations. Templates from trusted partners are great foundations for getting started or finding ideas to improve your current scope of work. But keep in mind that there may not be a one-size-fits-all template for all of your clients and projects.

With a marketing scope of work in place, agencies are better poised to take advantage of every sales tool and strategy at their disposal — including leads generated from phone calls. Watch our free webinar on tracking calls and earning better results for clients to learn how to turn leads into more than just numbers in a SOW.

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