Project management for a digital agency is easily 100x more challenging than for a single business.
For a single business, standalone project management tools like Trello or Asana make a ton of sense. You can build boards for each team or function, and use them for years.
But when you’re running a digital agency, the job to be done is always changing: new clients are onboarded, old projects wrap up, and your strategies evolve.
If you’re careful, Google Sheets can perfectly match this fluidity, and be a glorious project management tool.
If you’re not careful, you’ll end up with a steaming network of unused and unloved Sheets clogging up your Drive folders.
Let’s see how one agency took door #1.
A project management automation story
About 2 years ago, one digital agency owner - Ryan Stewart of WEBRIS - saw how Google Sheets was a perfect match for agency project management.
They had an entire suite of templates built to run their SEO efforts - templates for project management, content creation, outreach campaigns, and client reporting.
Note: At the bottom of the post you’ll be able to grab Ryan’s free SEO project management template from the Vault - or you can grab his whole project management suite + training course.
Over the last couple years, we helped them automate it into a fully-connected platform.
It wasn’t easy or simple - we built Sheets just to trash them a week later, and went through dozens of iterations on the templates.
But at the end of the day, we landed on four simple rules for project management in Sheets:
1. One Sheet cannot do it all.
It’s tempting to build one master project management Sheet, that has *all* your data packed into it.
That Sheet inevitably ends up like a junk drawer - a wasteland where tasks and projects go to be forever ignored.
Instead, you can design a suite of Sheets, that each perform one specific job.
For WEBRIS’s SEO project management suite, we split Sheets into their separate functions:
The tracking hub *only* tracks progress on tasks across the agency.
The content calendar *only* manages the team’s editorial schedule.
Each client has their own separate reporting Sheet.
This makes it easy to onboard new team members, since they only have to learn to use the Sheets that are directly relevant to their work.
2. Ordain one Sheet as your Hub
Though you’ll need a village of Sheets, only one can be mayor.
This is critical for two reasons:
To keep data clean
You’ll need one master Sheet to hold on to all of your settings - important agency-level info like your list of clients.
Using the importrange function, you can then push those options out to all of the other Sheets in your project management suite.
This let’s you do critical stuff like populating consistent dropdown menus everywhere - keeping your data nice and clean.
For ease of reporting
Looking at agency-wide stats requires pulling all your data together *somewhere*.
Say you have 2 Sheets for separate workflows - content production and outreach, in the case of the WEBRIS project management process.
To automate reporting, you can use that same importrange function to pull data back *into* your hub.
As one example, this ‘Pulse’ tab from the WEBRIS project management hub reports on link building campaign data from a separate workflow Sheet:
3. Always trigger the next step
Any project management process is, er, a process.
Your team’s work is never done in isolation - there’s always a next step, and someone who needs to know about it.
Within Sheets, this often means populating a different tab on certain triggers - like when an article or deliverable is ready for review by an editor.
Google Apps script can be used to build out these triggers (called onEdit triggers) - and we used them heavily in the WEBRIS SEO project management suite.
Note: In the Vault at the bottom of the post, there’s a starter template to fire up triggers in your own Sheets.
4. Don’t be afraid to go beyond the spreadsheet
You might think that you can build the perfect, beautifully-automated project management suite for your agency.
There’s no such thing.
Even WEBRIS, who worked for years to perfect their approach, still leans on work that happens outside of Sheets.
This might mean doing keyword research manually, by digging into reports from Ahrefs or SEMrush.
Not every process that *can* be automated, *must* be automated by Sheets.
Dive in for yourself
Following these guidelines - with each Sheet doing a specific job, one acting as a hub, and all of them talking to each other - your Sheets won’t strain to keep up as your agency grows.
And I promise you can pick up these concepts and run with them - we’ve seen SEO and PPC agencies in particular crank up their productivity with this project management approach.