Traffic departments, like endangered species, only hit the headlines when they are facing extinction. Only then, it seems, is their invisible but nonetheless crucial role in an agency's ecosystem appreciated. "We are the backroom boys, so we often get forgotten," Olga Budimir, the director of operations at Burkitt DDB, says. "The more things run smoothly, the more you get forgotten and people assume they can do without us."
When, back in August, Euro RSCG's then chairman, Ben Langdon, decided the agency could do without a traffic department, Budimir was one of many industry figures to jump to traffic's defence. She now heads a new creative-services committee at the IPA to champion the department, which she believes is still the lynchpin in an agency's workflow, despite the fast pace of technological change.
"The closure of Euro's traffic department did focus us to ask what we could do to stop this happening," Budimir says. She believes more industry recognition and better training are the way to safeguard traffic's future.
In Budimir's view, good software can improve a traffic department's functions but, she adds, you can't underestimate the human factor. "Controlling the workflow is never going to be taken over by technology. Creatives respond better to people than to a menu of things they have to do popping up on their computer screens."
It's a view shared by Andy Gosling, the director of creative services at Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, who sees the traffic department as a necessary buffer for the creatives. "We are labelled 'creative services' and that's our first function - to support the creatives, shield them and get good ideas through in an ever-smaller time frame," he says. "But, departmentally, traffic is not at the top of everyone's list."
Prominent or not, traffic, Gosling believes, remains stable while technology has revolutionised print production and advertising. "The role of trafficking in its raw state has never fundamentally changed," he maintains. "Day-to-day trafficking is all about people and communication."
This function could become even more crucial as working practices change.
"Agencies are going to be more disparate, with more people freelancing and working from home," Andy Smith, the head of creative services at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, says. "Technology will be the thread that joins it all together and someone needs to manage that." This will be on top of traffic's current brief to "police, coerce people and talk to clients".
AMV is the first agency in London to bring Soho-standard post-production facilities in-house. Its new Digital Lab is based around a 30 terra-byte SAN which allows 12 high definition workstations to edit shared media simultaneously. It also has the capability to proxy off-line versions to operators worldwide.
Far from pushing traffic to the brink of extinction, technology has helped to clarify just what the department does. "Technology has made it more transparent," Smith, who relies mainly on the electronic job-bag system Consol, says.
Over at DDB, the head of creative services, Gary Whipps, can see the value of bringing in more software to control workflow. The agency is currently looking for a new system to manage all its home-built systems.
"When you are responsible for big projects, you need a different animal to run it," he says. "The old systems were too slow. You still need human interaction but it needs to be more linear."
While Mother would agree about the need for human interaction, the agency does not have a separate traffic team. "We are not departmentalised," the partner Andy Medd says. "We have three client-facing disciplines - strategy, creative and 'mothers', who are responsible for the more-traditional creative activities, such as art buying and production."
Medd maintains that this flat structure simplifies rather than scatters work within the agency. "We do it all in one framework rather than in a series of frameworks," he says. "It makes it more visible to the client in one timeline and we like to vary people we work with so that we can apply their skills where they are needed."
Medd believes other agencies will eventually go the same way but with some resistance. "The discipline of trafficking is never going to die but the way agencies structure that role is constantly going to change," he says. "If you have a structure, it is very difficult to get rid of. There is no half-way structure. You can't be half-pregnant. You have to restructure entirely or live with an evolutionary dead-end."
Whipps doesn't see the closure of Euro's traffic department as the first of many more across the industry. "If you are using traffic people as glorified internal messengers, then you could do that with technology," he says. "But if you have a good traffic department, you can't live without it. Agencies will get rid of their traffic departments at their peril."
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A PROJECT MANAGER
Kevin Noble Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO
6.45am Wake up next to a beautiful TV producer from the agency.
8.45am Come out of the Tube. Mobile rings; first messages of the day. Grab some breakfast while calling people back.
9.00am Arrive at desk. Go through new Post-It messages on desk and eventually find keyboard. Log on and check my e-mail and creative workload, pick up voicemails, eat breakfast.
9.30am Send new script from creatives through to TV producer for voiceover for research edit.
9.45am See three new creative briefs approved on system, arrange team briefings and set review dates.
10.00am Go to production meeting for a new campaign with art buyer, designer, TV producer and editor from Digital Lab to discuss end sequence. Decide to shoot elements digitally and build in Shake.
10.50am Take a brief on research stimulus from planning and talk to the studio and art buying for picture search.
11.00am Meet with Digital Lab to discuss scheduling time for research edit. Check progress of graphic ident integration with print retouch in studio.
11.15am Meeting with art director and designer on work for new-business presentation, get account team up to discuss client brand guidelines. Agree logo size!
11.45am Get team into creative review. Discuss and agree routes, sort next action and agree timings.
12.30pm Back to desk, go through Post-It messages and find computer again. Return calls, have a coffee and check e-mail. Input media schedule on to system and order artworks from studio. Say "hello" to the rest of department.
1.30pm Pop over the road for a sandwich. Mobile rings; next creative review brought forward. Come back and eat lunch in meeting.
2.30pm Review ends; arrange diaries for next meeting and head back to desk. Check and update status, return calls.
2.45pm Go to finishing suite to check progress of research edit and check quality of stills in live-action edit.
3.15pm Client meeting to discuss timings and estimate breakdown with cost consultant. Back to desk and confirm estimate approval online.
4.00pm See retouching with art director, check on hi-res files against scatter test, approve and send to repro.
4.30pm Meeting in finishing suite to agree metadata and send directly to Adstream as an uncompressed file.
4.45pm Grab large coffee to take to cost-reconciliation meeting with finance.
5.30pm Meet with art buyer, producer and art director in finishing suite to brief storyboard frames for animatic.
6.00pm Check e-mails, update creative status, check voicemails and return calls. Check diary for tomorrow and confirm meetings with teams.
6.30pm Leave to go home. See beautiful TV producer in agency bar, decide to have a drink and take her home with me. Luckily, we're married.