Sally Shaugnessy ADT podcast cover
Episode: 49

Sally Shaughnessy - Integrating agency and client teams

Posted on: 20 Jan 2022
Sally Shaugnessy ADT podcast cover

Sally Shaughnessy is the Vice President of Client Services at the Denver-based digital consultancy Aten Design Group.

Aten has over 20 years of experience working with notable clients from a variety of sectors, and in this episode, Sally shares some of the key lessons and resulting best practices for managing joint projects.

We take a look at how to find the right clients and/or agency partners,  how to form stronger long-lasting partnerships, how to manage the stakeholders of joint projects, and other elements of a successful client-agency partnership.


Links & mentions:


“When you think about a large scale project, you have to go through the five D’s of workflow, right? We need to Discover what we're doing, Define our proposals, Design the solution, Develop and build the solution, and Deliver it. So, Discover, Define, Design, Develop, Deliver. Those are the five D’s.” 

Welcome to the Agile Digital Transformation Podcast where we explore different aspects of digital transformation and digital experience with your host, Tim Butara, Content and Community Manager at Agiledrop.

Tim Butara: Hello, everyone. Thank you for tuning in. Our guest today is Sally Shaughnessy, Vice President of Client Services at Aten Design Group. They're a digital agency from Denver, Colorado with over 20 years of experience in providing advanced digital solutions for their impactful clients. Today we'll be talking about how to properly integrate an agency and client team and how to then successfully manage the joint project and nurture this partnership. Welcome, Sally. Thank you for joining us today. It's great to have you. Do you want to add anything to my introduction of Aten maybe? 

Sally Shaughnessy: Thank you, Tim. I'm so happy to be here today. I really appreciate the invitation. We love your podcast and so thank you for including Aten in it. Aten is a wonderful organization. We've been around for over 20 years now, which is great. We are headquartered in Denver, but we have partners all over the country and some internationally. We really love working in open source technologies, but we're not limited to that, like Drupal and WordPress. We also love working with mission-driven organizations, mostly public sector, nonprofit, Higher Ed, but we're not limited to that either. We really love working with anybody who has an interesting problem to solve. 

Tim Butara: That's a great add on to my intro. Thanks, Sally. And it's really great to have somebody here who's a fan of the podcast. I think it makes for an even more interesting conversation. So off to a great start already. First question, maybe let's start with this. How should companies even approach finding the right agency to partner with? And maybe on the other hand, how do you at Aten search for clients to partner with?

Sally Shaughnessy: Sure. This is a really important question when you think about what is going on in an organization, when they realize that they need to solicit help from an agency, from a vendor partner, they have probably experienced a lot of either challenges with their digital properties, they've gotten complaints, or they just know that the technology is outdated and they're trying to be good stewards and moving things forward. 

So normally when Aten is engaged with a client, if it's in an RFP process or even a casual conversation, we may feel like this is the first time we're hearing about the project. But we have to understand that these partners have been thinking about this for weeks, months, maybe even years leading up to engaging a partner. We worked with the city of Raleigh and the website redesign was a part of a multi year campaign to rebrand the city. 

And so when Aten was brought in, it was three years, I believe, into the project already. So we were coming in Midstream, even though it felt brand new to us. But the team at Raleigh was well, well versed and already in the throes of this major initiative, and we were just one part of it. 

So when clients bring their projects to us, it's really important not only for partners to find the right fit in terms of skills and capabilities. Aten provides strategy, user research, UX design and development. And so it's really important for clients to find not only the right capability fit, but also to do the due diligence to make sure that the team, that the humans you're going to be interacting with for the project are people you really want to work with. Sometimes these projects only take a few months, but sometimes they can take over a year to relaunch a website. And so you really want to make sure that not only is the team qualified to execute the work, but that you're going to enjoy the process with them. 

My partner and colleague Joe Crespo likes to use a tour bus, like a musical band analogy, that when you're searching for a new band mate, you don't only want to find somebody who can play the bass really well, but you want to find somebody that you don't mind being stuck in a bus with for a few months. 

And that same theory applies to finding the right agency. You want to find somebody who's going to get the work done well, but that you're going to have a good time doing it with. And so spend the time to ask how the teams will collaborate, what tools will they use? Can you meet the people that you'll be working with and make sure that you gel or that it's easy to communicate, that you're understanding each other? 

I'm really confident about my skills, and I think I'm a really great person, but I think I'm self aware to know that maybe I'm not for everyone. And so we have a great PM team and a great development team. So you want to match the right personalities to make sure that you're setting the project up for success. And so trying to suss that out in the sales process is really important.

And so as much as the clients are interviewing us, Aten is also interviewing the clients. We want to know, how invested are these clients? How engaged are they going to be? We're a really highly collaborative agency, and we can only be successful if we have partners that are shoulder to shoulder with us in this project. 

And so we want to try to surface in that partnership process. Are they going to participate in the process? Are they going to be there shoulder to shoulder with us? That makes for a great partnership. I don't necessarily need to have a client dedicated 100% to this project. But we do want to make sure that we're on the same page. We're setting the right vision that we can all subscribe to, and that will make for a really good partnership. 

Tim Butara: I absolutely love that band analogy. Enjoying the process. And it's something so basic, actually. Even if it didn't take a year, even if the project only took a few months, you would not only want to enjoy the process, but the outcome would be so much better if it resulted out of people collaborating and enjoying the collaboration, not just doing it for the sake of it, right? 

Sally Shaughnessy: Absolutely. I mean, if you go to, you'll find all sorts of credentials for Aten. We are a wildly talented group of strategists, designers and developers. We have really great design and development shops, and we know that we get praise from our clients and compliments from our clients on the quality of our work all the time. But some of the highest praise that we've gotten has been around our collaboration and how we approach our partnerships. 

And so Zach Chandler from Stanford University has given us a quote that says that, you know what? Aten is an excellent partner, but above all, they're good humans. And I think that that's really important for clients to understand that their vendor partner is not just a vendor. They are partners. We share in the same vision. We want to be good humans. We're all on the same page, and we're all working toward the same goals. 

And so I personally, as a project manager, as somebody who values stakeholder relationship and managing team dynamics, that compliment, where Zack Chandler said, Aten is made up of good humans, that's what I go to bed at night saying, you know what? He's right. This is a great team. Not only because we're skillful, but because we're empathetic, because we're transparent, because we're trustworthy, because we like to work with in-house devs, because we can demystify complex concepts. Those are all really important things to me and to Aten and should be important to a vendor looking for– a client, looking for a vendor partnership. 

Tim Butara: So these are actually the types of maybe not even skills, but characteristics, right. The types of these kind of very human-oriented characteristics that are actually essential and kind of a prerequisite to longer lasting, deeper relationships between clients and agencies. 

Sally Shaughnessy: Absolutely. I think that the most successful partnerships are born out of a shared vision, out of shared clarity and goals and trust. And so that's what we strive for at Aten, and we do our best to get 100%. But obviously, clients and projects and groups are all different, and we've had experience managing all different types of teams and large ones and small ones and engaged ones and disengaged ones, and we adapt our process for that. But that is the ideal. The ideal is a true partnership, a shoulder to shoulder, one team, one dream mentality. 

Tim Butara: Nice. Sounds great. And what are the best practices for onboarding and managing these joint teams? Maybe we mentioned before that there's a lot of focus on the people. So maybe we should also take a look at this difference between the people challenges and the technology challenges. 

Sally Shaughnessy: Absolutely. So when we onboard new clients and new teams, Aten has gotten more thoughtful about this over the last few years. And in my tenure with Aten, the project management team and the sales team have worked on a multi step project initiation process. So for the sales and procurement process, it's mostly been our sales team interfacing with these new teams, these new partners of ours. But we understand that a major first step is that project kickoff.

What we tried to do is sort of soften the ground between signature on contract and the project kickoff. And what we mean by that is as soon as a new project comes in, the director of sales and myself, we will have a one-on-one conversation so that they can pass the baton to me and say, this is your new project. This is what I know about it. Here's your stakeholder group, and let's start to get the next steps rolling. 

Then we do an interim, what we call a pre-kickoff. And this has proven to be really successful. It's now for the sales team and the project manager on the project to meet the project champion at the client side, on the client team. When you have a project kick off, it can be really well attended. There may be a big audience. 

And so what we try to do is take a step back and have a one-on-one conversation between the project champion and Aten just to say, we recognize that you have signed a contract. It may be a few weeks before we can get all of our tools set up and all of the kickoff meetings on the calendar and find the right time. We're working really actively right now to understand your project and to get to know your properties so that we can kick off the project and get a quick start. 

But this is an opportunity for me to initially develop a relationship with a project champion on that side and to really have a formal passing of the baton from the sales team to the production team. This has proven to be really helpful because we also are able to use that moment to collect artifacts, to collect brand guidelines or any sort of research that the client teams have already done to gain access to the backend code bases to make a quick start so that the kickoff meeting is actually more valuable than just saying, hello, we're your new partner. Here's what we're going to do.

We've already spent weeks getting to know your site so we can say, hey, everybody, we're really excited about this project we've already dug into everything. Now we just need to know who you all are. What's your role in the project? How are we going to collaborate? Now that we're out of the legalese and the dry language of a contract, let's hear in your own words why this project is important to you. 

Again, it's grounding ourselves in that shared vision right from the get-go and making sure that we are softly and reasonably introducing ourselves incrementally so that the development of our relationship can take shape naturally. And so that's really important to us. So when we onboard people, we do it in stages. Project champion to project manager is step one. 

Step two is a kickoff where we understand who are the decision makers, who are the primary stakeholders, who are the secondary stakeholders? What is our shared vision for the project? Making sure that everybody's aware of the collaborative tools that we'll be using to make sure that we break down walls. Aten has a great practice of putting subject matter experts face to face with people who have questions. Other agencies will keep developers and strategists behind a wall and funnel all of the requests and questions through an account person or project manager. Aten doesn't do that. 

So when we onboard teams, we make them very aware very quickly that if they have a question, I may not be the right person for that question, but I'm not going to slow you down. If you know you have a development question, feel free to talk directly to the developer. If you have a question about discovery or research, talk to the researcher. And that's a differentiator for Aten. But again, it helps us onboard teams. It helps us develop the collaboration that we really want to be successful.

Tim Butara: And I assume what we discussed just now was mostly focused on full projects or full project redesigns. What about retainers and support clients? I'm assuming that there are different things to keep in mind there.

Sally Shaughnessy: Right. Well, in theory, the workflow process for an agency doesn't change for a retainer. When you think about a large scale project, you have to go through the five Ds of workflow, right? We need to discover what we're doing, define our proposals, design the solution, develop and build the solution, and deliver it. So discover, define, design, develop, deliver. Those are the five Ds.

We're doing that at scale for a full service project, but on retainers and support, we're still doing the same thing. It just happens on a single ticket, right? So a client says, hey, there's a bug on my site, can you fix it? We need to discover and debug what that is. We need to define how to fix it. We may need design if it's a strategic enhancement or whatnot, and then we develop and we deliver it. 

So the scale of our workflow process and the scale of our engagement is still the same. It's just a different scale, it's a micro versus macro problem. And so our customer service and our level of engagement is still the same. The experience is consistent. It's just a matter of doing it in maybe a few hours or a few days as opposed to a few months. 

Tim Butara: It really is this approach, and I love it, of micro versus macro, taking the same approach. That's actually true scalability that also enables you, if you take the same elementary approach to something in both cases, I can see how that's definitely the best practice.

Sally Shaughnessy: Absolutely. And we still have a kickoff process with a consulting client. We still have that pre kickoff, we still have the handoff from sales, and we still really need to have an introduction, a live conversation, so that we can develop that relationship with our retainer partners, introduce them to the Aten processes, set up those collaborative tools, and create all of those pathways for us to develop that partnership. And then after the kickoff, that micro versus macro process takes shape. And so it looks a little different. 

It may be that we sprint, it may be that we develop that cadence of sprint planning and sprint demos and retrospectives. Or it may just be that we are ad hoc, but they're still trusting us to make sure that their site is on the latest version, or that we're staying on top of security patches or module explorations and things like that. So how we deliver the services, it may change in terms of activity or frequency, but how we approach their problems when we are engaging is the same. 

Tim Butara: Nice. I love that consistency. Great. What about, maybe this is quite an interesting topic and an interesting area of discussion here as well. What do you need to consider when you're managing the stakeholders for these joint projects? 

Sally Shaughnessy: Sure, from my perspective, first is just clarity. Stakeholder management is all about understanding who your stakeholders are and what their interest in the project is. So first, you need to plan. You need to identify who your stakeholders are. Are they primary stakeholders and decision makers? Are they secondary stakeholders? Are they tertiary stakeholders? Who are your supporters? Who are your detractors? Who could come in and throw a wrench in your project? And how are you going to manage that? So you need to identify your stakeholders. 

If you're the city of Raleigh, you need to understand that the media is your stakeholder. You need to understand that there may be people who don't support that their tax dollars are going to a website redesign and they may be loud. And you need to have a plan in place to bring those detractors around to support your project.

So first you need to identify who your stakeholders are. Good, bad and the ugly, right. And then you need to plan to engage them. So once you've identified your stakeholder group, you need to figure out whether or not those are approvers or are they informers. So do you need to engage people so that they can help make decisions? So are they an active stakeholder? Do they need to be involved in your process? Do they need to approve the plan or are they just what we call informed stakeholders? People that need to be aware that the project is happening, but they don't need to necessarily be involved in the project. 

So that may be, again, going off the city of Raleigh example, the media needs to be informed about the project, but they don't need to be involved in it. The neighborhood groups or the Chamber of Commerce, those folks may be informed. But if you want to increase adoption of the website and create evangelists for your project, you may want to engage the neighborhood groups and the Chamber of Commerce to say, hey, we're going to be relaunching the website in six months. Here's the design. We took your feedback. You called us a few months ago and said that you wanted better pathways to pay your electric bill, and we did that. 

And so when people feel heard and when people feel included, they'll support the project. So step two with stakeholder management is planning to engage them. You know who your stakeholders are. What are they interested in? Do they need to be informed or they need to be engaged? So make that decision. 

And then the third part of stakeholder management is the actual engaging part. So as a project manager, you need to have a project roadmap. Even if you're being agile, even if you're sprinting, you should know when to engage stakeholders. So you need to pinpoint on your sprint plan, on your roadmap, where you need to involve people, either engage them for a decision or inform them that something is happening before it's too late.

So then you do what you need to do to engage them. So then you layer on, how do we best engage those folks? If they need to be engaged in the actual process, do you need to invite them to a meeting? Do you need to ask them to participate in a focus group or to participate in some other user research? Do they need to be a beta tester? Do they need to actually do some usability testing on the site? 

If they're an informed stakeholder, what infrastructure do you need to set up so that you can inform those folks? Do you need to have a cadence of press releases or newsletters? Do you need to set up an intranet or a portal or a landing page on your current site so that people feel informed about your project status?

When you have these types of engagements, you have identified your stakeholders, you have made a plan to engage them, and then you implement your engagement plan. I think that you are covering all of your bases and you're doing right by your stakeholders and your project champion. Because nobody wants to launch a website to a lack of fanfare or to negative press to say, you didn't involve anybody in this project and we're not going to use your new website because it doesn't meet our needs. 

That's the worst possible outcome, because then you have to go back and redo things so that they do meet people's needs. So a good agency will get well ahead of that and help you in your project initiation phase to identify your stakeholders and make a plan to engage them so that the outcome is that they are fully supportive and they evangelize your site and they use your site immediately. 

City of Raleigh did such a great job with that that we actually had a thoughtful launch plan to say, let's keep the old site up for a little while and the new site up, so that we can let people migrate to the new experience at their own pace. They wanted to allow people– they didn't want to force the change on people. They know that change is hard. 

But because the City of Raleigh had done such a good job keeping people informed, making sure that people were engaged and that the new site was going to meet their needs, that 94% of site traffic migrated over to the new site within the first week. That's the power of stakeholder engagement right there. Listening to your users, making sure that your project meets their needs and that they feel heard along the way. 

Tim Butara: Yeah, those are definitely key. I agree. Maybe as a kind of final question, we may have touched upon this already or discussed it in a previous part of the conversation, but do you maybe have any final tips and kind of words of advice on how agencies should treat their client partners and their teams in order for the relationship to be as successful, as fruitful, as long lasting as possible? 

Sally Shaughnessy: That's a really powerful question. There are a few key takeaways, and I think I've touched on most of them already. Number one is do due diligence during the sales and procurement process. Not only do you want to find the right partner who can execute the project in terms of quality, but you want to find good humans that you really like to work with. 

Before you engage your partner, organize yourselves internally. Do you have the right steering committee or core team ready and allocated to take on this project? Sometimes the procurement team is ready to start a project, but the people that need to actually participate in the project were never made aware that this project was landing on their desk. 

And so that's another tip, too, is that if the procurement team is not the team that will be working on the production of the project, before you engage a partner, identify who your core team is going to be and prepare those folks and schedule those folks in a way that will allow them to participate fully and give 100% to the agency partner. 

We are subject matter experts, but it does not replace the institutional knowledge of an organization's internal stakeholders. We will always be at the mercy of our client partners to tell us about their content and how their content supports their mission. We can make inferences, and we can make recommendations based on site traffic and other subject matter expertise. But we rely on clients to partner with us, to validate our decisions and to collaborate with us on our proposals. 

So that's another tip is make sure that you have the right people at the organization teed up and on a committee or on a project team so that they can participate with the vendor. And then lastly, I would say, stay engaged, stay curious, and also stay transparent and speak up. If your agency partnership is not meeting your expectations or going the way that you expected it to, there has to be some sort of point of escalation so that the agency can make it right. 

You don't want to go from zero to 60 on a problem. I would always encourage an open communication and a transparent and candid communication with your project manager, with your strategist, whomever your product owner, whoever your counterpart is at the agency, to say and to reflect on things. 

And make sure that we're not only working to deliver the project, but we're always keeping an eye on our relationship and building a nurturing relationship that will make a client say, hey, we just launched this website with Aten, and they were a really great partner. Now I want to sign up for a retainer. I want to continue working with them. They get me, they get us, and I really trust them. That's what I would say to a partner is think long term and make sure that in your initial engagement with your agency partner, you're doing everything you can to make that partnership not only meet your expectations, but exceed your expectations and lay the foundation for a long lasting partnership. 

Tim Butara: Wow, that was really well said. Some really great and really important tips here. I'm glad we revisited this part of the conversation, Sally. Awesome. Just before we wrap up the whole thing, if our listeners want to reach out or maybe learn more about at and where can they reach you? 

Sally Shaughnessy: Sure. We are at or shortened at If you are interested in learning more about how we might help you with a project, please reach out to and my personal email is You can also find us on social media, LinkedIn on the Drupal provider directory pages. So please learn more about Aten and reach out if you have an interesting problem to solve. 

Tim Butara: Thanks again, Sally, for joining us today. It's been a real pleasure talking with you. 

​​Sally Shaughnessy: Thank you so much, Tim. This has been great.

Tim Butara: Well, to our listeners. That's all for this episode. Have a great day everyone and stay safe. 

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