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On Navigating Swim Lanes: How One Agency Defined Its Roles

December 18, 2018 | Kristen Haveman

A Startup’s Growing Pains

As I stood on the deck surrounding the small indoor lap pool with 7 of my coworkers, reading off notes about job roles marked up on poster board, the spring of 2014 flashed in my mind.

That was when I met Tim Haines. He was a consultant who was tasked, in part, with training me in a social media manager position I had taken with a local city department. By summer, I would find myself with the opportunity to join his budding digital marketing agency later known as Symposia Labs.

The work started out as part-time and I shared one room of a small office with the only other employee, another social media manager. She and I did the same type of work on separate accounts: content creation, social engagement, lots of Excel sheets and Photoshop files. Tim would rush in and out between meetings, check in with us, engage and encourage us with questions.

Many hats were worn between the three of us. There were contractors here and there, many of whom I never met or sometimes knew existed.

Our client list grew quickly and the needs expanded. We took on the lease of the entire office we’d been sharing with other agencies. We welcomed in-house designers, paid media specialists, marketing assistants, interns. The growing pains were real.

We met with development coaches. We explored our share of diagrams and flowcharts in efforts to determine how best this new machine would work. And we worked to define and develop our strengths as individual experts.

A swim lane… distinguishes job sharing and responsibilities for sub-processes of a business process. When used to diagram a business process that involves more than one department, swim lanes often serve to clarify not only the steps and who is responsible for each one, but also how mistakes are most likely to occur. [ref.]

How We Define Swim Lanes

Since the early days, one of Symposia’s values has been to empower and trust each other in our areas of specialty. We believe in the power of individual experts, and that trusting those talents helps the machine operate at its best.

Too often we see agencies fail to prove their strengths because they’re trying to be all things to all people. Our experience has been that great work is done when the experts are allowed to do what they do best.

That’s where the swim lanes concept comes in.

For Symposia, swim lanes indicate one’s area of expertise. We believe that in a perfect world a paid media specialist is not writing all the ad copy on the spot when setting up a campaign. In a perfect world, a project manager understands metrics and how to track them, not necessarily the ins and outs of how to test them. And whenever someone is seeking guidance, they know whom to ask.

This is not to be confused with a “don’t touch my stuff” mentality. On the contrary, it’s about a team leaning on each other to get the best results. There exists plenty of overlap between roles, whether it’s design and photography, or copy and PPC. Swimming in your own lane involves understanding how to navigate this.

Consider this example:

A project manager briefs the team on a new campaign requiring photos and ad copy for Facebook and Google.

The photographer and graphic designer work together to determine the raw photos needed which will provide the groundwork for the final designs. The graphic designer doesn’t direct the photographer, but having the designer’s input is crucial for the photographer to be efficient.

Meanwhile, the copywriter speaks with the paid media specialist about what types of ads will be run to determine any platform-specific constraints or keywords. The paid media specialist doesn’t have to worry about creating the ad copy, but knowing pertinent PPC-related details helps the copywriter to provide the right thing on the first go.

Creative and copy are put together in mockups and boom – the project manager has a first round of creative and copy with less chance of needing revisions before going live.

This is of course a simplified scenario. A million other tweaks can be happening here and there behind the scenes. But understanding whom to partner with is an excellent example of where swim lanes may overlap (or “touch”) but remain separate.

Working together and leaning on each other for support or information during the process helps the process to run smoothly.

The Whistle Blows

I won’t bother trying to put my sentimentality aside. It was quite a vantage point, standing there around the pool (all of us fully clothed, I might add) with 7 of my now 10 in total coworkers, discussing our swim lanes in that humid metaphor just a few weeks ago.

We’ve grown so much and not just in terms of staff or clients. Adaptability is crucial in digital marketing as we learn this industry’s evolving trends and tools. And Symposia understands firsthand why adaptability is so important internally for a growing team of specialists.

We’ve recently welcomed another project manager and an automation specialist (meet Andrew and Adam in their blog posts!) and as we face toward all that’s ahead for 2019, things are looking great.