Can we agree on one general challenge about our business? I’m going to say it: more often than not, advertising agencies have too many titles and departments; too many hats worn by too many people. It gets daunting: Layers of account managers, strategists of many stripes and producers for every channel. Innovation leads, tech leads, brand planning, experience planning, user experience, creative technologists--all smart people, trying to work in front of, or alongside, or after, brilliant creatives, to bring great work to life.
On top of all this, in recent years many agencies have added a layer of project management. Yikes, another department! As if we didn’t already have enough cooks in the kitchen. Talk about a challenge. Process people surrounded by others who resist process, and still others worried about their “piece of the pie,” before we showed up. Impossible? Actually, I couldn’t be more excited about the role of project management in a modern, creative agency, and here’s why.
Agency project managers come from many backgrounds. Some used to be “traffic,” walking ads around the agency for approvals. Some, like myself, come from web development backgrounds, and are more familiar with the science of project management as laid out in the Project Management Body of Knowledge . Others come from digital, print or broadcast production, looking to integrate across channels; or from account management, choosing to focus on creative work rather than strategic client leadership (or in some cases, making deck after deck after, well, you get the idea.). All have something unique to add, and all start each day with a big glass of “Get It Done” juice.
But we can’t be tone-deaf process cops; that’s not productive. Good project management is both art and science. Here are five qualities that in my experience, every project manager in advertising should bring to the table, regardless of their background:
1. Good project managers relentlessly focus on solving problems for their teams. They don’t use process as an obstacle. Rather, they scan the horizon for obstacles to remove. They look ahead of today’s madness and see what is likely to trip the team up in a week or a month, and identify paths over, or around, or through those challenges.
2. Good project managers simplify complex situations. We are all inundated with too much communication, too many emails, too many meetings, too many choices. A good project manager distills a situation down to its simplest. Asks the right question. Listens well. Knows when to pick up the phone and when to go talk face to face. Stops the spinning.
3. Good project managers are good facilitators. They can guide a discussion. They know when a meeting is needed, and provide a clear agenda up front. They know who needs to be in that meeting, who doesn’t, and how to get decisions communicated to the right people, right away, not three days later, with a transcript of the meeting. They protect their team’s time.
4. Good project managers excel at the basics of delivering work. Scope, schedule, status. communication. Risk and resource management. Importantly, they know how to tailor these tools to their team’s needs. Big financial services teams behave differently than small pro bono teams. Neither is wrong; they’re just different. A good project manager can speak their team’s preferred language.
5. Stick with me on this last one; it might be different than you imagined. Good project managers model "servant leadership." Huh? This does not mean they are "subservient,” or pushovers, or weak. Far from it. They lead by example, put the team's needs first, and find specific ways to meet those needs. They’re humble yet confident. They build highly-functioning teams by modeling unselfish behaviors themselves. Some influential leaders in history have shown you can be effective through service, not just commanding from above (see: Lincoln, Gandhi, Jesus, MLK Jr., Pope Francis).
No matter how an agency’s project management practice is set up, there are two roles that need to be filled in order to achieve success. The first role is what I call “keeping the trains running.” It’s about the basics. It’s about executing a plan, day in and day out. This role has to happen with consistency and with excellence. It’s not glamorous. It’s not always noticed. Actually, it’s usually most noticed for its absence, which is when bad things happen.
The other is a leadership role, for delivery. I call this person a quarterback, not because they know all the answers, but because they can coax a coherent set of thoughts from their teams, organize those thoughts into a plan, and guide the team to deliver on it. This requires someone who’s been around the block. Someone who models best-practices for a team, delivering complex, multichannel campaigns. Someone who can collaborate with partner agencies, who’s respected by Creative, Account, Production, and Planning. Someone who actively listens, devises the framework of a plan, and helps the team iterate on that plan.
This is a vision for project management that works for modern advertising. It’s a couple degrees different than project managing software, or construction, or aerospace engineering. It’s simple, but not easy. It’s about instilling confidence. Confidence that the team can consistently turn innovative ideas into outstanding work. And that’s the mark of a great, creatively driven modern agency.