Producers vs Project Managers in Today's Agency - Revisited

(Downloadable with competencies at the end of this article)

When it comes to managing how work gets done organization wide, advertising agencies are anything but typical when it comes to workflow & process. Part of what makes an agency special (besides the people that work there) is the agency's approach to how they create work. It’s also driven in part, by how the agency tries to carve out a unique place for itself among the hundreds of agencies in at the marketplace.

In the past, we often identified agencies by either being account or creative driven. Now, however, we identify agencies in dozens of different ways from being creative, account, digital, data-driven, interactive with varying 360° experience, a general agency with varying degrees of interactive experience, to name just a few. This fragmentation of focus and company values has lead to a greater variety in workflow paths among agencies.

As experienced managers we know the dangers and pitfalls of having a workflow process that leans toward one of these extremes. It's no wonder that many agencies are re-examining project management and redefining traditional roles within the agency. In the quest to better manage our agencies, we are tearing down traditional silos to create cross-functional teams, but on the opposite end we are also creating new digital silos with technical teams that seem to have a narrower creative function.

One of the struggles of the emerging digital agency has been to create balance. We lock in strong technically skilled project managers that can succeed on specific interactive projects, but too few can also succeed from the larger creative or client project management perspective. On the opposite end, however, highly technical projects often require very close knit client interactions and client management. Lets face it, times have changed, and as agencies have become leaner, we have come to rely a lot on our project managers. Combined with the fact that interactive projects have unique workflow needs (that may even mirror the software, application or gaming industry) with the need for less people to take on more responsibility, project managers have evolved into jack-of-all-trade producers.

A producer in the new agency model can be part account manager, project manager, production manager, technical advisor, finance manager and pseudo creative manager. From a workflow perspective, this presents new challenges that can be hard to implement in agency environments steeped in older traditions and roles. To answer this challenge, every agency can still find its own balance in re-assigning responsibilities and roles, using the lens of its own values and culture to determine its own version of best practices for managing work.

Your main project leader, be it producer or project manager is only as good as his/her team and support system. For example, if in your new workflow model, a producer takes over part of the role of an account executive, they should not be relied upon as someone that has the sole ability to manage the client/agency relationship. While they may be great at identifying potential new opportunities for client growth, an agency still needs to have a strong account planning and strategic account presence to build on those opportunities. 

The key is to find a balance that works best for your agency. Hire smartly. If you want to be known for more than just a specific digital space, its important to hire great general critical thinkers to supplement your technical producer team. Its similar to the way we think about creative hires. Great digital space people often need larger space thinkers. Breakthrough digital creative also require highly technical project managers to tackle a project in the digital space. However, that breakthrough often comes paired with a larger tactical idea that may go beyond digital. The craft and project management thinking that exists in broadcast and traditional production often trumps the digital content space producer. Finding the proper mix for your shop requires a bit of alchemy to create a larger creative production environment that meets your needs..

Remember, today's Facebook fan page project is yesterday's site-let, which might be tomorrow's targeted mobile activated digital retail experience engagement. What makes your agency valuable is its ability to continue to grow into these new spaces and having the workflow and people in place that can adapt to these challenges. 

Whether you are a digital agency, or full-service, the types of projects you work will always change. What your agency managed five years ago is different then what it manages today. Strong project management theory applied to your workflow will help to maintain an environment where new projects can be managed successfully. 

Silos (functional managers) and teams (cross-functional teams led by PMs or producers)

In the old days, we use to think very functional when it came to managing things in the agency; media, strategy, account management, creative, production departments and so on. In the new nimble world of advertising where creative content is so intertwined with production, it doesn't necessarily make sense to have so many separate silos. More agencies are replacing those silos with cross-functional teams, headed up by project managers or defined producer chains. The downside to having no silos, is that advocates and specialists are highly sought after on particular projects. There may also be an increased organic need for smaller ad-hoc support teams for handling specific parts of a project that run deep in a specific area. 

    This doesn’t mean functional managers should disappear altogether, even project managers can benefit greatly from a strong project management office (PMO) or project management director. Functional managers (like your head of technology, head of strategy, ECDs and so on) are also there in your agency to provide leadership (actual as well as thought) to your clients as well as your internal teams.

Depending on the size of your agency, your matrix (mix of functional managers and project managers) will be different. You may have a still have a studio, but one that now handles internal motion graphics and post-production. The way you use to group people in a print studio for example may mirror how you structure a backend development team, or your creation of an internal “lab.” At the end of the day, the most important thing that you can do in developing your new structures is to identify a clear reporting structure, one that supports the team environment, supports continued learning and is adaptable to growth and constrictions.

Strong project managers have always been needed in the agency. We may not of always have had defined project managers, but there was always been project management responsibility. It just wasn't always clear who was ultimately responsible for the entire project. Account people completed one part, the creative director perhaps did another and the production department finished it out. This is why in the old days, traffic was so important to the workflow of a project. Remember, we still have the same stakeholders (the client, the agency principles, the ECD, etc) even when we have implemented project managers or producers. In many ways, project managers have become a necessity to create a consistent pulse maintaining, guiding force in the agency. They also help to free up your key players. When you have dedicated project managers, it may mean creatives have more time to create and account people have more time to spend on planning and strategy and so on.

Producer vs. Project Manager.

While the word “producer” is common in today's agency world, what that word means in an agency can vary greatly. A producer can be a specialist in an area or a generalist. A producer's role can be production centric, or can be holistic and client facing. A producer can have limited responsibility (like an art buyer) or be identified as THE end-to-end project manager. Whatever flavor you decide on, it is important to identify and make clear who is ultimately responsible for the project and team. It needs to be clearly spelled out so that everyone has the same expectations. Moving from one model of project management to another requires all the thinking that goes behind change management. Moving to a producer model for client engagement, for example can be a positive one. But it also means that the traditional career path of junior account executives to senior account manager roles is greatly changed.

In the next section, we’ve identified some top line responsibilities that your project manager or producer may hold in your agency. We’ve grouped them by the older traditional job functions. Each individual line item, however, should be considered a “competency” that your project manager or producer may hold as a key responsibility or shared responsibility. Feel free to add your own. This exercise can help to shape some initial thinking in what a lead project leader may actually look like in your agency. When you are planning out responsibilities, include all of the tasks that each key position is going to hold in your agency, balance them out, identify the one role to be the ultimate project lead and clearly identify how you are going to address potential short falls or functional manager cross overs. Or what additional responsibilities you may need to give to another role (account management for example) to balance out other workflow issues.

    When under taking a transition to a project management or producer model, make sure to support your new team leaders. Empower your team leaders. Ensure that you are supportive and your entire management team is supportive of your new model. Lastly, assign one person in your shop to whom the project managers ultimately report to and assign someone (or better yet, the team) who will have ultimate responsibility for the transition and maintaining the new way or working.

The following are a range of typical competencies that cross boundaries. Pick and choose based on your own workflow. Each Behavior lists a basic, advanced or "mastery" level.

Client Management / Responsibilities External

Engages the client

Corresponds with the client on estimates, SOW’s, schedules, project status & deliverables.

Presents to the client on estimates, SOW’s, schedules, project status & deliverables.

Corresponds, presents, negotiates with the client, on estimates, SOW’s, schedules, project status & deliverables. Handles client contracts.

Client direction

Corresponds with client on direction and changes.

Mediates client changes with others on team.

Leads client in change direction.

Client initiation

Responses to client requests.

Reaches out to client to progress job.

Reaches out to client on new business or to engage in new projects

Client engagement

Produces all backend correspondence such as meeting reports.

Schedules meetings with client.

Runs or facilitates client meetings.

Client relationship building

Builds trust between team and client on project or across projects.

Proactively guides client through agency process. Understands client business, client goals deliverables and strategies.

Looks for new opportunities, guides client through marketing, strategic, planning processes or actions.

op Level Role

Agency risk assessment

Understands agency process and how to best match it with client requests. 

Understands client requests and able to determine if client project is right for agency.

Understands clients and agency business to determine if client is right for agency.

Strategic role

Understands basics of proper planning, tactics and media.

Able to present, work with others to develop strategies and planning for client.

Able to provide agency POV on strategy and thought leadership.

Creative role

Understands creative process and able to relay client needs to transform them into actionable steps.

Able to provide point-of-view from a business and marketing stance to creative team.

Creative advocate, strives to maintain creative integrity.

Production role

Understands production process and production needs of agency and client.

Able to work with client to convey production needs back and forth to agency.

Able to be proactive in production needs, can accurately assess  technical needs and guide client / agency through process.

Marketing role

Able to understand basic marketing principals and best practices

Able to guide internal team through a clients marketing needs from a marketing perspective.

Leads internal team to create and build a marketing program.

PR and social media role

Understands basics of PR and how social media interacts with project.

Understands client business, role of social media and PR and how it relates to clients business.

Has agency POV, can plan, develop or recommend PR and social media.

Project Management Role

Project ownership

Owns project from creative approval through production.

Owns project after creative brief through production.

Owns project at all stages.

Project scope

Scopes project with input from account, creative & technical teams.

Defines scope, leads project scope with input from account, creative & technical team.

Responses to RFP, can defend scope created.


Tracks timeline & milestones.

Tracks resources, risk, can run steps concurrent, can maintain scope, costs and execution.

Full authority overtime, costs, resources and team members.

Team management

Manages project steps, tasks, requirements against SOW. (Scope management)

Manages project communication.

Manages resources, timelines and milestones. (Time and cost management)

Manages project procurement.

Manages and monitors project lifecycle. (Time and cost management)

Manages risk assessment and risk management. (Including time, costs and resources)

End results control

Manages project quality.

Able to work with functional team to directly impact project results and quality,

Manages actual team members and has direct impact on project.


Provides clear direction to others that creates understanding of expectation and how performance is measured. Encourages and supports the efforts of the team members. Gets others to commit to delegated tasks by checking progress of others by observing, meeting in person or other verifiable, measurable means.

Takes into consideration the entire group and needs of the organization when delegating tasks. Identifies gaps in progress of individuals towards accomplishing delegated tasks and provides feedback in a positive manner. Identifies unaccomplishable tasks, makes adjustments to tasks as needed by breaking them down into smaller tasks, re-consider the task or assigning additional resources to completing the task.

Coaches others in how to break projects and large tasks into smaller delegatable tasks or sets of tasks. Can redefine individual priorities so that work can be redistributed to provide greater opportunities to help the entire team. Coaches others in strategies to hold direct reports accountable for completing delegated tasks. Coaches others in how to be responsible for creating and suggesting alternate courses of action when assigned task needs to be adjusted.

Producer Role (project management responsibilities not duplicated see: project management role)

Scope and responsibility

Estimates or scopes project and/or scopes / estimates and manages external resources.

Scopes, estimates, internal and external costs, manages both sets of resources as production role.

Estimates, internal and external costs, manages both sets of resources as team leader role.

Production management

Manages production process.

Manages production process as creative and agency advocate. Guides team members through process.

Client-facing engagement while managing production process. Scopes, estimates project directly with client.

Creative / technical depth 

Understands creative and technical process and able to relay creative or technical needs and form actionable steps.

Able to provide creative or technical guidance.

Provides art or technical direction.

Production role

Understands production process and production needs of agency and client.

Able to work with client to convey production needs back and forth to agency.

Able to be proactive in production needs, can accurately assess  technical needs and guide client / agency through process.

Resource management

Manages production resources / external or internal

Guides creative or technical teams, advisory at start of project.

Team partnership, or team leader from start of a project.


Collects project information, formats project information. Collects project status information from stakeholders.

Tracks project communication, updates, creates status list. Initiates approval process.

Client-facing contact for all project communication, status and approvals.

Other Roles; Traffic and Agency Resource Manager Responsibilities


Tracks project from assigned areas. Create status for assigned projects

Develops schedules and tracks project, proactive project and resource tracking.

Re-assigns resources, re-schedules, enforce deadlines.

Resource management

Track project assignments and time records for staff and freelancers.

Assess internal team members availability for projects, work with other functional managers for assignments.

Builds team based on own assessment, or advises others on what the best team or resources would be for project.


Tracks freelance and internal needs, all paperwork, NDAs, or accounting / billing needs.

Can interview and assess talent both internally and externally. Provide recommendations to functional managers.

Seeks out new talent, provides long-range talent projections. Seeks and maintains freelance base.