Your Project Leaders are the Firm’s Process & Governance Champions

Integrating project management and the creative process

Managing the creative process is more than just setting and following the rules of typical project management procedures. As a creative industry, you would think that agency’s would be better at identifying that the reason for tension and conflict is often created by the formality and rigidness of processes that we put in place to help us be more efficient.

I often look back at my time working at both small agencies and startups with great nostalgia. For those of us who have spent time in similar small organizations, we know what it’s like to have that small company, “we can get it done,” team spirit. Or at least what’s it like to work with your slightly awkward extended family.

In small agencies, you often get the impression that very little formal project management is in place. While that’s most likely true, what you do feel is that people often feel invested in common goals and that they really believe in the philosophies that founded the agency. In a way, small agencies do act as one very large cohesive team, even though they seem dysfunctional at times. At a small shop, everyone usually knows what’s expected of them, what the goals are, how to get the work done, where they want the agency to go, and what they want from the experience. If you had a problem, people talked and communicated. If something was outside of your job, you still felt you could contribute and be appreciated. 

Team cohesiveness is what successfully managing the creative process is all about.

As success grows in that same small agency and as people began to fill up office space, the natural tendency is for the formalization of all sorts of new rules, structures and roles. This is where many agencies struggle to “get to the next level.” Understandably, the small team-like feeling of the agency will get fractured, and with the increase of work you can lose that sense of shared goals and meanings.

The first inclination, as an agency leader, is to “fix” that fracturing by putting a lot of process in place. At this stage, I do caution everyone to look hard at what they are about to do. Certainly, you need some structure and framework to exist for a creative agency to stay in business. However, it’s important to build flexibility into your process and rules and to maintain that philosophy where decision making and creativity can occur at all levels of the agency.

Here’s the thing, your agency’s creativity will always be driven by three things; people, process and your culture (collective philosophies). How you combine those three things will not only determine how successful you are, but what type of agency you are and will become.

No matter the size of the agency, creative project management is more than doing estimates and schedules, it’s meant to create that team experience. Having an integrated project manager / producer model can be key to maintaining and duplicating a multi-team structure that is flexible and meets your creative project goals.  

A lot can be said of the value of project management in an agency. Without a doubt, I am a big advocate of having project managers in an agency that have true project responsibility, that are client facing, have strong “T” shaped experience and critical thinking skills. However, I also believe that the best creative project managers have a responsibility that goes beyond keeping projects on budget, and on time.

The real meaning of integrated project management (in the creative setting) is the management of teams and process that ensure various elements of a campaign are properly coordinated. Integrated project managers may have a deep understanding of one area of expertise (i.e. broadcast, interactive, experiential), but are competent in managing projects that may cover all agency competencies. They are also ok with managing projects that range into the unknown, and never tried. More importantly, they excel at managing projects that involve making trade-offs among competing objectives and alternatives, in order to meet and exceed a client’s project goal and expectation.

The Integrated Project Managers — what they really do day-to-day.

Integrated project managers (or producers) combine the best-practices of project management, with the strong soft and technical skills of an agency producer. Integrated producers in your agency who are project managers can greatly help your agency not only stay on track and manage the administrative side, but can help support the entire creative and executional team process. 

In a way producer mindset is important to have as a creative project manager.     

Not only does the producer need to “get” what the end goal is, but they also need to be able to translate the goal into something physical down the line. As an integrated project manager, a producer mindset is important to the theory of integrated project management. On the practical side, integrated project managers are a big part of the development stage, execution and production as well as controlling change across the entire project lifecycle.

They are most importantly, the keeper of the “vision” of the entire team and build consensus by creating shared goals along the way. The agency integrated producer is there to help make sense out of the entire team’s collective effort. Creative project managers are integral in getting everyone on the same page, from understanding the client, to understanding and managing the account and creative expectations and needs.

It’s important to remember, that as the creative project goes through ideation, end goals may shift, so not only is it important to have someone who has the “bigger picture” in mind as project manager, it’s also important to have someone as a manager who can react to the creative process as someone who is part of the creative process. At the start of any creative project, you may have an idea of where you want to go, but as the stages of the project progress the end goal gets refined. This means that the big picture gets lots of dings along the way and may out right morph due to an alternative idea that better meets the needs and expectations of the project. An integrated producer is key to seeing not only the short term ramifications of those dings, but the long-term needs of any project morphing. 

In earlier articles, we talked about the importance of crafting the creative idea. Part of the responsibility of being a creative project manager means interpreting how the project is progressing and translating it into a new set of goals, tasks and activities that will need to be accomplished to meet the end goal. An integrated producer can certainly help manage scope. However, this is where a good manager can manage the flexibility in process. As the keeper of the “big picture,” it comes with an understanding the changes in the goal may mean getting others on board, in regards to, expectations. This means having someone in place who can, not only communicate goal changes, but can anticipate the ramifications of potential conflict or the need for creating a meeting of minds.

A creative project manager must be able to put themselves into the shoes of all of the various team members to understand each person’s point of view and potentially frame it back to them; to put the collective effort not only in alignment, but to keep it progressed. Keeping a project on track means staying aware of not only the goal of the project, but ensuring that everyone on the team, and the external stakeholders have a shared collective understanding of the goal.

Resource management is more than watching hours.

As goals may shift, so may the skills, people and tools you may need to accomplish the project. Inherent to the role, is the understanding that the people you need for a particular task means finding the right fit for the project. This means growing out a greater understanding of not only who you may need, but why you may need them. In larger agencies, this may mean having a great relationship with the internal resource managers, or developing an understanding of the required disciplines, or grow out relationships with functional mangers. In a smaller agency, this may mean the project manager needs to develop these skills. When resources change, it’s also important for the project manager to get a new team member up to speed, to not only get him/her up to speed on the group’s goal, but to share knowledge of what has gone before. 

Knowledge sharing – beyond meetings and emails.

Beyond reviewing dates or milestones, one of the main goals of a project manger is to make sure the entire team has a collective set of knowledge so everyone stays on the same page. While this may result in sharing at a meeting, it can also be in the form of other communication collaborative tools, or small sided meetings. At the end of the day, the project manager should lead to ensure the entire team is on the same page. 

Keep the end goal in mind.

A creative producer is the bearer of the team goal. Once the project’s goal is out there, and everyone gets what needs to be done, the project manager needs to make sure everyone is motivate to get it done. With the concept of the team goal in mind, they also need to define what the boundaries are, and to make sure that there is still flexibility within those boundaries for the team to still be creative. Remember, integrated project managers should always be on the look out for the best creative alternatives and be able to support the team, if the alternative leads to a new direction.

Ultimately, the project manager can have a great influence on how a project progresses, they can help define constraints, but they also help to define how much freedom people have to accomplish a goal. Throughout the project, challenges will arise, and as the team moderator, a project manager also needs to be open to having and resolving potential conflict situations. Some conflict may need to happen, and that’s ok. If things aren’t working they need to be able to challenge team members in order to move the project along.

Having project managers who get the big picture is important, and this perspective is gained by having project managers run projects from start to finish and through client-facing interaction. The most successful projects happen when clients have trust in the agency, and are seen as partners. Having project managers (and creatives) as part of the client interaction process helps build that partnership. When you have a solid understanding of client goals, you gain the ability to have a structure where there is greater latitude to operate and create.

One last note, I want to stress that any process or integrated producer, or project manager that you put in place needs to be conducive to the creative process. Coming up with great ideas, getting them past the CMO and into the real world is not an easy task, create a culture in your agency where it’s ok to let off steam and have a bit of fun. 

While creating a stressless environment is near impossible in an creative environment, having leaders in place that care about the team as well as the project can make a big difference. The process that you put in place need to take down barriers – not create them. Work with frameworks that support philosophies that inspire creativity. Hire a team that compliments each other as much as it challenges each other.  Focus on building an environment that’s flexible, inspiring and open to learning.