The Basics of Creative Project Management

Simply put, a project manager is someone that leads the project management process. 

In creative land, just like other industries, a project manager can manage one project, a group of projects, projects from one client or several. They can be big, small or grouped together for a campaign or launch. 

You can utilize or adopt different methods of project management to run projects in an creative firm. 

Traditionally, a project manager's role is to shepherd a project through the organization, so the project delivers on-time, on-budget and meets both the internal expectations and the clients.

As a project manager, you are the link between the different internal departments. Your goal is to keep the project moving along. Some project managers are client-facing and can address client issues, while others coordinate with an account management team.

In today's creative firm, you are more than likely going to work with teams and help lead the team through the process, rather than just acting outside of the project.

Agency process can be rather simple:

  • Every defined project follows similar elements. 
  • It starts with an ask, either from the client or internally.
  • There is a series of objectives and deliverables that need to be met.
  • You scope the project, figure out the timing, resources and costs.
  • Client signs off, you get started.
  • You have a kick-off meeting or planning meeting.
  • You strategize, or create or build it.
  • You keep the project on track.
  • Tie up any last things (like QA or proofreading)
  • And you deliver the project, hopefully delivering on objectives.

That's pretty much what you do. What you probably are not responsible for is setting the goals of the project before it starts, typically these things are defined a bit before they get to you. You may, however, be apart of strategic thinking projects or what creative firms call "discovery phases." These projects could be stand-alone or part of a larger deliverable.

Or it can be up to you to build and navigate a process that is not typical.

You can follow a waterfall-like project lifecycle process to help you with atypical projects. Waterfall means that when you are done with one stage you slide down to the next, with limited cross-over of phases. 

One example of a project lifecycle: 

  • Start with Engagement
  • Planning
  • Strategy
  • Concept
  • Develop (or design)
  • Produce / Execution
  • Release

In creative land, projects are more likely to be seen as temporary. Sure, some of our projects, like a major website launch could last twelve months or more, but more than likely our projects are built to predetermined launch dates for some form of advertising or content.

This means projects do have a clear-cut beginning and end (even if you agency & client practice agile methodologies). 

As you grow as a project manager, you will probably experience a wide range of projects, and use what you learn for the next project.

In creative land, you will typically have a series of deadlines for the different phases of a project, like the discovery, concept, produce and release stages. Some deadlines are very rigid on projects, and some phases blend into each other. When you have phases of projects that get completed before going on to the next stage, we may call them waterfall and you can typically track these projects in a gantt chart following a project plan.

Some projects like to use what they learn to improve what they did, these are projects that have cycles that repeat and use new learning to improve upon the idea. This is a overly simple explanation for agile or iterative project management.

When we make a list or "backlog" of work to get done, and then work in short-term intervals to complete a project backlog over the course of time, we might also call this working in sprints. For example, if we are building a website, we may list all the work that needs to get done, make a subgroup of that list, and then work to accomplish that list in short bursts of time (like a week for example). The daily time allocated to manage this process is called a scrum. 

All of your projects (even agile ones) will have a budget. There will always be a defined amount of resources and time allocated to your project. It's a budget and as a project manager part of your job is to manage the budget. (And don't let anyone tell you otherwise.)

There is a limited amount of time and resources you have to complete the project. If you are managing them, the amount of time you have already used up and the ratio in which you have used up time and resources is called the project burn rate.

Every once in a while you may be given a project that is an "agency" or "company" project. Don't be fooled into thinking you have access to unlimited resources to complete these projects. Manage these projects just like any other, build a budget, plan the resources and manage time.

Projects in creative land usually have a point for existing, even if it doesn't always seem that way. Your task as a project manager is to understand why the project exists, what problem is trying to solve and what methods / resources are going to solve that problem. Now you may have help figuring this out, by asking lots of questions from the person giving you the project, to your team working on the project. At the end of the day, you will be creating a scope of work that details out this information so the project is properly defined. Scope is the contained parameters of the project.

As a project manager, scope building is the most important thing you will be developing. It's how you are going to perform the project, the people (or roles) that are going to work on the project, how long it will take and how much it will cost.

A scope might also include or define what processes you are going to use to accomplish the project, how people are going to communicate, and how you manage risks (like going over budget or out-of-scope client requests).

Once you have the go ahead and a signed off estimate, as a project manger you will be initiating the work. In creative land, you will more than likely never do some of the steps in the PMBOK book. You will most likely never do a business case or project charter for example. But you most certainly are going to identify the stakeholders of a project and learn what their expectations are for the project. 

One of your tasks as a project manager is to ensure that client and internal stakeholders are all on the same page in what is going to make the project successful. As a project manager you are also going to be charged with ensuring you get approvals for phases, steps or tasks within the project.

Over the course of being a project manager, you are going to experience a number of challenges.

  • The assignments can be complex, with a lot of intertwining processes.
  • You will need to manage and engage with a large group of people, with different personalities, goals, skills and availability.
  • Overlapping roles and authority.
  • Managing risk, resources and budgets.
  • Navigating new processes that no one in the agency has gone through before.
  • Managing change in the agency.
  • Managing client expectations with tight budgets.

As a project manager, you are going to be responsible for a number of deliverables. These deliverables and your responsibility level for them can vary from agency to agency.

Scoping and Planning

  • Agency Backgrounder & Gathering Project information beyond an RFP.
  • Scope-of-Work and/or Estimate
  • Project Schedule / Plan
  • Internal Approval of a Creative Brief


  • Agency / Client Communications
  • Project Governance
  • Project Status 

Tracking & Process

  • Internal and External Costs Tracking
  • Change Management (Change Orders)
  • Managing Risk 

Scoping and Planning

Planning your project out, before you send a client a scope-of-work, is an important exercise. It's helpful to visual how the project is going to be run. There is nothing wrong (and I encourage) that you talk to your team and do a bit of planning BEFORE you send a scope or work or estimate to the client. More than likely, your client will provide the agency with their own project brief. Your job, is to make sure that everyone is on the same page.

A Client Brief is the download of the project scope to the agency. A brief may include;

  • Client's strategic or business objectives
  • Budgets and timing
  • Research and background information that is useful to the agency.
  • How the client may judge success (i.e. sales goals)
  • Expected deliverables / tactics
  • Project Specifications, contacts and constraints

As the project manager, you will probably be responsible for creating the scope-of-work. It's basically the client & agency contract for how, why and when. (See examples on this site for more information) It's a project-level contract that basically gets everyone on the same page on how the project is going to be run.

A statement of work can be a rather lengthy document. Statements of Work (or SOW) have replaced bottom line estimating. They are meant to act as real legal documents as well.

A Scope-of-Work may include;

Client / Project Objectives

  • Project Description
  • What the project covers & what it doesn't cover
  • What the exact deliverables are going to be.
  • What specifications and project assumptions bind the project
  • What happens with the project goes out of scope.
  • Schedule and/or Milestones.
  • Estimated Costs / Invoicing and Payment Information

Then when the scope-of-work is approved, you should sit with the team and do another quick planning session (in agency lingo this is often called a "kick-off" meeting). 

At the kick-off meeting you may fine-tune your project plan (and you may even need to revise your scope) as new information or detailed background information comes in from the client.

You also get your team to agree to the timelines. Then you may actually have a second kick-off meeting with the client. 

Typically, before you start a project, the agency will develop and create a creative brief. Sometimes you have a short-brief, and other times developing a creative brief is a project all to itself. Out of the creative brief, the team will have an idea (well, not always) of what deliverables are required. These deliverables are sometimes in the form of campaigns. Agencies use the word "tactics" to describe deliverables in different types of media or platforms. 

A creative brief is a document that describes the strategy behind the communication tactic(s). A brief  can include a variety of different information, form detailed info about the project, parameters on how the creative team should approach the project, to the "value proposition." It will also include some bottom line information such as budgets, requirements, and a schedule. (Check out some of the creative briefs on the site for more information).

At this point you are now into execution mode. Your team has formed, and your now getting to the first stages of you project. As a project manager, you should be fully prepared to manage and now track your resources. 

You are also going to be working with the team and/or individuals now on an on-going basis. Your work is to help brief, train, mentor, motive and help lead the team to a projects completion.

However, you have a team!

You and your team share ownership of the project.

If you have questions from an outsider (i.e. the client if you aren't running agile) than you need to make sure you involve your team members in answering outside questions and decision making.


You are also responsible for communication — both with the team, your client and perhaps other agency leads.

Communicating with the team and client can be in the form, status reports and meetings, project management software or collaboration tools, project approval / review tools, emails or whiteboards. 

If your agency is using traditional project management methodologies, then you will probably be tracking your project with a status report which you will be maintaining. Typically, you will have a weekly status meeting with the internal team (or combined with the client) to go over the "status" of all of the client's projects. The meetings are hopefully top-level. 

Some of the things you may discuss during the meeting include;

  • Where you are in the project
  • Project progress
  • Issues that impede progress of the project
  • Issues that need client approval or input before advancing progress
  • How far along the project is in resources, time and budget
  • Priorities for the project to be met next or by the next status meeting
  • Risk issues

During the execution phases of a project your job is to monitor and control the process. Now a lot of what you do here, can be very subjective. You are looking to make sure that the project is on track. 

Being on-track is not just about meeting deadlines (that's what a traffic manager) does. No, you are key to making sure the work is being done to your teams best efforts. And if those efforts suck, then you need to stand-up and address the issues. Issues can arise from the quality of the work, risks and change management. 

If a change comes in, you need to initiate your plan on how you are going to address a change. You may need to enlist other team members or outside forces. You also need to be able to measure the quality of the work. This can be hard, but this is where you need to ask all sorts of questions and learn what quality means in both your agency, your team, your client and for you.

As a project manager, you are also going to have to monitor your team members performance. Is the work getting done? Are we on track, are we working on the right things? You need to be on top of your projects progress, to make sure your schedule, costs and resources are on track and being used properly.

More than likely you will have to communicate project status in some different formats. They could be client meetings, or calls, updating communications or status.

As a project manager, you may be called upon to document meetings or calls, and share the communication with the team in the form of a meeting report.

You may have to update and send out revised schedules, or you may be charged with keeping a project management, project tracking system up-to-date. (Many agencies use off-the-shelf web-base applications like Basecamp that serves as team collaboration tool.)

As a project manager, you may be required to either prepare or act as the main repository link for where people can easily access any project documentation, comments or pdfs of the projects. 

You may also find yourself managing outside resources (freelancers) or even dealing with outside vendors (like a printer, or a photographer or other outside specialists). 

As the project progresses, you will be responsible for assessing risk, flagging it, and providing options to mitigate risk. You will also be responsible for managing changes the occur during the project at all levels. You may also be responsible for financially managing the project, and tracking the projects resources and costs to ensure the project remains profitable.