The Difference Between Waterfall, Agile & Integrated Project Management in Creative Firms.

Creative firms use a variety of project management methodologies. 

As project management methods are closely tied into the overall process that exists within an organization, organizations can get pretty creative in how they apply these methodologies. 

Sure, there are standard project management methodologies; and as an organization if you follow the standards, you really don't have to go very far to adapt and design these standards to fit your own way of managing projects.

You can borrow from what's out there already, you'll even find a bunch of process charts on this site that you can use a pretty starting point. 

The reason we adapt these standards or adapt them to be our own is so that we can set the way we work — to best fit our company's culture and the types of projects we create.

Waterfall Project Management 

Creative industries have traditionally used the project management approach called “waterfall.” We adapted waterfall processes since it was a way of overcoming managing projects across many departments.

In the past, many agencies had distinct silo'ed departments. Too often, these departments rarely communicated with each other. As the project was passed from one department to the next, an account person often acted as a pseudo project-manager. The account person would work with people in each department who oversaw their portion of the work.

You can still see silos in agencies today in the form of multiple people managing the same project, account management, production management, producers, traffic and the creative resource director can all have their hands in managing different parts of the waterfall process.

In recent years, this bloat and inefficiency has dissipated. Most agencies have collapsed the roles of account management, production management, traffic, and creative resource management into one or two main roles. For example you may have an account facing client manager, and in internal project manager. 

At the same time, the walls of the silos were torn down. While agencies have long embraced working in teams, these teams were often pretty limited. As digital projects came into play alongside traditional content, these teams expanded to other specialty areas. 

Managing these teams became similar to managing under a matrix environment, where you may have had a functional manager (like a creative director) but now had a project manager overseeing the activity of the team. 

Today, it is getting more typical that you may find only one person who handles the entire client & project management experience, acting as part account person, production manager and project manager.

At creative agencies got better at adopting project management, they began to pull together and use processes that you may find in traditional project management. The concept of building scopes, managing resources, and "stages" of work all borrow from traditional project management thinking.

The waterfall method (where a team works in phases) is still being used today — even in some digital agencies. The reason why this methodology has hung on so long is that its pretty easy to envision and use. 

Example of a Waterfall Development Process

Waterfall gets its name, because the process you use mainly flows from one step to another. You go through an initiation phase, a strategy phase, a creative phase (and then maybe design) and then production and release to whatever media your going project is going to be in.

It's pretty easy to understand. You still have team management under waterfall, but you are typically following a set process and steps under a detailed scope. 

For the most part, agencies have gotten better at using waterfall methodologies. Gone are many of the big silos of the past, people work in teams and end-to-end project management has become the norm. 

Agencies liked the waterfall method, because in the past, many of the projects that they had were pretty definable. You have a clear idea of what needs to get done, so you only need to take one pass through each project management process group. They also like traditional project management, since there are plenty of people coming out of school trained as a project manager or have certification for this type of project management. 

Take a Superbowl commercial, for example. 

We know that we need a spot, it has to air by a certain date and have a certain run length. We know that we need to come up with an idea, a script, a storyboard, pick a director, work with a production company, edit it and so worth. 

The more information you have about a project and all the steps you need to take, the easier it is to build a schedule, track it and manage it.

It fits the waterfall method easily because it is fairly;

simple, because you know most of what needs to get done;

familiar, broadcast producers and line producers know all about the technology, the pitfalls and the workarounds to solve them. Watching a commercial shoot is like watching a chaotic force of nature where people (for the most part) pull some amazing teamwork to get it done;

low risk, broadcast production / commercial production has been around for ages, and we know what all the risks are and we can be reasonably sure that we can pull it off;

easy to find experienced people and resources, people are pretty familiar with producing commercials, and for the most part can anticipate problems and how to prevent them.

Now, a modification of waterfall may entail a combination of projects that share assets. There might be a photoshoot that provides images for multiple projects, or a project launch where you need a range of projects to deliver at the same time. This is pretty typical, as agencies that manage these types of projects, typically assign a dedicated project manager for a client. 

Before we get to agile project management, which is a different take on managing projects, I wanted to say that there are still agencies out there that haven't even gotten this far. 

It's not that they don't value project management. Indeed, many agencies still rely on the account team to act as project managers. The downside of placing an account focused person in charge of managing projects is two fold. Agencies hire account people who are good at managing clients first with team management skills second. The second problem is bias. If you are an advocate for the client, and it can be difficult to balance being advocate for the agency. 

Agile Project Management and Iterative Methods

Agile project management and Iterative methods were first used in agencies for projects that require a different approach, where the outcome was more morphable.

The best way to simplify your picture of agile would be to think of the software or application development process. (And this is where agile first came about as a method of project management)

With an iterative project management approach, you plan for what you are going to deliver for each iteration. You start a project, work on it for a bit, get a working prototype going. You review what works in the prototype, test it out and measure how well its working, then you repeat this process to create incremental improvements, through more rounds of prototyping and review.

The goal is to get to a version of the software or application that is ready for the public. In this approach, you may not have delivered everything in the version you have wanted to, but you get it out in the market as soon as you can. Think about it as version 1.0.

You then listen to customer feedback again, measure the success of the release, and decide what you are going to do for the next version. You then work on the new version in a similar way than before to reach your prioritized changes. It may be in the quick form of 1.0.1 release or include more in-depth functionality and a richer design to go to version 1.5 or 2.0. You basically work on the project until your client is ready to call an end (or the budget dries up).

Agile methodologies don't have to be limited to building software of development projects. You can use agile methodologies for other creative projects.

Heck, you can even take the same Super Bowl commercial we mentioned before and build out creative based on the thinking that the Super Bowl commercial is launch 1.0. You can then build off the success or reaction to the commercial to then release a second ad, or adapt the creative in new ways to reach the audience to where it may have the most impact.

In order to be agile, and get things done quickly it does require working differently. People who like to work with agile methodologies are said to value;

interactions and individuals over process and tools;

working software over documentation;

client collaboration over contract negotiation (bucket of money vs allocated money);

responding to change over following a plan.

I think we can all see the value of these values. No matter what methodologies you use, I think people have similar values. The point is agile project management is that you work in teams that help each other out to solve problems. If a particular process or tool works you use it, if it impedes the team, you drop it. 

At the same time agile means your client is going to be a lot more involved than traditional projects, because the solutions evolve over time, and the can evolve quickly. Managing these projects require clients to be part of the team, not outside it.

For example, in traditional project management, if you go off scope, you get the client to sign a change order. In agile, you work through the change by adding it to the queue in collaboration with the client. Agile thinking assumes that this is going to happen and happen a lot and in complex projects (like software development) it does. 

Agile projects also require a lot of close monitoring of customer feedback. The reason you iterate is so you get to a solution that better matches what your audience wants. Clients have to embrace agile thinking as well — as change happens your outcome changes. 

So you can imagine, digital and interactive agencies adopted agile processes a lot faster than traditional waterfall like agencies since it allows you to react to change and figure out solutions faster when you create complex projects.

Agile is different from waterfall in other ways because;

it requires a high-level of client involvement, where the client is often thought of as part of the team;

it requires a different level of planning. as each iteration happens, the hows, whys and whens become more apparent. Since we don't know what we are eventually going to finish with, we may not hit all of the clients goals;

it requires a different level of control. Each iteration may be run in what are called sprints. Each sprint represents an iteration. As the team decides what they are going to be working on, the team members have a big control over what they are going to work on;

it requires a higher level of understanding that a client may not get everything they asked for as deliverables and goals, since each iteration modifies those goals;

it requires a different type of execution. Agile teams are going to be smaller and work very autonomously. As you execute the work, it can be hard to manage resources across the agency since agile teams often need to be dedicated resources to the project.

The Agile Road Map

The basic roadmap for Agile projects starts with setting project goals.

A project roadmap is then constructed based on breaking down the project into small pieces or in the case of development project a large backlog of features. 

You then start off with a planning exercise. You work to map out launch dates and release timings. You plan out which features are a high priority for each set of releases, then you work on these priorities in what agile calls sprints.

An example of an agile development build

Building a roadmap, a backlog and planning worked can either be completed inside or outside of a scrum and sprint environment. In agencies, you might perform a range of other work during this project initiation and starting time. Agile projects still require a discovery period, figuring out goals and outcomes. In some agencies, there may be some larger strategic thinking and planning done. (This is an adaptive process, as creative agencies still focus on delivering for specific dates.)

After the discovery phase, there are may even be few bits of planning left to be done including building out personas, cases and user stories.  (The level of user experience thinking need at this starting stages also depend on the project and the specific agency process.)

If you adhere to full agile thinking, your "Sprint 0" could contain building the product backlog, user journeys, site-mapping, content plan, functionality and some art direction. (What you do in each sprint, however, greatly depends on your process).

Once you have completed the release planning exercise, you now move into sprint planning. Sprints are typically 1 to 4 weeks in length. Each sprint is equal to one iteration with specific goals and tasks based on the project roadmap release plan. 

During the sprints, you work in daily scrums. In the morning, the team meets to go over and establish what the priorities of the day are, what people are going to work on and if there are any obstacles to completing a task. 

You do your daily scrums until you get to the "sprint review" where you can hopefully demo a working prototype of what you've accomplished during the sprint. 

At the end of each sprint, the team refines what needs to get done, and how it is going to adapt their process for the next sprint. 

You continue the sprints till you are ready to release.

Once you do your first release, you analyze what works, client and consumer feedback and you set up for the next iteration sprint run.

You then continue to do your iterations till the project is deemed complete.

Example of Iterations

Example of Iterations

The idea of an agile approach is to produce a functional product in a short period of time. However, the agile approach requires the tight collaboration and feedback of the customer / client / target market during the development process. 

So far we only talked about agile as it applies to development projects. The big question to ask is, can agile work for other creative projects? 

In theory, yes, agile can certainly handle all types of work. Putting theory to practice means organizations (and all of your staff, not just designers and creatives) need a mindset change in the way they approach work. It also requires an agency to think about how to apply agile thinking to all sizes and shapes of an organization's work.

Remember agile's strength is moving fast with a focus on team collaboration. Many of the core values of agile, embracing trial and error, building small teams that can grow and contract, share learning and feedback more often, and interaction of individuals over process, are goals that many agencies already embrace. However, designers that are use to having long times to work on design may need to get use to the idea of working under agile thinking.

Working in agile requires a different mindset, and can require agile that need to be translated into concrete ways of working that are different than the older agency models.

Traditionalist argue that where agile falls short is on big thinking, disruption and breakthrough ideas. There is no doubt that agile concentrates on iterations and incremental changes. Big idea people feel that the time to craft something based on a vision is often lost in an agile environment.

Agilists will argue the opposite, in complex environments its impossible to predict in advance what the outcome should be.

Agile relies a lot on testing concepts and adapting (which is still a very valid innovation process) and would counter that big ideas are forming, are getting refined and there are more of them. However, traditionalists counter that agile leans too far on functionality sacrificing the ability to craft and design the big ideas.

I think this is why you will find a lot of agencies still struggling to put agile processes in places for their entire workflow. I think you can have both breakthrough ideas and iteration happening while working agile. I also think the other side is right to a certain extent. There are limits to user testing (analysts and big data people don't yell at me) that invalidate big change. And not every agency project is complex enough to require full-on agile thinking.

Breakthrough thinking and Iterative

The thing is, innovation is a cycle. We have a breakthrough, we then work in cycles to make it better, then have a another breakthrough and the work in cycles again. When you are creative firm if all you did was iterate, and not come up with big ideas I wouldn't want to work with you.

One of the biggest challenges with implementing agile methodologies, is that the work we do for our clients has changed. There are less agency-of-record work where you are held on retainer. Many clients are hiring agencies for shorter projects and shorter times.  

So how can I manage smaller projects?

In theory... one-off requests or short-project based work can run through agile teams. However, you do need to modify a few things. I highly recommend continuing to bang out a creative brief to allow you to scope out the project a bit (ok not very agile but bare with me). These briefs become stories, just like in development projects, which you can then break down and include in your backlog of work for the team.

Just like your release planning exercise, you take the short projects and give them a priority. More than likely, you will have a mix of projects that have been turned into stories and backlogged that you are then able to bring to the team during a sprint planning meeting, or a morning stand-up meeting and add to your scrum board. 

You organize and work on these projects in a similar fashion until the work is completed. There are a bunch of things in your process that you do have to modify to move all projects to an agile model. The farther you get in modifying agile to conform to traditional methodologies the harder it becomes to implement projects with the full benefits of agile thinking. 

Integrated Project Management

Integrated project management is a bit of a hybrid. Integrated project management came about when traditional agencies began to offer in-house digital capabilities. Integrated project management  collapses all of the project management responsibilities that use to be shared between account management, producers (or production managers) and project mangers. 

A bigger upfront discovery process (like research, planning and strategy and scoping) before getting into cycles that are based in sprints. Below the line, agencies will more than likely have several different ways they measure the success of each cycle, providing data and feedback the team uses for the next cycle.

A bigger upfront discovery process (like research, planning and strategy and scoping) before getting into cycles that are based in sprints. Below the line, agencies will more than likely have several different ways they measure the success of each cycle, providing data and feedback the team uses for the next cycle.

Agencies that follow this methodology have done this because they believe that a producer-like person is best able to managed the complexities of a wide range of projects that may require a lot of internal production and external production resources.

Integrated producers follow much of what a traditional project manager does, they may create and build scopes and manage teams end-to-end. The idea of having an integrated producer came about as creative agencies saw a need to share thought processes, creative and resources across a wide range of media. These producers often were the connecting piece that really helped to tie together the content development portion of a project.

For example, say the integrated producer was producing our imaginary Superbowl spot. This commercial would perhaps be only one part of the larger conceptual campaign or larger Super Bowl project. They may shoot additional content for youtube, or produce a live in-game spot that ties back in to the campaign. They may also be involved in overseeing microsite, or application that ties everything together. 

Integrated project management, however is defined very differently across agencies.

Integrated producers manage for the most part, integrated campaigns or at least large portions of them. The project methods in which they work is very similar to agile processes, but they also have the added task of coordinating projects across a range of media. They may use waterfall methods, but do so in either dedicated teams, or be the project management hub as different specialists come and go during a project. 

In many cases, integrated project management means that traditional agency roles, like copywriter and art directors are coupled with developers or creative technologists. 

Integrated teams are also typically managed and with team members that are often called T-shaped. T-shaped people are thought of as highly skilled in at least one area that they can contribute to the creative process (e.g. web development, art direction) and highly collaborative, empathetic of different perspectives and interested in many other fields and skills. 

T-shape people are theoretically able to pull from from all different types of thinking and views to  build integrated thinking. (I know it sounds confusing, but its a pretty simple concept).

In integrated agencies you might see more hybrid like roles, like user experience coupled with design, an analyst that does SEO and CRM, or a designer that is also a developer.


The biggest take-away for this article is to understand the reasons why an agency may choose one method over another. There are pros and cons to each way of working. That the methodology in which an agency works is closely aligned with agency values and beliefs. Creative organizations do not have clear cut methods of workings and often blend different thinking together so it fits their culture.

To learn more about building any of these project management systems into your organization, contact Ed at today.