The Mechanics of Managing Creative Projects

Before we get into the mechanics of what a project manager does (like responsibilities and stuff) we should get something clear.  This job can be hard, mind bending and stressful. Even if you are a great “technical player” as my son’s soccer coach puts it, if your interpersonal skills (team skills) aren’t there, you are not going to last long in the position.

Sometimes it can be difficult to work with others. Get to know your team, your client, and your extended co-workers. Get to know as many people in the agency that you can. If you are working in a creative environment (or any environment for that matter) you are probably working with some really interesting people. Get to know them, understand how best to work with them, and your job from a technical standpoint will be a lot easier. The same goes for you as well, let people know who you are, be a real part of the team.

Simply put, a project manager is someone that not only leads the project management process, but leads the project team. While there may be other team “leads,” creative project managers need to be given and feel that they have ownership of the project in order to be successful, they need to be a bit of entrepreneur when it comes to approaching project solutions.  

However, there is a another major factor at the core of being a successful creative project manager. They have to be technical competent (to a certain extent) in the area(s) in which they are managing. 

We call this the “Project Management Leader’s Portfolio of Skills.” It’s a range of skill sets that you need have in order to become a successful project leader. (Barron & Burke) The portfolio of skills are sub divided in four main categories, Technical Management, Project Entrepreneurship, Project Management and Project Leadership. (Barron & Burke)

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 projects, small or grouped together for a campaign or launch. Project managers may go by different titles in different firms, they may even have additional job responsibilities. 

However, to be a real project manager in the organization, no matter what your title, you have to be empowered to move beyond managing tasks, to leading the process and teams.

Project managers may also utilize or adopt different methods of project management to run projects. In the last section of this book, we will look at three project management methodologies that creative project managers often use in their daily operations. 

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. However, As a project manager, you are the link between the different internal departments. Your goal is to keep the project moving along, upholding it’s larger vision. How much of a project’s manager’s responsibilities can also depend on if they are client-facing and can address client issues, or are just coordinating with an account management team.

In today’s creative firm, you are more than likely going to work intimately with teams (and clients) to help lead the team through the process, rather than just acting as an outside observer of the work being accomplished. The role of a project manager in many agencies requires entrepreneurial skills where you have the ability to not only spot problems, but spot opportunities, solve problems and network with a wide range of contacts to get you project to completion. (Barron & Burke)

In a creative firm, process can be rather simple, and some basics of project managing that are similar, no matter what methodologies you follow. These are the basics of project management, tailored specifically to the creative environment. 

Creative project management skills:

Often follow similar life-cycle steps. 

  • Start with an ask, either from the client or internally.
  • Have a series of objectives and/or deliverables that need to be met.
  • Require risk assessment.
  • Require a project scope to define timing, resources and costs.
  • Require breaking down the project into tasks.
  • Require approvals or agreements.
  • Require planning.
  • Team formation.
  • Forecasting and managing resources
  • Have processes that require input and output that feed one or more processes or steps.
  • Determination of start or end on a particular life-cycle(s) phase.
  • Require tracking, reporting.
  • Require delivery.
  • Assessment of project success and team dissolution.

No matter what your creative firm’s process is designed to be, this is pretty much what you do. As a project manager you may or not be responsible for setting the goals of the project, or business objectives before a project starts, typically these things are defined before they get to you. 

However, that’s changing. More and more, creative firms are finding themselves either partnering with their clients on defining business objectives, or helping to establish them. 

All project have stakeholders, the people who have an interest in the outcome of a project. If you’ve worked with clients before, you can see that some stakeholders have more power than others, when it comes to the project outcome. You also have stakeholders on your side as well, like your boss. As a project manager you are also a stakeholder, and the only one that is going to be in contact and interact with all of the project’s stakeholders. 

By increasing stakeholder involvement, you have to be aware how this is going to effect the process, your team and your use of project leadership skills. While some projects have pre-defined outcomes, in a creative environment, as a project leader, it’s up to you to communicate the vision, outline the strategies to complete the project, and motivating and empowering your team. (Barron & Burke)

Depending on what steps in the process you are a part of, you can have a very direct influence over the project, this means you need to know that not only do you have the right people doing to the job, but evaluating if everyone can do their job and to ensure that everyone is doing their job. 

Understand the context of the project, don’t take anything for granted.

Just like all projects have stakeholders, all projects have deliverables, both project management related (like an SOW) as well as project related. 

As a creative project manager, you have a very large stake in what phases your project is or is not going to cover. This may require you to negotiate internally and externally about what is or will not be covered or expected. More importantly, you have to have a firm grasp of who the stakeholders are internally and externally, and understand what they want and what the real balance is between the client and the agency in order to determine what needs to get done.

Determining what needs to be done is called project scope. Once a scope is set, it can be pretty hard to make adjustments. This is why as a project manager you need to be well aware of all the processes your project are going to have and inter-connect with during its life-cycle.

All project processes will consume some form of resources as well. As a project manager, your not only going to be called upon to determine what the resources are going to be, but also for tracking the use or overuse of the resources.

When looking at how to determine resources, it helps to look at the life-cycles of the project, how you are going to move from one step to the next. By evaluating your resources against the project’s life cycle, you will also be able to determine how long the project is going to take.

However here are some typical project life-cycle phases that you will find in the creative environment:

  • Initial Engagement
  • Project Definition
  • Strategy or Discovery 
  • Planning 
  • Concept
  • Develop (or design)
  • Produce / Build / Execute
  • Release
  • Measure
  • Iterate 
  • Close

Depending on your agency’s process, you may run these life-cycles linearly, or you may repeat several of these phases in a iterative process. What you do during these phases in order to complete the project successfully is called a project’s scope. Developing a project’s scope, defining it and have control over it, is an important part of a project manager’s job.

In creative land, projects are more likely to be seen as temporary. Sure, some of our projects, like a major website or mobile application could last twelve months or more, but more than likely our projects are built to predetermined launch dates for some form of advertising (like a broadcast commercial) or content that has an expiration date. 

This means for the most part projects do have clear-cut beginnings and ends (even if your agency & client practice agile or lean methodologies). 

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. Project time management, the sequencing of events, establishing a schedule, defining activities and what processes to use is also a key responsibility.

Even in Agile environments creative projects have an execution environment where each major release of a project can be looked at, measured and improved upon, leading to a new release that builds upon what worked and limits what didn’t. The iteration can be a minor improvement, or can spawn a whole new set of creative deliverables. The perspective here is that while the team may play a part in what they do from a time management perspective, project management still plays a role to keep the team on track.

At the same time, 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, and you will plan, estimate, budget and control those costs. As a project manager one of the most important parts of your job is to manage the budget. (And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.)

All projects have limited amounts of time and resources to complete a project. 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. This is where project quality management ties in. As a project manager, you play a large role in ensuring that you have what you need to make sure the project comes off as planned.

Internal Projects

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.

Understanding what “success” means - keep your eye on project outcomes.

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. Understanding what “success” means is to understand how to handle and manage project risk.

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. Early identification of what could and can wrong, and having a plan to mitigate that risk is important.

Your scope writing may even help you with how you might manage risks (like going over budget or out-of-scope client requests). But it is up to you to continually assess risk.

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 (PMI) PMBOK book — we have just outlined many of the skills defined in the book as important knowledge skill areas. While creative project managers and digital project managers may not do all of the deep planning of what’s included in the PMBOK, we certainly apply many of the concepts to our ways of working. 

For example, as a project manager, you are going to be responsible for stakeholder management. While you may never officially use the word stakeholder, we certainly have them and understand the importance of identifying who they are and ensuring that we meet their expectations and needs. 

One of your tasks as a project manager is to ensure that client and internal stakeholders (your boss, you team, functional leads, creative directors, etc) are all on the same page in what is going to make the project successful. As a project manager it’s not just ensuring you get approvals for phases, steps or tasks within the project, it’s about making sure that the needs of all these different people are addressed and managed.

The complexity of what you do over the course of being a project manager, is called integration management. It’s where all your planning comes together (or doesn’t) to execute your project, it’s often a seemingly crazy set of network processes 

And your going to have to be a little creative in managing:

  • Complex assignments, with intertwining processes and deliverables
  • Engaging with a large group of people, with different personalities, goals, skills and availability.
  • Navigating agency and client politics.
  • Project stakeholders often have overlapping roles and authority.
  • Managing risk, resources and budgets.
  • Navigating new processes that no one in the agency has gone through before, and bringing them along.
  • Managing change in the agency.
  • Manage outside services (procurement) and integrate them into the internal processes.
  • Managing client expectations within tight budgets or resources.
  • Working with extreme personalities.
  • A lead responsibility for delivering a project.

Even in the most informal of creative settings, this management process is going to have some formality in the form of how you handle;

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
  • Communications
  • Agency / Client Communications
  • Project Governance
  • Rules of Engagement / Communication
  • Maintaining Project Collaboration
  • Project Status 
  • Tracking & Process
  • Internal and External Costs Tracking
  • Change Management (Change Orders)
  • Managing Risk 
  • Scope and Planning

For me, the most important document that you are going to need, to help you not only plan your project out, but form a contract between you and your client, is your Scope-of-Work (SOW). 

While your client may provide a “brief,” a document that outlines what the ask is for their particular problem, it is rare that you can use that document alone in planning and scoping out the project. 

    Therefore, it is helpful to visual how the project is going to be run. There is nothing wrong (and I think should be mandatory in your agency) that you talk to your team and do a bit of planning BEFORE you send a scope of work or estimate to the client. 

As a creative project manager, while we may be given a brief, an agency’s point-of-view on what should be done can be very different. It’s not just about how much something is going to cost or when it is due, it’s, “is the project we are being asked to do, solve the business problem they are trying to address.” Strategically thinking is the agency and client aligned in their understanding of not only what is being asked, but identification of what the real business problem is. 

    To help us along, hopefully, your client will provide the agency with their own project brief. Your job, is to make sure that everyone is on the same page from all these levels.

The 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 should be responsible for creating the scope-of-work. It’s basically the client & agency contract for how, why and when. It’s a project-level contract that basically gets everyone on the same page on how the project is going to be run and what outcomes are expected.

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 the legal document / agreement for working 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

The Kick-off Meeting

Once (and 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 plan) as new information or detailed background information comes in from the client.

You also get your team to agree to the timing. Only then should you 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 (but, not always) of what deliverables are required. These deliverables are sometimes in the form of campaigns, platforms, products or other services. Agencies may use the word “tactics” to describe deliverables of different types of media or platforms. Platforms while typically a digital term, indicates what base(s) or foundations(s) you are going to use to build on to communicate.   

The Creative Brief

A creative brief is a document that describes the strategy behind the communications, or project development. A briefcan include a variety of different information, from 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. It may include research, data, background information on the client, its competitors and other analytical data. 

Once you have your scope signed, brief done and your team has formed, you can finally get to the first stages of you project. As a project manager, be fully prepared to be able to now manage and track your resources. 

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

So far we’ve talked a lot about project management and leadership, but we should identify and recognize that a creative project’s success is less about your leadership than it is about your team’s ownership of the project. The level of command and control over your team needs to be balanced with the values of your agency.

Let’s make something clear, you and your team share ownership of the project.

Managing creative folks is not an easy task. You will never get your team to work at a high-performing level unless you work as a peer and facilitator at the team formation stages and beyond.

Communicating Needs

How you communicate and manage communications can really set a project’s tone. Remember, you are also responsible for project communication — both with the team, your client and perhaps other agency leads.

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

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. Weekly status meetings with the internal team (or combined with the client) to go over the “status” of all over where you are on a client’s projects can be at the agency, client, team or project based level. 

Project Status

As a project manager, you are going to be called upon in some fashion to communicate where a project is in it’s “status” on a rather regular level. It’s doesn’t matter what methodology or technology you are using, it’s just that your stakeholders are going to ask and have expectations for understanding at any point in time how things are going.

Depending on the methodologies that you are using and the level of detail that your stakeholders require, you can be expected to be able to communicate;

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

Now a lot of what you do here, in regards to the needs or level of record keeping depends on you agency, and can be very subjective. In all cases, however, 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 team’s best efforts. And if those efforts suck, then you need to stand-up and be ready to address those issues, from the quality of the work, to levels of risk and for change management. 

If a change comes in, you need a 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. This may also delve into human resource issues that can be complex and sensitive. 

While this level of communication can be the hardest thing you do, there are other communication methods that are going to be a bit easier and common in practice.

More than likely you will have to communicate project status in some different formats. They could be client meetings or calls, updating about issues and roadblocks, progress and impediments.

As a project manager, you may be called upon to document meetings or calls, and share the communication with the team in some format.

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), requiring other paperwork like purchase orders, invoices and timesheets.

Financially, you will be tasked with maintaining costs the level of which depends on the agency. You may have to approve timesheets, or just check reports and burn-rates. You may also come up with other methods of tracking and managing project profitability. 

The point is, that while their is a mechanical level to what you need to communicate, it’s more important to understand and be sensitive to what and how you communicate. Giving people the right information at the right time so they can act on it. The mechanics of project management are done for a reason, they help to support and directly effect a firm’s profitability and ability to maintain client’s and stay in business.

When you are working through all of these seemingly mechanical tasks, put your business hat on and think about the importance of what you are doing from a business level. While it takes the whole team to complete a project, you are a shepard that the business relies on greatly.