When to Lead, Manage or Just be a Part of a Creative Team

In today’s creative firm, you are going to work with a range of team members. The size and make up of your team is going to vary from project-to-project, agency to agency. What one person is called versus what they actual do at an agency can also be very different, just as the definition of a project manager varies widely from one agency to the next.

This is pretty natural and normal. When an agency is small, it has to be flexible. People wear a lot of hats and as the agency grows it morphs and expands based on the need for a specific specialization. 

It also expands based on the initial personalities of the people that it hires. Project management in a creative agency can take on some pretty unusual forms. 

As methodologies matured differently across the range of creative firms, more than likely, they played to the strengths of key individuals, who would mold and shape the firms individual disciplines. Coupled with the focus and values of the agency, how a place manages work can be very different from to another.

Managing a group of people in a creative environment is not for everyone. It’s not an easy role. This is why working with your team as part of it will help you in the long run. 

Beyond the mechanics of running a project, and figuring out some crazy team dynamics, you are also one of the de facto people that has to evaluate the project to ensure that a creative need is being met, creatively. You have to help the team stay involved in the project at an emotional level, ensure that the team is generating new ideas, that people are working together as a team, and that they increase, share and leverage new knowledge. 

This is why working in a team environment is important. Because it stretches people, to work together and push each others performance.

What failure means to bunch of creative folks. 

What does fail often and fail early actually mean? At the base level, I think we can all understand it means that its okay to make mistakes, to try lots of things early on, to learn what doesn’t work so we can learn what will work.

To a creative team, failure means change or abandoning work they emotionally spent a lot of time on. Creativity encourage you to be emotionally involved and demands it. Creativity by its nature requires high level of engagement. 

As a team leader, you have to be there for your team when things swing into an intensity where people are either about to give up, or become obsessed to the point where their judgement goes off the rails. 

Coming up with new ideas all the time isn’t easy.  It’s about looking at what was done before and blowing it up to create something new. It requires deconstructing the past to build something new. 

For some people this is easy, for others it can be hard to even think about how to begin. It’s certainly easy to go with the tried and true, and you may not be able to reinvent everything all the time. But there will always be someone else waiting in the wings to take advantage of something you didn’t do or didn’t try. 

Working in teams, and I mean really working together as a team has some big advantages. Different viewpoints and perspectives even at the team level, helps people focus on developing kernels of thought. Think about how a jazz band plays when they jam. Some one starts with a simple idea, and the next guy plays off a beat or a riff, and all of a sudden you have a whole band creating something and playing off of each other. That’s what happens with teams that really jell and work together.

Encouraging that it is okay to fail, helps the team test their ideas and learn from them.

It also requires that you let the team be a team, and why your role as a project manager is to remove as many constraints as possible. This may also mean letting go of a specific constraint that is considered too sacred to change. As a project manager you may lean towards being compliant in process, but sometimes you have to be an advocate of breaking down even some of the pillars that hold the project up.

In many agencies, nothing upsets me more than people who hoard knowledge. As a team or agency leader, the more sharing that happens, the greater the opportunity. I don’t want account people to hold back on anything that team doesn’t need to know about now. I don’t want teams to be so segregated that they never share knowledge. 

Build in lots of ways in your agency that help build learning. The more knowledge you have as a group, the more you can pull from to tackle creative problems.

Everyone is creative.

Creative is a quality, not a title. Everyone has, can and will contribute to your team. Don’t put up with someone who says, “I’m not creative.” That’s an excuse not to contribute. 

Who Makes up the Team

However, we can bucket some key roles that you are going to typically run into. Every role isn’t required for every project. In many cases, you may find one person fulfilling more than one role, or have a set of knowledge that covers more than one area.

That’s ok, but as a project manager, you have to be aware that you are looking to have a balanced team that has all the necessary roles that you are going to need to complete a project.

The dynamics of working with people who are multi-disciplined can be powerful. However, it can be a challenge, as on the individual level, some people have a very naturally tendency to fall back and focus on what comes natural to them at a deep skill level. So as a project progresses in stages, you may find people drifting to different states of mind. 

To add a level of complexity, we have to understand that you have to build a team where you also have a balance of personalities. This is why collaboration in teams is important, so we can help each other focus, debate and build on each others ideas.

The categories that we are going to cover on the team level are open for debate. More than one person might fit a role for your project, or you may need several people of the same type. Or one person might be part of the team for only a short time. Remember, the title the person has on their business card may be different than the role they have during a project.

People at the team level in a creative firm:


These are the people that perform new business and work with the client for an initial engagement period. 

Project Manager or Producer

Are the people that manage the process, they can be project managers, producers, product or program managers and scrum masters. These are the people that ensure that the actual project will be produced. They lead the team, moving work along, act as a catalyst for change, helping the agency to experiment.

Creative Leads

Creative directors, copywriters, art directors & designers of all sizes and shapes. However, creative leads can also have a technical background (like a creative technologist) and creativity is now a team effort. These are the people that make sure everything from a visual standpoint is as best as it can be. 


Storytellers can range from copywriters, editors to other creatives. These are the people that own and tell narrative storytelling or content.


All levels of strategists from brand, product, social, user experience to researchers & analysts. In some agencies, strategists and strategic thinking can be both an internal and external exercise. It can also play a role in business development. Strategists focus on helping solve business solutions.


These are the people that make stuff and content, they can be photographers, motion graphics, editors, animators, videographers, or construct and build physical things. These are the people that make and craft.

Developers / Tech Guys

These are the people that write the code, front-end & back-end, applications, they are your programmers and digital architects or engineers.

Experience Thinkers

These are your user experience people, to map out consumer journeys and find the most effective places to interact, help and to affect the consumer.  While you may have UX (User Experience) people in the agency, other team members that contribute include your developers, creative leads, storytellers and strategists.


Any one (or everyone) on the team. Traditional account or creative team presentation and presenters have evolved to include new ways of presenting in-progress not just phased work.

The Client (and end users)

In today’s agency model, clients are and should be part of the team. We are seeing a shift in our working methods more towards collaboration instead of the traditional client/agency model. This can be said for all project management methodologies. Agencies are looking to disrupt the usual brief, creative brief, creative, production cycles, where clients are included a lot earlier and more often. 

Not all team structures are the same, many agencies and creative firms continue to rethinking their team structure. You may have a technology lab, a production studio, or a physical workshop.

While the digital revolution has shaken up the creative industry, it has also brought with it opportunities to reinvent how we tackle creative work, or what an agency is and does in today’s post-digital world.

Your team members will depend a lot on this new thinking. As you look to rethink your team structures, it can be helpful to keep five key things in mind.

What are your cultural values as an organization, and how can you incorporate them into your structure?

What new value or offerings are you looking to bring to the table?

What ways will this new team structure fit into a profitable business model?

What ways will this new structure make you better able to tackle creativity and innovation with agility and speed?

How will this new structure reduce agency bloat and organizational bureaucracy.

Your agency model should consist of generalists with specialties (our T-shaped folks), who are accompanied with a network of deep specialists who will work together as a team.

Old school account planning and media in the new model has shifted into a range of new strategic thinking roles. Everyone in the agency can contribute to consumer insights and everyone has the responsibility to start their work from these insights. However, stand-alone strategists or hybrid strategists are a big part of a creative firm’s model. 

Everyone in the agency has to contribute to ideation and execution. But we have to honor diversity of thinking so as not to succumb to group-think. At the end of the day, the agency is judged by the end product, and the quality of that product.

Traditional media thinking has also changed. Today’s creative work is tied closely to actual channels, and we live in a time where clients, agencies and channel media are working together to come up with new options all the time.

The new agency model requires multi-disciplined thinking. And we’ve seen roles and titles being reflected and adopted that place value in this type of cross-functional thinking.

We are also seeing other groups of specialists being brought into the extended team on a project-by-project basis, from data scientists, to cultural anthropologists, sociologists to client financial managers to business partnership experts, product developers, and more.

Build a workspace

You creative agency needs to be more than a workplace. It needs to be a safe environment, where you and your co-workers can be yourself, ask dumb questions, and admit that you don’t know everything. Cut through the baggage of big egos. When you create a place where you can be you, make sure everyone can be themselves. More importantly, create a space where people can be better than who they are. Drop the act, be truthful and create a place where people feel they can share in both the work and the rewards.
    Passion is a word that is often overused. People just want to know that you care about the work and about them. They want to know that you are going to listen to them and not ignore them or “yes” them. Be nice to each other. Don’t put up with bullying or finger-pointing. 

You don’t have to be an agency owner to create this space. As a team or project leader, you have the ability to create this space for your team. It’s not a hard thing to do when you make the effort. It’s when you stop making the effort that it becomes hard.