Traditional Creative Project Management

Before we look forward, we should take a look back at how traditional project management has worked in agency models before. This chapter walks through some of the ways project management has grown into providing layers of gates and levels of control. 

At the core of the creative agency is an understanding that you make stuff, you get your hands dirty, and you step out of your comfort zone in order to make things happen. Traditional project management does this by developing a plan that tackles the creative problems in phases. 

However, that doesn’t mean that stages of working don’t cross-over or you don’t work with common team members all the way through a project. The creative process, is still a collaborate one even at this level. Project management helps speed things along by breaking things down into steps, and tasks 

Creating great work even in the traditional model still requires the whole team to work together. Following a path is often comfortable, it helps you to check off the boxes – helping to make sure that when things go off track you are still headed in the right direction. At the same time, following a very rigid path is counter to how things really work in a creative agency. We may add rounds of creative ideation, discovery phases, testing, or split the project up into new sets of deliverables. If your agency is working project based it can get messy at times.

Traditional creative project management or agency process follows typical waterfall stages, starting with a briefing stage, and ending with a closing stage.

In this article we are going to examine some a waterfall path, to just get an idea of the layers in which all sorts of creative firms might get involved at any one stage. 

We are going to look at two different sets of workflow process, this first example is going to show the workflow where the agency has three roles that handle parts of project management, an account person, a project manager and a producer. In the second example, we will look at a similar process where the project manager plays a larger role.

What I should stress is that these example of workflow exist in agencies, but they are more representative of the past. As you walk through this process, think about all of the people that are involved in the process. Think about the layers, and levels of approvals that you have built into your process, and think about ways in which you could simplify your work flow.

Evaluate your own process to identify redundancies, eliminate steps that seem to overlap without sacrificing the level of work quality. Define your agency goals, and incorporate ways of measuring progress towards these goals when defining your agency process. Map out your process, prototype it, and test it out. You can use role playing to examine potential flaws or additional areas for simplifying. Lastly, include the people who have to implement and work in the new process together with outside evaluators.

Even the traditional project management model has variations on the way it’s implemented.

When we talk about traditional project management, we are really identifying project management as a stand-alone group of project managers that neither report into account services or the creative side. Typically they may have their own director of project management. They are seen as independent, having control over the scope of a project, but often work with other team leads to coordinate the larger creative process. They are also seen as billable and client-facing. In some agencies they have very tight control over the details of a project, in others they play a team lead role, and in other agencies they are seen as facilitators. In reality, project managers that are effective play all three roles when appropriate. 

As you look through the workflow, think about ways that you can simplify roles and redundancies.

Stage 1 & 2: Defining the project & estimating

Before you even look to estimate, you should ask if the project is right for your agency.

Assessing if a project is right for your agency, or determining if an ask is even the right question to be asking is an important part of an agency’s process. In the next chart, we get to see the traditional scope, estimate and approval process. As you can see, traditional project management looks at finites. What the projects phases are going to be, what resources are going to be needed, and what it is going to take to get the job done. 

Here, the project manager works with other department heads who will probably help assemble the final project team.

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Stage 3: Building the Internal Creative Brief

In the next section, we see that the creative brief creation is lead by the account lead, which could be an account planner as well.

Wow, up to step three already, and the agency hasn’t started work. What is missing here, is the strategic development stage, which follows has its own workflow. 

However, the creative brief does play an important role. Clarity is very important. At a creative shop, what you are going to be tasked to do is, well is kind of vast. Having some direction will save you from spinning your wheels on an assignment. A clear creative brief spells out the challenges, but also places some limitations so you don’t burn through all of the budget before completing the assignment.

For creative or strategic assignments it will fall to the assigned account manager, or your internal strategist to generate a brief. In both cases, the brief gets approved by the client before work begins.

An agency brief needs augmentation.

There may be a whole strategic exercise that either was completed or needs to be completed in as part of the creative assignment. You need to add your timing, and your budget information. But more importantly, you need to question the brief itself. Is it the true ask? Or, has the client forget something?

Complete the brief and get the client to sign off. Have them approve it, just like you make them approve original scopes of work. This helps to prevent scope creep and helps sets expectations.

Stage 4: Project Kick-Off Meeting

Kick-off meetings are pretty common to all most any process methodology.  But there are different types of kick-off meetings with different agendas. Some will fall under the larger “creative strategy” of why we doing this umbrella and ones that are more production oriented.

For main creative or strategic assignments it will fall to the assigned account manager to set up a meeting with the client. The project manager will set up the meeting with the team internally.  For production job starts, the project manager is usually the main lead is initiating and holding the job start meeting.

In either case, the team manager is then responsible for following up with the client or the team with a recap of the meeting, next steps, and would be tasked with following up with the client in regards to any outstanding issues.

Stage 5: The ideation / creative stage or phase

Once the project initiation or job start meeting happens, its off to the races. It’s important during the creative phase that everyone works as a team and checks in with each other at this stage. The biggest risk is blowing schedules or budgets. This is why you depend on each other to keep the entire project on track.

Team leadership happens this way during the creative process, the project manager keeps the team on task, keeps track of the master schedule and overall resource costs, if needed, consults with the producer to keep the production team prepped, on task, keep track of the production schedule and potential resource costs and need changes, the account manager keeps the client informed and happy.

Note that this workflow chart follows through on developing conceptual work. In this workflow, you may work in teams, or perhaps some functional silos.

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Stage 6: The Production or Execution Stage / Phase

A large part of your culture should be the fact that you make stuff. Craft is important to your success and you should care about the production process.

Production at an agency can range across media, platforms and well almost anything. Sometimes you hire people to help out, sometimes you make it and sometimes it is a large collaboration with outside resources. Your producers are very important during this phase of a project. 

They are the team leaders – the conductors running the train. However, that doesn’t mean they work in a vacuum. Part of what makes an agency special is your attention to craft. That means that the creative teams play a role in your production proces/s The producer role as we see here has broken out of this model in a big way. The way to think about this workflow process is to imagine the firm shooting a commercial or shoot for a campaign.

Stage 7: Final Release / QA

Keep up the quality before releasing it to the world. The last step in your process is quality control. No matter what type of project the agency produces or creates, we all participate in making sure the work that gets out is as perfect as it can be. While our lead here at this stage is the project producer. The entire team should participate with a clear head at this stage in the work.

Take the time, double check it, play with it, test it, check all links, go over the entire user experience, phone numbers, web addresses, spell check, etc. This is your last chance to get things right and the last thing you need is to get a format or phone number wrong, some grandma in the midwest is going to be pretty cross with you if her number winds up on some social media contest site instead of your clients.

Doing a post-mortem.

The project is complete and out the door. But the of the traditional project manager isn’t done yet. Besides taking care of final billing they work with the production for completing their financial worksheets, reviewing invoices and insuring that all bills are in properly.

Your editing, development team and design staff are responsible for properly organizing their files on the server so they can be properly archived and more importantly are put to sleep in a way that the work can be reawakened and reused. That means completing a project post-mortem.

Your project managers, should also complete a project end form as well, and all projects should get a final review with your PMO. Keep records & documentation so you can “resurrect” the project again if needed.

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