Project Management in Nontraditional Environments

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Some people see advertising as primarily a creative business -- antithetical to the rigor and disciplines of project management. But the complexities of today's marketing mix are changing that perception.
Agencies and clients who spent the past century perfecting project management functions around print, broadcast and direct mail are being forced to readjust systems to the complexities and rapid-fire change of digital marketing.

Two worlds are colliding.

Digital teams view process as an essential science. The project manager is the team lead that everyone depends on for risk management, communication, client management, profitability and ultimate success.
But traditional advertising teams tend to see process in a different light. They look to their account and creative directors as the team leads. The project manager, while important, often takes on a more administrative role, ensuring resources are in place, schedules are communicated to vendors and paperwork is complete.

When I took on my first role as a manager of a project management office (PMO) for a large ad agency two years ago, the difference between these two worlds became vividly clear to me in a conversation with one of our creative directors:

Me: We need to translate the client brief into a statement of work so we have a specific record of what we'll be delivering.

Creative Director: We don't know what we'll be delivering yet.

Me: Then we should meet with the client to understand business requirements and document them for sign-off.

Creative Director: I know what the client wants, but I'm going to tell them what they need.

Me: Then how do I budget resources, document our success metrics and track the progress of the project?

Creative Director: That's your problem. We'll let you know when we get there.

It was an eye-opener, to be sure. But eventually I was able to adjust my view of what the team was trying to achieve. I set a baseline process to create a flexible methodology that would allow us to pull in elements that were appropriate, and not commit time to requirements that didn't lend a lot of value.

Some of these changes included a flexible, scalable methodology that allowed teams to pull in elements relevant to their process. This allowed them to:

  • Maintain efficiency while ensuring consistency across the agency
  • Reinforce the "triangle of truth" (good, fast, cheap) in the scoping process to ensure profitability
  • Implement grassroots efforts to reinforce the importance of maintaining rigor in the process through tactics like "Lunch and Learn" sessions to discuss our process and the risks inherent in not following it.
Have you ever been in a situation like this? What have you done to maintain rigor in your environment when the project at hand did not readily lend itself to the traditional project management processes?
Posted by Geoff Mattie on: September 07, 2010 02:19 PM | Permalink

Comments (9)

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Michael O'Neill
Excellent article, Geoff! When worlds collide, indeed! Now, two years into it, how do you think your colleagues at the ad agency would describe the role of project management in their organization? I'm curious to know if they still view it as a largely administrative role or not. Also, did the agency specifically want change when they hired you, or did they get it (or not) as a bonus? Again, great article. I'm very interested in the topic and really value your first hand account of it. -Michael

Stan Yanakiev
Creative projects are an obvious case where traditional project management methods like scope management do not work well due to ambiguity of requirements that develop over the project. For such projects I would consider using Iterative and Agile approaches (like SCRUM).

Geoff Mattie
Hi Michael, thanks.

I believe the view of Project Management in this environment is always evolving. However, there is clear understanding and support for the value that is added from the PMO, especially as Projects become more complex. The onus now is really on on me and my team to maintain our value add and relevancy through continuing to provide meaningful process guidance while not creating roadblocks for the Creative and Strategic teams.

I will actually be diving into this a little more deeply in my next post so stay tuned!

Glen Sheehan
LOL. This is so true to what we face every day. And I am a creative director.

Paula Anderson
I am also interested to know how your agency views project management now. I work for a brand design firm where the role of project management is gray. This is partly due to our roles evolving and partly due to skill level of some of our account executives. Their roles are really more of account managers than executives. Some of what they do should be and could be handled by project management. In my view, project management here isn't recognized as more than an administrative assistant. If you have resources or suggestions how I can educate my agency about the role of project management, I'd be open to hearing about them. Paula

John Bautista
Hi Geoff,

In my humble opinion, one of the root-causes for this kind of stakeholder/PM dialogue originates from having a few too many unknown unknowns (or “unk-unk’s”).

This kind of exchange reminds me when a consultant once told me that “…we’ll do whatever it is you want us to do, you’re the Project Manager.” Or when a stakeholder said to me something along the lines of “As the PM, you’re going to be the one to blame if something goes wrong-so I’m not going to worry about it.”

It was a very hard lesson to learn but (eventually) I realized that part of my job was to weed out the unk-unk’s as much as possible BEFORE telling the client what we needed to do. As tough and as time-consuming this may be, experience dictates that “efficiency” is a function of how much “extra value” the PM gets out of the “extra work” required to make the unknowns known.

As an example, one of the tools I used to communicate more effectively with a stakeholder was a SIPOC diagram – used when running a Lean Six Sigma project for an IT company. This seemingly simple tool brought high-level processes into better focus for the stakeholders to better understand why I was asking for certain pieces of information and why I wanted to be precise about what our objective was.

Many times the client doesn’t know what they want until you (as the PM) help them make that determination with tools presented in a language that they understand.

That’s my two-pennies worth,
John Bautista

Brenda Hernandez
Excellent article!

As a PMP with more than 10yrs of experience in the areas of Marketing and PR I know first-hand how challenging it could be to balance the work styles of the right-brained people (creative) vs the left-brained (pragmatic).
I am so glad you wrote about this. Project Management is a profession that can add value to any field, not just IT or Construction. As challenging as it is, project management has contributed to the success of many of the marketing communications projects in my career.

Keep posting these topics!

Erin Lynn Young
I liked the way that agencies of my past have handled it, scoping the discovery & user experience design effort separate from the production.

This protects the bid-placer in so many ways.

Damian Sian
The creative agency can benefit from the formalized approaches of project management on many levels. I agree with the author that the barriers are dissolving between the two worlds. I have been writing a blog series dedicated to applying the fundamentals of project management, six sigma, and lean manufacturing to the world of the creative agency process in hopes of furthering this conversation.

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