The buck stops here. One of the reasons a project manager at your average ad agency typically clocks 10+ hours a day in her timesheets is because we’re responsible for managing budgets, developing project plans, communicating all project expectations, graciously herding the team along the primrose path of the timeline, and coming up with ad hoc yet detailed solutions if (read: when) a project tumbles off-track.
Sound exhausting? Well, that’s merely the run-of-the-mill all-consuming PM work — as opposed to your typical creative PM work, which is a wee bit trickier. By which we mean: A lot trickier. Here’s an overview of the proficiencies that every creative PM must master in order to own a project from start to finish.
Know the creative team’s skills.
A creative department at any given agency is a roster of what appears to be a limited smattering of roles. A few designers, a couple copywriters, an animator, and a creative director… That’s about it, right?
Wrong. One designer might excel at composition but not be the best illustrator. A copywriter might knock out a 3,000-word blog in a morning, but can’t trot out a headline if you gave him a week. Creative project managers, then, have to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the team they’re assigning work to. But the larger challenge is piecing together each tessera of that team’s capabilities, which will eventually form the mosaic of the creative work we produce for our clients.
Our job essentially involves pairing talents to the exigencies of each assignment to ignite beautiful work. But all the variables rarely cohere neatly. A web design project comes hurtling in and it looks like we can throw some designers at it. Sounds nice, but the designers who are available are more adept at concepting campaigns than laying out websites. Now the project manager needs to juggle around other work to free up those designers on staff who are better suited to web work. Remember when we said it gets tricky? Stand with one foot on a tricycle while balancing a piano on your nose — that’s a decent training-wheels exercise for being a creative project manager.
Understand the creative process.
Ah, yes, the creative process. We love our creatives, but let’s be honest: What other job lets you take a walk in the middle of your work-day so you can get your creative pomegranate juices fermenting? Certainly, the phrase “the creative process” can be obnoxious, but those creatives ain’t lying when they say things like “Our craft takes time.” Unlike practically every other department that PMs work with, the fine folks in creative are always cycling through a tortuous back-and-forth of refining ideas, swapping out subheads, squinting at the kerning — and all this takes time. Time that no one has.
Ergo, creative project managers must be fluent in Creative. They may not be able to design themselves, but they know why a designer would request an XD file (as opposed to an AI file) from a client. These Renaissance professionals can spot an orphan in a copy layout, check image sizes before sending them to the dev team, explain the difference between a serif and sans serif font, budget in enough time to select colors and review CMYK proofs. The creatives make the work look good. We make the creatives look good.
An excellent creative project manager checks that the disclosure copy on the bottom of an ad is accurate — and then zooms back out to view the entirety of a project in its waterfalling harmony. They’re also graced with that innate sensibility that propels a great server through a restaurant: The gift of anticipation.
Let’s say a client wants a rush-order of banner ads. The PM figures out where those ads are routing the user to and if the content and design the agency produces should ladder up to a landing page. They ask which words are off-limits so the copywriters don’t waste time slinging out headlines that’ll get tossed. They deal with issues before they occur, in part because, like a server, they’re always hustling, staying in the background, weaving together a seamless experience while few people are even aware of them.
Instill confidence and trust.
On the topic of hustling: Build rapport with the creatives, for sure, but be wary of unspooling too much time into conversations that aren’t work-related. No need to be the Efficiency Police, but once you’ve given those wily creatives everything they need to succeed — whether it’s enough time to wrap up a project, or confirmation that all the assets you received from the client are correct — they’ll trust you to blast through obstacles. Ideally, the confidence they have in you will bolster the confidence they have in their own craft.
Creatives tend to think of themselves as the rock stars and the PMs as the stagehands — setting up the microphones, sweeping the floors, checking the lights, and making sure everything’s in place for the real show. Project managers tend to think of creatives as raw resources, fodder that we feed into the Output Machine. Neither view is fair. An effective creative project manager works in tandem with her team, coordinating the disparate elements of a project to stencil forth everyone’s contributions while still making the client happy — all in a way that feels disciplined yet effortless. Sounds pretty creative to me.