Top Project Management Best Practices From 29 Agency Leaders and Project Managers
One overlooked aspect of creative work is how much project planning has to be done to get anything off the ground. Whether it’s a memorable ad campaign, a captivating mobile experience or a fantastic event that goes off without a hitch, there was a plan in place to make it happen. That takes coordination from multiple teams and stakeholders.
Yes, there are teams of people making the creative work happen for clients, but there’s also a group of people pulling the strings and connecting the dots across the teams. These people are project managers, even though they don’t often have a PMP attached to the their credentials. In fact, most of them are experts in something else, but have attached project management responsibilities to their roles because they are the do-ers, the go-getters, the people everyone in the agency can count on.
They are often producers on a creative team, but are still filling the role of a project manager, with a dash of account services, strategy and technical expertise. No matter their title, the project needs to be planned with multiple factors accounted for–such as budget, team workload, resource allocation, milestones, due dates and more.
These project managers who actually aren’t always project managers are looking for ways to increase efficiency and productivity. Throw in client demands too, and you’ve truly got the superheroes of any ad or digital agency.
Multiply all that by 5 or 50 or 5000 projects across an organization and the importance of project management reins supreme.
There are a few project management best practices that these people use to accomplish and finish projects. What you’ll find from our experts is that it takes more than just a nifty Gantt chart–successful projects need some flexibility, collaboration and a little creative curiosity thrown in as well.
Read on for what the experts have to say about project management best practices…
Founding Partner and Creative Director | IMA
We are able to successfully develop, manage and optimize projects at a highly efficient speed because we work in a flat organizational structure with minimal hierarchy. This allows room for smooth communication and more dynamic approaches because everyone has their say. We always make sure our project teams consist of the right balance between departments.
Secondly, we always include weekly or bi-weekly updates in our processes. Good influencer marketing hinges on personal connections between individuals, meaning frequent, transparent communication with clients and influencers is necessary to drive a successful influencer marketing campaign.
Lastly, we optimize as we go along as opposed to when a project finishes. We have developed our own IMA platform in which we house our influencer network of over 12,000 influencers as well as track campaign data so we can provide clients with real-time insights into projects. It helps to optimize our day-to-day work processes as well as the quality of our projects.
VP, Director of Public Relations and Content Integration | BRUNNER
Here at BRUNNER, the three most critical things for a success project are collaboration, self-awareness, and curiosity. First and foremost, you need to be able to collaborate and communicate well with others. Self-awareness is critical to understanding and accepting your strengths and weaknesses. And curiosity is important because here at an ad agency, you can’t focus only on your task. You have to want to understand what the other people on the team are doing and how all the parts fit together.
Managing Director | AcrobatAnt
Timeline with milestones – that everyone knows about. Projects run much more smoothly if everyone is aware of key milestones and the project timeline. While sometimes it is easier to just tell the person responsible for the next deliverable about what they need to do and their deadline, it works much better if everyone is aware of all of the steps and how their contribution to the project effects others and the overall timeline. Developing a schedule and timeline and backing into key dates to meet deadline is a critical step for any project.
Knowledge Sharing. Providing the team members all of the relevant information up front is critical. A comprehensive creative brief, kick-off meeting or background overview helps ensure everyone is aware of potential pitfalls or obstacles in the project. It also prevents people from trying things that have already been done previously or spending time on aspects of the project that won’t add much value to the project stakeholder based on their priorities. If everyone knows as much as possible at the start of a project, there will be fewer instances of needing to go back to the drawing board and start over.
Give some freedom, with parameters. Some things are required in every project; timelines, deadlines, required assets/copy points, etc. But, within these required parameters, each team member provides a unique perspective, experience, and ideas to tackle whatever challenge is presented. Whenever possible, allow time in the timeline for collaboration, independent thought, and periodic team review. Allowing this time will empower team members to explore beyond what’s safe and perhaps tackle a challenge or solve a problem in a unique way. If whatever they are exploring doesn’t work, there is time to circle back to another idea or bounce it off of another team member. On your next project, think about what is truly required. Then, provide the team with the background, goals and a collaborative timeline to achieve project outcomes that are outside of the status quo.
SVP and Creative Director | REQ
Excluding copious amounts of coffee, three essential elements for successful projects at REQ are:
Empathy. Everyone involved in a project, from designer to developer to project manager, needs to be able to empathize with the client and the target audience. Put yourself in their shoes. Role-play. Research. Immersing yourself into their psychology provides enormous insight into emotion, goals, motivation, and much more, all of which can be used to make sure we’re making intelligent and informed decisions versus assuming or guessing what’s needed for success.
Curiosity. Ask questions. Get answers. Challenge what you think you know. A curious team pushes each other to think and re-think (and re-think further) until the right way forward manifests itself. Clients come to us to help solve their problems and it’s important for us to make sure the solutions we recommend have been validated and are appropriate.
Failure. Nobody really talks about failure because some agencies treat it like a dirty secret but it’s absolutely necessary to fail before you can be successful. Success could not exist without failure–they’re two sides of the same coin. Every agency, department, and employee will experience failure–dismal landing page results, a creative concept torn apart by the client, and so on–but only the best teams actually learn from it and are capable of transforming failure into success.
VP of Project Management | Mercury Intermedia
Communication. This one is pretty obvious. Without good communication, it’s hard to have a successful project. But communication isn’t just talking…it’s sharing information, it’s listening, it’s understanding the emotion and intentions behind the information and knowing how to navigate it.
Honesty. People are generally much more willing to accept and understand setbacks if you are up front with them and there’s time to adjust and find an alternative course. Not telling the truth wastes everyone’s time (and money!), so we encourage clients and internal team members to speak up with feedback, input, concerns, mistakes, etc. – all with appropriate tact, of course. Someone’s going to drop the ball. Someone’s going to make a bad decision. Someone’s not going to the love direction we recommend on a particular topic. It happens. But the sooner we know about it and deal with it, the better for all parties.
Flexibility. It’s rare for a project to run perfectly. I’d venture to say it just doesn’t happen, or if it does, we’re not being honest or transparent with ourselves. There are just too many variables at play, and too many of those variables are outside of our control. By accepting up front things aren’t going to go as planned, we can be nimble and adapt quickly when we do encounter issues.
Partner/CTO | Tayloe/Gray
At Tayloe/Gray, we’ve found the following key project elements have led to success in supporting our clients’ growth:
Blueprint. At the onset of each project, our primary goal is to learn the client’s business landscape to build a strategic “Marketing Blueprint” that carries through from start to finish. This allows us to align on exactly what we are set out to accomplish, and provides an internal foundation for concepting and building the best product.
Transparency. Expectation setting is a key element to any project. We adapt each scope of work structure to the client’s unique needs, and ensure honest communication through all phases and challenges. This helps us work more collaboratively, build the relationship, and become a trusted part of our clients’ marketing teams.
Optimization. Our work hinges on solid tracking and analysis of outcomes. We’re focused on building these metrics into the foundation of the project, so that we are able to optimize against them throughout. This means we’re constantly learning, testing, and applying knowledge to inform future campaigns.
Essentially, all three keys boil down to one overarching idea – planning and understanding up front leads to efficiency for the project and relationship as a whole. As our partner, Nathan Tayloe, would say, “we don’t put out fires – we prevent them.”
Managing Partner | Centresource
A desired outcome. Clarity for the whole team is essential for success. When everyone knows what we’re trying to make happen, we lean on our process to turn that outcome into scope that can be executed. Read more about that here.
Mutual respect (and eventually, trust). Our clients are all successful business people – we trust them enough to get behind their vision. They hire us to provide relevant information to help them make complex business decisions related to technology. Trusting collaboration among experts with different viewpoints is the magic that changes industries.
Commitment to learning. Following the same playbook as the competition yields the same ROI (or less). Successful projects adjust accordingly when new information comes to light.
Senior Marketing Strategist | Brolik
At Brolik, we strive for three elements in every project: Trust, a good relationship and results. A client will eventually move on if all three elements are not present.
To secure these three pillars, we focus on the following:
An in-depth discovery process. This is done with the client to identify what their goals are, what their business does, how their business does what it does, and most importantly, why it does it. This is a philosophy that Simon Sinek introduced almost a decade ago, but it couldn’t be any more relevant today.
A custom strategy that focuses on the client’s why and is evaluated using agreed upon business metrics. Metrics like impressions or clicks fail to convey meaning to a business’s bottom line. We focus on connecting the digital world and our initiatives to a client’s bottom line.
Open, honest and transparent communication. The complex digital world needs to be broken down and communicated to a client using their language instead of shrouding it in voodoo and mystery. Make sure you tell the client what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them. Achieve clarity and keep moving.
Director of Client Services | Three29
At Three29, resource allocation is incredibly important to us. We use the ‘Workload by Responsible Party’ feature to ensure our creative and development staff walk in everyday with a realistic expectation of their to-do on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. Our philosophy is “let people do the work they’re best at,” so Workzone allows our Project Managers to keep resources maximized, while allowing production staff to not worry about managing deadlines or budgets.
Although no two projects are ever the same at Three29, the Project Templates feature in Workzone is a game-changer for us. By creating a handful of Project Templates, everyone in our Project Management department is able to set a strong project foundation (including responsible parties and project dependencies!) in just a few clicks. As the overseer of all project operations as the Director of Client Services at Three29, Workzone allows me to quickly update Project Templates when new benchmarks or milestones are implemented.
Above all else, we’ve come to rely heavily on the consistency and reliability of Workzone. We’ve been with Workzone for years and have NEVER experienced downtime, road-blocking bugs, or truly any issues with the platform. Beyond that, if we ever do find a small defect (and trust me, these moments are few and very far between) the customer success staff is prompt, timely, and incredibly sympathetic. As an agency built on relationships and repeat customers, we deeply value the moments when Trevor (our success manager) recalls personal details from side conversations, and when he reaches out to touch-base and make sure we’re getting the most out of the system. We feel like we’re a part of the Workzone family, and are thrilled to still be on board!
Creative Director | McCann
The first most important component to a successful project in advertising is the idea. The following components mean nothing if you don‘t have a great idea. The next most important factor are the people. Everyone needs to believe in that idea and fight to keep it as close to the original vision as possible. There will be tons of obstacles along the way and without everybody working tirelessly and in unison success will be nearly impossible. And lastly there needs to be a proven process in place. A process that includes great resources and equipment.
Owner & Chief Strategist | Green Apple Strategy
Strategy. Strategy is in our name for a reason. All projects must have a clearly written brief that outlines all goals, objectives, creative direction and a strategic content approach.
Clean, Clear Message. No matter if it’s a blog, a print ad, email campaign, landing page, or website, clean and clear content is key. The written word is just as important as a visually appealing design.
Coordinated Effort. None of this can be possible without a coordinated effort. By utilizing a project management tool to track the progress of the project, our team is able to stay on track and deliver a final piece that exceeds the clients expectations.
Creative Director | Super Top Secret
If I were to whittle it down to the top 3 things that gauge the success of a project they would most likely be:
Motivation. It’s important that everyone that is working on the project is motivated, at STS we try to only select projects that inspire us, that teach us something and excite us to know more about it. We don’t consider work here to just work, we are essentially still schooling here at STS, learning from clients, learning from each other and keeping each other motivated to create more inspiring awesome work, these are things that keep us motivated and ready to take on a project.
Communication. Don’t work in a vacuum! Number 2 on the list, working alone is fine, but chat with your designer friends, your developer friends, and even your producer, keeping an active line of communication is vital to any success in life, it allows you to receive feedback, prioritize and plan for what’s next. Don’t be shy.
Badass Developers. Number 3 is more specific to interactive projects but pretty self-explanatory, in order to launch a successful project you need badass developers, you need someone with as much passion, drive and knowledge as the person before them, someone that knows their sh*t and does it, a developer that has creative vision and binary wizardry. Our developers are the life – breathers of all our interactive jobs, they make things come alive and are one of the most vital ingredients to success, without them, we would be drawing on the back of napkins.
Partner | Astute Communications
Ownership. Everyone knows what part of the project they own.
Pull, not Push. We use a kanban board at our office to manage web projects, adopting a pull method versus a push method has been very valuable.
Documentation. As cliche as it is, ensuring proper documentation from all parties has saved us on several occasions. As the saying goes, “get it in writing.”
Courtney Gould Miller
COO | MKJ Marketing
As a full-service agency with over 3,000 clients in the funeral, cremation, and end-of-life industry, we have hundreds of projects to manage at MKJ Marketing every day. We start our process by making sure everyone on the team understands the business need for the marketing. We believe we aren’t just designing attractive websites, Facebook advertising, or print marketing—every marketing campaign needs to achieve a specific result. After that, staying organized and ensuring quality are crucial. The Workzone templates have streamlined our process immeasurably, allowing team members to see exactly what tasks need to get done and by when for every job. We have always prided ourselves on error-free work, allowing for multiple proofs and approvals for each job, and we use the Workzone approvals and action tracking because it gives us clarity around who signed off and when for extra accountability. Going paperless with our project management with Workzone was one of the best decisions we have made to ensure the highest quality of work for our clients.
President & CEO | Special D Events
Clear definition of roles and responsibilities. Between the client and our agency, and among our agency staff who are working on the project.
Shared vision. The project will be much more successful if everyone understands the project goals and objectives as well as the client’s vision.
A working environment where questions are encouraged. Always “Doing what you are told” isn’t necessarily the path to success. We have incredibly talented team members and I encourage them to ask questions of company leaders and clients. They have great ideas to improve efficiency and add strategic creative elements, but they need to feel comfortable sharing them when they may seem outside the norm.
Partner/Owner | Matthew James Creative
Communication and clarification of a project’s goals with the customer. You need to listen to the customer’s needs. When we start a project we are all ears. After defining the goals, we set out to identify the challenges through a detailed discussion with extensive questions and complete answers from the customer. They are the experts. No one ever wants the customer to question your capabilities by providing substandard or incomplete work. Define your project in step 1.
Engineering a creative solution and addressing all of the challenges and goals before the work begins. Clear communication of the outlined project with your team allows for effective and efficient workflow. A well organized strategy is important to meet all of the challenges and scheduled deliverables.
Thorough review before client presentation is very important. Great project managers look to the details and ensure that all challenges are addressed and expectations to meet and exceed your goals are possible with the completed project in hand. This has proven to be a successful formula for Matthew James Creative.
Production Coordinator | Martin Communications
Clear/Realistic Deadlines. Having clear and realistic deadlines at the beginning of a project is important to keeping the team on track.
Keep on track. We use milestones along the way to help with this. Each individual team member is held accountable to their tasks and keeping them updated daily. We also have one person responsible for holding the team accountable, our “Workzone Enforcer.”
Communication. Having everyone involved on a project updated is incredibly important to the success of a project.
President | Altus Agency
A plan (how we are getting there).
A budget (how much can we spend).
Metrics (how do we measure our results).
I really think you need to add traffic to keep the project ON TIME.
Creative Services Director | DMW Direct
Collaboration on schedule BEFORE promising client anything.
Utilizing Workzone to track schedules, assign resources, and look ahead at upcoming milestones & deliverables to trigger conversations (both in and out of Workzone) about projects before they are in jeopardy.
Reviewing daily to-do lists and resource assignments regularly to keep jobs moving and encourage communication between team members.
Creative Chief & Social Media Officer | Miracle Resources
Communication. Like a well oiled machine your team needs to be fluid and running properly to perform a task and complete a project. Whether you are the talker or not, you still need to voice yourself in the workplace. At the end of the day you need to stand with your team and present your ideas with confidence.
If you notice someone is not speaking up in a group, ask for their opinion while working together, sometimes the smallest voices have the biggest ideas and greatest solutions.
Plan of Action. Have a plan of action; While concepts are great, clients need to see progress. Make a simple step list, you can even show your client so they feel more comfortable too! This will help you stay on task and complete the project in a timely order and sometimes ahead of schedule.
Adapting in Stressful Situations. In nature what’s the best way to survive? Adapting. In business what’s the best way to succeed? Adapting. Notice a pattern? Good. Adaptability is the key when working in a group, it also exemplifies an open minded individual. If you are stuck on one track, your clients will notice and leave at the first disagreement.
Being open to changes in a project, new ideas and staying calm in stressful environments are all crucial in the completion of a project. Make your clients feel valued by being warmhearted and open to their thoughts.
Creative Director | Killer Infographics
Hospitality. We approach every project with a mindset of giving our clients the best service experience possible. So many clients have turned to us after having negative experiences with other agencies where the working relationship was so poor that creative suffered and contracts weren’t renewed. The more a client feels heard and taken care of, the more trust they are willing to place in you and your team, enabling you to take greater creative risks to produce the best possible work — time and time again.
Communication. After establishing this foundation of trust, direct communication with the client becomes effortless. The more we are able to make the client a part of our project team, the more likely we are to create products that speak to all their needs. Regular communication with the client ensures we’re never moving forward on assumptions, and rather always tracking toward the client’s goals.
Curiosity. Stick to deadlines, stick to the creative brief, but always be flexible and willing to explore new creative avenues. If you’ve established that foundation of trust with the client, they’ll follow you in new directions that you think will work better for their goals. The more expert your team and more strong your relationship with the client, the more likely you are to discover new and better ways to deliver the client’s message.
VP of Marketing | AccuData Integrated Marketing
The 3 things necessary for a successful project are really the essential steps in completing any task.
First, when planning a project it’s important to understand the deliverables and goals of the project to clearly define the scope. Next, assess what resources are required to achieve your goals including time, personnel and necessary budget for success. After the project is completed, make sure you measure your achievements based on your original goals and the amount of resources you used. Successful project management is an art and a science and takes careful planning before executing any tasks.
Creative Director | Ferebee Lane
For any project we take on at FerebeeLane, we have to very clearly set three key things in motion early in order to be successful: communication, deliverables and timing. The first, communication, truly is key. Designating an account member to led the charge – on everything from one-off projects to large new business pitches – ensures that the creative team knows exactly what expectations are and can get to work with all the information they need to make smart, creative decisions.
Deliverables and timing really go hand-in-hand. As a creative team, valuable time can be wasted when our team isn’t clear about what’s expected. Knowing up front both the ask and our perspective as to what executions are the most strategic and will solve our clients’ problems the best, will keep us honest with our work. Understanding timing forces us to make smart decisions quickly and move on from ideas that aren’t working. This helps us get to the most strategic, problem-solving place for our clients.
Creative Services Manager | LAD Marketing-Lithia
3 essentials for a successful project at Lithia are information, communication and flexibility. The more complete the information is upfront makes for quicker timelines and better the results. When that information changes mid-project communication to all parties involved is extremely important. Having one place to handle this communication, like Workzone, makes the changes smoother. Last but not least, flexibility is a must. Being able to communicate, proof multiple versions while retaining previous ones, and change timelines for multiple responsible parties aid in our flexibility for our clients.
Manager Director | Inbound Marketing Agency
1. Project Templates. When I first started the business, I knew what I needed to do. As my business grew, we had multiple projects starting, and I soon realized we had to streamline projects. Project templates enabled us to get projects started on time while each team member knew their responsibilities.
2. Collaboration. My email inbox can get out of control with junk. There was no history where any team member could see a status of a task. We switched to comments & notifications through our project management software to help each team collaboration. Since then, we have saved time and only use our inbox was client communication.
3. Documentation. Before we implemented project management, each team member had their checklist which either was on a notepad or sticky notes. When we doubled our team, there was no documentation process on how to execute each task. Our To-Do lists are in-depth to help new team members execute the tasks how it’s meant to be executed.
Account Director | Quinlan
Doing the work upfront. Gathering as much information at the project onset and making sure all parties agree on the objectives.
Communication and checking in. Project managers don’t love nagging the creative team, but it’s essential to check in and make sure everyone is on track. Using both Workzone and in-person communication helps us to keep things moving.
Identifying project risks as soon as they occur. Whether it’s timeline, budget related or there’s not enough information – it’s crucial to speak up and mention these concerns right away vs. waiting until it’s too late to make a course correction. We aim to be transparent with clients and bring up any project concerns as soon as they happen.
Collaboration. We’re all working towards providing an awesome creative product that meets the client’s goals. We try to remember to have fun and be flexible. We encourage all team members to share their ideas regardless of their specific role, a good idea can come from anywhere!
Traffic Manager | LEVEL
Complete, accurate information on all phases of the project and client expectations at the beginning. Sharing that information with all involved in the project in a single kick-off meeting to gain mutual understanding.
Clear breakdown of tasks and assignment of responsibilities.
Timely checks/balances (internal reviews) and course corrections throughout the project.
Director | MarketingwithEthics.com
Know your target audience. Who are they, are they married? with children? where do they hang out, what industry do they work in, what magazines/books do they read, what are their hobbies, what are they passionate about. What are their main isues/pain points. It’s more than just knowing the basics, you need to really get into the physce of them.
Concentrate on one paint point and one solution with a clear call to action. Use the research from step 1 to find out the most common pain point of your target market and give them a solution. Make sure you are selling the benefits of the solution and not just the features. They don’t care about what you do, they care about what difference it will make to them.
Give something of value FOR FREE. These people probably don’t know you so giving them something of value for free can not only give them a quick win, but also show your expertise and build relationships.
Marketing and Strategy Director at Pretty Pragmatic
A great creative brief with springboard ideas based on strong research and insight with a simple proposition. Consistently testing against it to keep the team and the creative idea/output honest and on point. Nothing new, but rules help control the fun ;)
Lots of the experts mentioned some fundamentals–like knowing the projects plan, budget and resources.
Others threw in some important skills that seem obvious, but are often missing–such as communication and honesty.
Those intangibles are hard to quantify because they look so different for each agency or situation. One person’s “communication” is another person’s “yelling.” It takes some self-discovery and team trust for those to work well, and even more so when clients are involved.