After starting up our web design and development agency, Pelago, in August of 2000, it took only a few months to realize we would have to add a project manager to our eclectic mix of creatives. Our creative design and development skills were enough to get a project started on the right track with brilliant ideas and visual direction, but we were lacking in our ability to incorporate the client in the process and complete projects in a timely manner, especially as our projects grew bigger in budget and size. That was when we decided to hire Michael. Since that fateful interview at a coffee shop eight years ago, Michael has become one of the best project managers any creative agency could hope for. Having steered us through two recessions and streamlined our internal creative and billing processes, we’ve made him a partner. And we’ve never looked back. Based on our nine-plus years of experience as a web design and development agency, here are some reasons why we think a project manager within every creative agency is imperative, or at the very least, someone capable of playing the role.
Protect the designer from the client
It’s no secret designers and other creative types don’t like being told what to do during the visual design phases of a project. The collaborative process of critiquing and improving a design is often restricted to a group of like-minded peers, and certainly, not ever, the client. But many clients want to have a say in the design process, and they are the ones paying the bills. The project manager is the best candidate for interpreting the clients wishes into a language the designer can understand. The designer may not like it, but they are far more likely to listen to a respected colleague than lend credibility to the client’s requests.
Protect the client from the designer
Designers can be so immovable (I know this because I am) that the project manager sometimes needs to protect the client from the designer. When it comes to tact, creatives aren’t the best at telling the client their ideas are wrong or not as good as what has been presented. Again playing the role of ambassador, a project manager can interject and reduce the tension a client may feel when interacting with a difficult designer.
Keeping the spatial and abstract creative on a linear path
The creative mind is a vastly complex and indescribable machine, capable of churning out brilliant ideas and visual work during the oddest moments and cursed with the inexplicable phenomenon of shutting down during others. In addition, the concept of keeping a project on a linear path is a foreign concept to creatives who like to work in a non-modal manner, tinkering with their work until they get it just right. A project manager is able to understand the creative team best having worked alongside them and knows best how to keep the team on track. She can encourage the creative team during slumps and corral them in when deadlines loom and budgets bear down.
Objectify the subjective
The subjective is very difficult to objectify or quantify. How do you know which typeface is the right one to use? Font size? Color pallet? Photography? Copy? Yes, there are web metrics and numerous studies to help guide creatives in the right direction, but the art of crafting something beautiful and effective is still, and I hope always will be, dominated by subjectivity. The project manager can help the designer put words to their work and help explain to the creative team and the client practical reasons for why they produced the work in question. It is also a good career builder for the creative to be able to talk about their work in ways that other non-creatives can understand. A good designer does need to be able to create work that will successfully convey a message on its own, without explanation, but a good designer also must be able to tell others why their work is successful.
Keeping it all organized
Without our project manager I would not be able to tell you that we’ve worked on over 300 projects for more than 100 clients, or where to find a client contract, or where to put files on the media server. Creatives are great at what they do, but organizational skills aren’t always a strong suit. Some say creativity is born from the chaos around their workspace, and while others maintain a clean and organized workspace, business records and the like often fall prey to the cardboard boxes in the closet. Project managers can keep a creative agency on track by keeping client contracts up-to-date and setting up organization methods for the team; things like file cabinets, intuitive directory structures on the media server, and archives of completed projects. Overall, employing a project manager or utilizing task scheduling software is a great resource for filling in the gaps left behind by the creative mind as it churns its way through the daily challenge of creating.