A project manager faces a multitude of challenges, no matter which type of industry they’re in. This includes overseeing the progress of a project while functioning as the sounding board for upper management and stakeholders, besides leading the team. Project management for creatives however, adds a whole new dimension to the situation. Managing a team of creatives requires particular skills. Just like creative projects have certain components. We will explain what this looks like, along with the benefits and common pitfalls.
Traditional project management vs. creative project management
You might be wondering what makes creative project management so different from traditional project management, as they seem so similar. The former shares all the same features with the latter, adding in the creative element.
Projects that require creative skills such as design, writing, or photography all fall into the category of creative projects. This could be a feature film, editorial photoshoot, or an ad campaign for example.
Therefore, a project manager overseeing these types of projects will have to be able to lead very creative people.
This involves harnessing the volatile whims of creative minds and their out-of-the-box ideas, helping to channel them into feasible concepts. Having to be more of a left-brain creative, probably surrounded by right-brain creatives.
Project management for creatives
When the creative project manager sees bits of inspiration floating through the air during a team meeting, it’s their job to reel them in, outlining them against the project objectives.
Just as in the traditional sense, project management for creatives is all about providing a clear framework in order to ensure goals are met. Only in this case, they are achieved through creative processes.
Sometimes the creative project manager used to work as a creative artist themself, which surely helps but is not a requisite. It is necessary though, that they are at least somewhat knowledgeable about different creative practices.
Creatives on the team may include:
(Industrial) product designers
Visual effects artists
Motion design artists
Social media specialists
And loads more!
At many organizations, a creative team continuously works to improve the product/service of the company. However, some companies are hired by others to deliver creative services.
In both of these arrangements, project management for creatives takes on a slightly different role.
In-house vs. creative agency project management
Small business owners often wear the hat of the creative project manager themselves. They usually outsource by putting a team of creative freelancers together that’s able to bring their creative vision to life.
Once a business grows larger, a choice must be made in what the best way could be to execute the creative process. For example, a company can decide to hire an in-house marketing team to develop a brand strategy.
But sometimes it would make more sense to hire a creative agency to take on the project whenever a new campaign needs to be created.
This all depends on the type of product/service a company offers, and the level of depth needed to convey the mission and vision.
What is in-house project management?
Keeping project management for creatives in-house has a lot of advantages.
Although time-consuming, the recruitment process enables companies to find creatives who are a great fit with their company values and branding. Once hired, they dedicate all focus on this company, going way more in-depth into the identity of the organization.
Assuming they will stay on long-term, these team members have all the opportunity to learn everything about the company’s creative vision. Whenever a brand evolves, they evolve with it.
The creative project manager keeps track of how team members develop their skills and experience, so their contributions to projects will continue to improve. This also allows team members to move up within the company in the future.
Having an in-house team usually comes with greater costs, but is more effective if a deeper understanding of the brand and its target market(s) is required.
What is creative agency project management?
Instead of having an in-house team on hand, a company can also hire the team of a creative agency to work on certain projects. This could be a digital design agency, PR agency, advertising agency, or Social Media agency among many others.
Project managers and their teams work with a wide range of different clients at these agencies. Therefore the scope of each project can be completely different, taking on a whole new direction or target audience.
At an advertising agency, teams often work on a myriad of projects at the same time. Ad agency project management is necessary for keeping track of everything. With such a diverse range of projects, the team must be very well-rounded and adaptable.
The client must spend a lot of time defining the goals and objectives of the project first, creating a detailed briefing for the agency. There is only a limited amount of time for the agency’s team to get familiarized with the brand. But they will often be able to convey the brand message through a much broader spectrum of creative approaches.
This arrangement would work best for companies who can’t afford an in-house team (yet) or only require a limited amount of creative services while having a clearly developed mission and vision.
Components of creative project management
Again, all the relevant components draw a strong parallel with those of traditional project management. Starting a project by prepping the resources and the team, making sure objectives and deadlines are met.
However, there are a few distinguishing features that make a difference.
Working on a project to complete a product or service is already challenging enough. Imagine how complex this becomes combining the branding aspect, with the final deliverable required to foster a certain desired image.
This is especially daunting when it comes to deliverables that are fairly intangible or abstract. For example when a company needs a new marketing strategy to reposition themself or change the way their audience perceives them. The creative objectives define the approach that must be followed.
Once the objectives are clearly defined, a creative strategy can be outlined. It strongly depends on the objectives and often requires ample research.
This can include defining a color palette, typography, slogans, style of design, and so on. It also defines the types of creative practices that should be used, like photography or digital design for example.
Once a strategy is created, it is presented to upper management or the external client. After approval, the team can move forward with the plan.
For a lot of companies, creative assets are needed to make the product or service itself. For a magazine, it includes the written articles, graphic art, and layout design.
Most companies make sure there is consistency throughout all their communication and marketing efforts, which is why they develop a brand book or style guide. Besides the company’s logo, this includes any visual files that convey their corporate identity, even stipulating certain color codes or font styles that should be used.
The creative project manager can always refer back to these guidelines while coordinating projects. All the creative efforts produced during these projects - such as copywriting, visual files, designs, and product samples- are creative assets.
In order to execute the project, a creative workflow is created. As each project involves completely different creative processes, a unique approach is implemented each time.
When it comes to creative project management, it all comes down to matching the creative endeavors to set goals.
It’s up to the creative project manager to keep this in mind during creative brainstorming sessions, but also while evaluating every step of the creative process. Reviewing storyboards, mock-ups, and sample products are all part of this evaluation process.
The creative workflow outlines all these steps as tasks that need to be completed in order to keep moving forward.
What are the benefits of project management for creatives?
We have gone over all the components now, so let’s emphasize the benefits of creative project management more specifically.
It balances creativity and business objectives: Where a creative is more concerned with the aesthetics of a deliverable, a manager puts just as much importance on the cost. Giving creativity free reign has the potential to bankrupt a company in no time. The practice of creative project management creates a balance between creativity and business objectives.
With project administration in order, creativity can flow with fewer distractions: Any creative will tell you that they passionately hate feeling restricted when their creative juices are flowing. Carrying out administrative tasks, consulting data, and making calculations are all things that distract from the creative process. With a good project management system in place, the ‘boring’ work can be dealt with much faster. Leaving more time for the fun stuff.
It helps to juggle multiple creative projects at the same time: At creative organizations, various different projects usually run simultaneously. This could easily lead to confusion, but not when there is a framework that maintains an overview at all times. Creative project management keeps track of when projects start, how they are progressing, and who is working on them.
One point to touch base, unifying the team and harmonizing the workflows: Remember the little left-brain versus right-brain parable? Everybody thinks and does things in their own way. Some diligently make lists while others cover everything with post-its. Few simply trust their memory and others need a detailed visual representation. Instead of having information all over the place, project management provides the home base that everybody turns to. Not just to connect with the team, but also to record and keep track of all relevant updates.
Especially project management tools with multiple viewing options are perfect for supporting this. They offer various representations such as lists, tables, graphs, kanban boards, Gantt charts, and more. Each individual team member can just select what they prefer.
Common pitfalls in project management for creatives
Some common pitfalls can be observed in project management for creatives. Not only because of the difference in scope of projects but also because managing creatives comes with its own set of challenges.
Below we will discuss some of these pitfalls, and explain what you can do to prevent them.
Not meeting the envisioned expectations
The creative project manager must juggle expectations from the client/upper management, the stakeholders, and the creative team. As it’s the project manager’s job to make sure the project owner’s idea or vision comes to life, they have to simultaneously ensure upper management that it can be done cost-efficiently, utilizing the team to the best of their ability.
Some clients are able to explain and visualize what they are looking for, offering a detailed briefing. Others only offer a very abstract concept, regardless of how passionate they seem about their idea. Without enough context to convey their desires exactly, there might be a disparity between the clients’ vision and the way the team interprets it. Leading to a confused team and a disappointed client.
When extra unforeseen changes are made, extra resources and time are needed. This might also cause dismay from upper management and other stakeholders.
In order to gather as much information as possible to gain a deeper understanding of expectations, we have these tips:
Ask a million questions: There are no stupid questions, and in this case never too many questions either. Even if you think you have your answer, ask the same question again in a more specific way to get precise information. “You want the main color of this brochure to be red? Which type of red? You say dark red, do you mean wine red, bordeaux, or burgundy?” This way you won’t have to witness the horror in their face when you show them the concept brochure in a cherry red shade.
Create a mood board: In case no detailed briefing is provided, ask for a collection of visual examples for what they are thinking of. Even if there is a briefing, a mood board can be a great aid in addition to other given info. A mood board can include photos, magazine cuttings, video fragments, written quotes, material samples, or anything that represents the desired message and style.
Ensure there is a match: Make sure a client is made aware of your capacity, before even accepting a project. Sometimes clients don’t realize which type of knowledge or creative skill is needed to realize their project. Maybe you have the right creatives on your team, but the scope of the projects goes beyond their level of expertise. Therefore, make sure you know exactly what your team is capable of before possibly outsourcing. At times, it might even be smarter to pass up on the project altogether.
Apply agile project management techniques: Complex projects can’t always be precisely outlined, but are formed along the way. Agile project management offers a lot of flexibility, as the process is evaluated during set iterations. To really make sure expectations are met, you can involve the client and all stakeholders with these iterative evaluations.
It’s the key to success, in many fields. Mistakes are easily made without clear communication. Everybody has their own personal perspective. A project manager will deal with different characters, and especially creatives can tend to have colorful personalities. The better you know someone, the better you know how to communicate effectively with them.
There are more ways to improve communication across projects:
Agree upon used terms: Information is easily lost in translation. Even literally, when there is a language barrier. Agree beforehand on certain keywords that will be used in one language before starting the project. Even in the same language, creatives and stakeholders might use different wording compared to official industry jargon. To prevent this, make it clear from the start which terms you will stick to and what they mean exactly.
Have regular meetings: Make sure there are meetings at set points in time so everything that comes up can be discussed. This is the opportunity to check if everybody is executing their tasks as explained to them.
Communicate business objectives: The creatives on your team might not have an interest in KPI's and other business objectives tied to the project. They just want to work on the creative process. Still make the effort to communicate this info to them, as it will help them realize why certain requirements and limitations are in place. Subconsciously, this will inspire them to work more efficiently.
Play the devil’s advocate: Whether it’s a creative- or a practical brain you are picking, the project manager should always play the devil’s advocate before decisions are made. This will help determine risks and opportunities, but most importantly help everybody involved realize them too.
Centralize all project communication: Stay away from long email threads, multiple chat sessions, and post-it notes lingering around. You might be using more than one tool or program for various creative processes, but at least make sure all communication is centralized by using one single platform. Collaboration tools like Slack are handy. All-in-one project management tools like Rodeo are even better.
Projects going over budget
The two pitfalls above are known to potentially cause projects to go over budget, but there are many more factors at play. In general, creative processes have the tendency to cloud business objectives. But the following missteps only make matters worse.
Estimates for quotes that aren’t accurate enough
Can you really put a price on artistry? If you’re working for a for-profit company, you simply must. And if you want to give your clients an accurate quote for your creative services, you have to be able to make solid estimations.
If you document the progress of creative projects accordingly, you can always refer back to previous projects that involved the same type of activities.
Besides this, it’s also a common practice to add 10% on top of every estimation just to be sure. In the best-case scenario, most of it will be added to your profit margin.
Working unnecessary overtime that is not accounted for
Some creatives can really get lost in their craft once they get going. Even brainstorm sessions start to transcend parallel universes if they are not called to a halt. That’s why it’s important to allocate time to certain activities and keep track of when these timeframes are exceeded.
There are many ways to improve your ability to meet deadlines and develop your time management skills. When team members work overtime to meet the end goal, these are hours that are not accounted for on quotes.
Poor resource capacity planning
Can you really plan when you will feel most inspired creatively? Well, having a defined plan including resource and capacity management will ensure you will be able to immediately act upon these artistic whims.
As soon as you feel that light bulb glow above your head, you can put a plan in motion if you have a clear overview of the possibilities.
Who of your team members has the right creative skills for this added task? When are they available? And how many hours will this add to the project cost?
All these questions can be answered immediately by a creative project manager who plans according to capacity.
As Albert Einstein once said: “Creativity is intelligence having fun”. This means you don’t have to be an artist in the aesthetic sense. Coming up with alternative ideas and deviations to solve problems also involves creativity.
In creative project management, creativity is the true capital. A business resource that companies can’t afford to mismanage.
We hope taking you through the specifics of project management for creatives, the benefits, and common pitfalls has inspired you to harbor creativity more efficiently.
For some real-life business cases, we invite you to read about some of the experiences from creative agencies.