The Business of Advertising: Don’t Be A Project Management Hack

Project Manager vs. Producer?
In my previous job I was asked to answer the following challenge: Do we need Project Managers or Agency Producers? If you Google this question, you’ll come across a heated debate along with long lists of job descriptions, with many people positioning project managers as rigid order takers and producers as fluid project wranglers (with a bonus understanding of creative).

But I’d like to suggest that there is far more depth to what a Project Management Professional (PMP) really is. More than that, success doesn’t come from the title of the person doing the work — Project Manager, Producer, Account Director — it comes from having a true owner of the processes needed to complete a project successfully.

Unmet Agency Needs
When faced with this operational knot to untangle, I spent a few weeks working with my operations teams as we interviewed people and developed a number of proposals detailing what our producers or project managers would be responsible for and how they could fit into and augment our current agency structure. But to be honest, I was trusting my gut (15 years of experience teaches you things). The challenges I set out to resolve may be operational challenges that you’re facing, too:
- Better Kick-offs
- Proper upfront planning when it comes to scope and resources
- Stronger communications within the team
- Teams working toward the same goal
- Consistent ownership when managing the project
- Developing and documenting hindsight

The last thing I wanted to hear (again) was: “That’s just our business. Things move so fast there’s no way we could stay on top of all of this and still do our jobs.” So I set out to get my PMP certification to understand the true role of Project Managers outside of an agency environment, and hopefully apply what I’ve learned to a new agency job.

Project Management and the PMBOK
I will be the first to admit that the PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge) isn’t going to make it on the bedside table of most advertising executives. It’s long, there is a pile of jargon, and while the processes contained within it are applicable when building, say, a nuclear power plant, they don’t always lend themselves to your CPG client’s new product launch. However, for those agency professionals who have the desire to read the 589 pages (as I did) and take a course or two on its content, I can tell you without a doubt that there is agency operational gold in those pages.

The PMBOK is broken down into 5 Process Areas:
- Initiating
- Planning
- Executing
- Monitoring and Controlling
- Closing

As agencies, we do one of these five areas well: Executing. But this is why we get into trouble. If all we’re doing is executing our clients’ requests then we’re not managing our own businesses well.

Here are some highlights into the various processes of the PMBOK and how you can apply the rigour and thinking of a PMP to your agency:

Here’s a revolutionary thought: work exists before a brief does. Initiating a project isn’t the same thing as taking a brief (although in my early stages of studying, I mistakenly equated the two). Initiating is determining whether or not the project or client is right for the agency or existing team. Think of this as part of your business development or client growth strategy. During this phase, senior leaders (or in PMP parlance, Project Sponsors) would come to the group with their project proposals to show how a project meets the strategic business objectives of the agency, the financial risk or opportunity of the project, and the high-level resources required to take on the project. If the group agrees to initiate the Project (new client, RFP or project work) then a project manager is assigned and a Project Charter is created. This doesn’t have to be a month-long process. This is something that can be developed in a matter of days and it sure beats the 9pm email that reads “I got an RFP from Jimmy in procurement at Acme Inc. It’s due next Wednesday. We’ve got do it.” Do you really have to do it? How do you know if this is an opportunity to exploit or a risk to avoid without following some set of agency accepted guidelines?

Think like a PMP
- Do you have a business case for taking this project on?
- Have you prepared a high-level understanding of the work to know what you’re getting your team involved in?
- Do you have any current agreements in play that would help or hinder the agency if you take on this project?
- Do you have any lessons learned that should be a part of the decision?

There are over 24 unique project management processes contained in the Planning Process Group and they produce outputs of 13 different plans for each of the knowledge areas. I’ll wait for you to all stop laughing. Finished? Good.

In agency life, not only do we lack the time to get this in-depth in the planning stages, we also cannot fund it. Getting to know the various plans, their inputs, and how they impact each stage of a project, however, is valuable so you can tailor your plans to your agency needs. For example, having a Scope Management Plan gives you a place to review and document ‘watch-outs’ from previous engagements with a client, it also describes how the agency will define, develop, monitor, control, and verify scope to reduce the risk of scope of creep. This example is one that an agency could develop once and then easily tailor to meet the needs of all clients moving forward.

Think like a PMP:
Take the time to develop plan that you can refer back to should issues arise that force you out of scope, off schedule, or over budget. When these things happen, emotions rise and you won’t be thinking as clearly so it’s important to have the rationality of a plan that the project team agreed to when cooler heads prevailed.

This process group is one that agencies excel at. We feel as though we’re constantly executing, sometimes without the right information, time or resources to do so. And while one process of the Execution Process Group is Directing and Managing Project Work, there is a lot more rigor that goes into this stage including: Performing Quality Assurance, Developing and Managing your Project Team, Managing Communications and Managing Stakeholder Engagements, to name a few. Ask yourself who is currently ensuring that your team is functioning well, that they have the skills and knowledge to carry out the work and that you’re not wasting time in kick-offs, brainstorms, and internal regroups just trying to understand each other. We put ourselves at a disadvantage many times because no one person (hint: Project Manager) is engaged in these important tasks.

Think like a PMP:
- Develop a process to approve (or at the very least, acknowledge) change requests.
- Follow the plans that you set out at the beginning of the project so you can rationally make decisions.
- Build Quality Metrics into your executing phase.
- Don’t forget about the health of your A project that ends with a happy client but a team who is about to kill each other was not a successful project.

This process group is one of the weakest for many agencies. This is where project managers Monitor and Control the project work, changes, scope, schedules, costs, quality, communications, risk, procurement, and stakeholder engagement. Think of all of these tasks and now make a list of the number of people within your agency who individually manage this work: Account Service, Finance, Production, Operations, General Managers, HR and sometimes even the C-suite is involved.

The ability for any one person in your agency to have a clear understanding of the real progress of your project and its risks and opportunities is eroded with each person sitting at the table. When you have six owners of a project, you in fact, have no owner of a project.

Think like a PMP:
- Take time to update your schedule and cost forecasts due changes.
- Document the changes and issues that arise throughout the project.
- Build in time to Verify Deliverables for correctness and for acceptance of the project deliverables (Validate Scope). This is particularly important for digital deliverables with any degree of complexity.

There are two types of Closing processes that I’ve witnessed: One where the job goes well and we all have drinks together, and one where the job goes poorly and we all have drinks alone. Neither of these are actual PMBOK process for Close Project or Phase.

This is the simplest of all of the Process Groups and it’s rarely completed. The benefit of properly closing your project is to collect lessons learned that inform future projects. It also allows the project manager to ensure that the work completed met the objectives set out by the client. The other process in this step is to close out all procurements that the agency has hired and to make sure that they have also met their deliverables. When you have upwards of a dozen outside vendors and freelancers on a project, this is an important step to ensure you’re not leaving contracts open which can increase your spending well after finance has closed and billed a job.

Think like a PMP:
- This may seem obvious, but make sure your client has accepted the project deliverables and agrees that the job is finished.
- If you’re using outside vendors or freelancers, let them know that the project is completed and is closed and no more invoicing will be accepted.
- Work with the project team and record any lessons learned for your next project with that client or internal

Janine, WTF?
I hear you. I would be saying the same thing. This is an overwhelming idea especially if you don’t feel that you have the tools or the resources to help you. My advice is to look at what’s not working within your agency now and build one plan to improve it starting today. Don’t wait for the next RFP or the next client to come on board, do it today. If scoping is your issue, have your team of producers, project managers or account people, who ever owns this in your organization, dive deep into the Project Scope Management Knowledge Area and start with a plan. Then make sure you have sign-off from the senior leaders in the agency that will champion this new way of working. Most importantly, educate your organization about this enhancement but don’t just tell them what you’re doing or how to do it, but share why it’s so important to the success of the agency.

So the next time you get the urgent 9 pm email for a request that will erode your scope, burnout resources and drive down profitability, ask yourself, ‘What would a PMP do?’

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