Making websites is hard. Managing the people that make websites is hard too.
Being an ‘interactive producer’ isn’t easy. Here’s some tips on how to be a great one.
Maybe you think websites are created by magical computer elves. Well, you’re partly correct. There is magic in the fine men and women who create them, but they are just humans. Humans that wake up some days and hate their job, and wake up some days walking on sunshine. They go to work hungover, they go to work on two hours of sleep. Their industry has the same ups, downs and bullshit that yours does.
However, the group of folks who make websites and other interactive entities can have a unique and different blend of personalities and skill sets than most industries. There are artists, engineers, managers, developers, clients. Type A, Type B, Type C-You-Next-Tuesday people. It takes a special person to wrangle, nurture and inspire these very different types of people, and that person is an interactive producer.
What is an interactive producer?
Most companies (or interactive agencies) don’t have a ‘Pete Campbell’ or ‘Roger Sterling’ account person to serve as the liason between a client and the agency. So in most interactive agencies, that job falls to the interactive producer. He or she works directly with clients and is responsible for fostering a good relationship. While there may be directors and senior people involved at the beginning and end of a project, it’s up to the producer to steer the ship every step of the way. They manage all external relationships, as well as the internal ones.
Just as they are the bridge between the agency and the client, they are the bridge between the designers and the developers. The front-end coders and the back-end engineers. They are responsible for guiding the project from its first kick-off call, to the bitter, QA’ed end.
Part designer, part project manager, part developer – a really great producer who “gets it” is hard to come by. Designers have a (sometimes deserved, sometimes not) reputation for being unorganized, impulsive and well, creative. Technical folks might be über-organized and pragmatic, but not easily want to push boundaries (and budgets) and break status quo. Project managers need to think about timelines, resources and client management, but aren’t always very tech-savvy or good at pulling more juice from an idea.
The best interactive producers out there embody all of these traits, but also know their place at the table when it comes to who ultimately makes the final creative/tech decisions.
After working on interactive projects for over ten years, here’s 11 of my recommendations of the qualities and thought processes a great interactive producer should embody in this unique and crucial role.
1. Learn to say NO by saying YES.
A producer emails and talks to people - A LOT. Since you’re the liaison between the client and your shop (both on the creative front and development front), you need a silver tongue and a firm backbone, but also to be incredibly flexible. The best producers can seem like they are saying YES when they are saying NO.
2. Don’t hide problems.
You are in charge of creating a timeline, and more importantly, sticking to it, and making sure all milestones and deadlines are hit – on time and within budget. When a problem or a conflict occurs, you handle it well and responsibly, making sure the client is always kept in the loop. Let me repeat that: ALWAYS KEEP THE CLIENT IN THE LOOP. Nothing is worse than hiding a problem or over-promising and under-delivering. You either hit the deadline, or give the client a head’s up why you need more time – as early as possible. You’d be surprised how forgiving people can be when they are given notice about an issue. It’s waiting until launch day at 6pm to let them know a feature (which is probably their favorite) isn’t going to be ready for primetime.
3. Be the client’s best friend.
Other than the new business folks or upper management, you may be the ONLY person the client interacts with. That’s why your role and relationship is so crucial, not only for the current project you’re managing, but so that they come back to you for their next project. Fostering a relationship with the client is crucial, as is making them feel valued and important. They are indirectly the ones paying your salary. Make them happy.
4. Be your coworkers’ best friend too.
As important as client interaction is, your interaction with your fellow employee’s is as important (if not more). They’re your team, and will look to you to make strong decisions, give direction and handle the client’s requests. Make your team happy, and they will make your job easy. Communicate with them, go to bat for them, and make them know you always have theirs and your company’s best interest at heart. If you’re a hack or a lame duck ‘creative technologist’ masquerading as a producer with no real dev or creative skills, your team will see right through you. And they will not respect or listen to you. So earn it by being thoughtful and genuine with your team.
5. Don’t blame the cook.
If you forget to issue a client change to a designer, and the client catches it, take responsibility for it. Own up to your own mistakes. Odds are the client won’t care, but blaming ’some developer’ is a lame move and makes you look foolish. Especially if the client knows a thing about the internet and thinks you’re lying. You can’t bullshit a bullshitter.
6. Clients are always right…the second time.
Because everyone uses the internet so damned much, it’s easier now than ever to be an ‘expert’ when it comes to the web. So if a client has a bad idea, you get one shot to convince them to do it your way. Be strategic, make a good argument, back it up with facts. You do this for a living, and eat and breath the internet everyday. Prove it.
But even still, the agency or client might not budge. There may be something at play, or a reason higher than you that is driving their awful idea. So let it slide. They don’t have to give you one hundred reasons why they want something. You said your piece. If you keep pushing, you’re being rude. It’s their money at the end of the day. That said, be sure to make your case in writing, in the chance the client’s bad decision backfires, and they blame you for not alerting them.
7. Don’t be a dick.
Part of this job sometimes is to convince people to do things they don’t want to (more so internally than externally). Whether it’s convincing a client that their idea is a bad one, or convincing a developer/designer to actually execute said bad idea, you need to be a good negotiator and be persuasive, but also compassionate and pleasant. And no one gets hammered harder than your developers. You’re going to be spending an incredible amount of time with these people. So ask yourself “would I want to spend 50+ hours a week with me?” And if not, change that.
Just how creatives & devs get criticism on their work, you should ask for insight on how to be better at producing. How to better request more money/time from a client, push back on changes, deliver bad news, see problems early. These are skills that can be sharpened and improved, just like coding and using Photoshop.
8. Speaking of Photoshop: Learn it.
Or at least know how to resize a photo, and understand the difference between print and screen resolutions, what ‘above the fold’ means (and why it’s dumb), the difference between mobile friendly and optimized etc. The more knowledge you have about the process your team goes through, the better you’ll be able to scope and budget projects (and understand what they are going through). You’ll also get more respect for having that perspective.
Also, understand everything about the technical side of the internet. Know the difference between Flash, HTML, “HTML5" (shudder) CSS, PHP, .NET, Ruby, Python etc. And know when a technology is most appropriate and should be used - i.e. when a mobile site is more appropriate than a full blown App.
9. Don’t just wait for your turn to talk. LISTEN.
Learn the nuances of how to deal with clients, agency people, your creatives and your developers. Producers like to joke that they are ‘babysitters’ at times, but we are also ‘psychiatrists’ at times too. YOU NEED TO BE AN AMAZING LISTENER. And not just sitting silent, waiting for your turn to talk. Understand that the kind of person that chose to go into the creative side, is often times drastically different than someone who is a developer. You can’t treat them both the same way. They are both artists in their own right, and want to be respected, challenged and engaged at their level. Again, you can’t fake this. You either have it or you don’t. So if you don’t, work on your communication and people skills. Be optimistic, mellow and friendly. It’s not corny, and you don’t win awards for solving conflicts or writing schedules. But it’s those acts that lead to awards and happy team members.
10. Don’t ever, ever, ever call yourself a ‘social media expert/guru/ninja/wizard’…but definitely be one.
Know the ins-and-outs of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram et al. Additionally, understand the pros/cons and limitations of Facebook development, and when to recommend a FB App vs. a stand alone site, or an iOS/Android App versus a mobile site. Understand which browsers HTML5 won’t run on, and when to avoid that approach.
Read a few good blogs. But don’t just read all day, share links all day, and do nothing of your own. It makes you look like a web critic, and not someone who actually contributes to the web. People who spend all day tweeting links to other people’s work are obviously not making any work of their own. They are too damned busy surfing the web, and everyone can tell they are full of shit. Saying “show me the work” is a good way to shut these people down.
11. Pizza, donuts, coffee & beer.
Bring in donuts. Buy pizza. Take someone out for beers. You are the person who has to ask someone to work overtime, to work on a Saturday. To not be with their family, and to miss dinner. Again.
You’re the bearer of bad news, ridiculous feedback, bug reports etc. So it can be hard to not get a little of that tarnish on you, even though you’re just the messenger. Help buffer that by making people feel appreciated and loved in those times when you need people to dig in. People are more apt to bend over backwards for you when you bend over backwards for them.
Overall the producers are the offensive line of any shop. They get little credit, get little glory – but they also get a perspective unlike any other position because they are involved every single step of the way. I personally wouldn’t have it any other way.