What’s a digital producer?
It’s like a project manager, but it’s like a lot of other things too
A year ago, Mike wrote about Upstatement’s investigation into whether the company needed project managers. Upstatement champions direct collaboration between clients and the creative team, so in a studio so wary of middlemen, where do project managers fit?
That investigation led to the introduction of the digital producer role: an organizer, facilitator and co-creator of Upstatement’s work. The job was theoretical back then, but now two people (myself and fellow producer Cameron Stewart) actually put our butts in those seats. We manage a few client projects each, but our biggest project of all is figuring out how this role actually works at Upstatement.
Cameron has a few years of producer experience at Instrument, an awesome digital studio in Portland. But I’m a total newbie — an editorial designer and illustrator by trade, straight out of the newsroom.
A producer’s job can feel ambiguous as hell at times, especially in a studio where other roles (designers and developers) are more clearly defined. There’s a lot of rushing around to meetings and spitting out last-minute agendas, but there’s also a lot of sitting at our desks wondering “How can I be most helpful right now?”
A few months into this role, I’ve started to describe my job as digital producer with a lot of secondary titles. They help guide me as I learn to do this job, but can also explain Upstatement producers to our clients and friends.
Predominantly, a producer assumes the core responsibilities of a traditional project manager: scheduling, defaulting as point-person for communication, and recording action items from meetings and calls. These tasks are pretty easy to understand and crucial to our projects, but when they are the only thing on a producer’s to-do list, that work can expand to fill way too much time. We don’t want to be task rabbits or agency stenographers, frantically keeping record of every tiny thing for no particular reason.
We work to pare these tasks down to the essential minimum and stay out of the way. Team members still schedule plenty of their own meetings, and we don’t record every detail of our calls — just any important changes, risks and what people need to do next. Busywork is the enemy.
Upstatement can function without producers — the company has been around 8 years with minimal formal project management. But when a project doesn’t have a producer, it leaves a lot of worry for the team to deal with. Team members aren’t quite sure what problems they’re supposed to be fretting over — Did someone respond to that client question? Are we on budget? Am I spending too much time working on this feature? Is anyone planning for the launch? This kind of ambiguous worry keeps the team from remaining focused and thriving.
As Chief Worriers, we silently anticipate the worst across the entirety of the project, and then take steps to address those worries and free up creative brain space for the team. From technical nightmares to general team happiness, producers productively fret all day, trying to catch the shit before it hits the fan (and cleaning it up when it does).
In our daily project stand-ups, we follow the traditional three-question Agile structure: What did you do yesterday, what will you do today, and do you have any blockers? By default, the last answer is almost always a cheerful “no blockers,” but Honesty Cops have to read between the lines to identify the things that are keeping the team from moving forward at full velocity. We also pull out bullshit detectors with clients, ignoring the marketing buzzwords and ambiguous promises to get to the core of a project’s mission — and what’s stopping us from accomplishing it.
All projects are held in the tension of forces that tug against each other — money and time, client and team, quality and efficiency. Effective Balancers don’t let any force go too long without attention. Not much time passes in a project before we have to make a careful decision that has the potential to make someone unhappy.
Balancers have to be mindful of the inevitable effects that come with every project decision: Prioritizing the client can disappoint the team. Prioritizing the team’s time can frustrate the client. Standing up for the integrity of the work can derail the schedule. True equilibrium is often impossible. We can’t avoid negative consequences, we just try to minimize the project pain by dialing in the priorities at the right levels, with lots of input from the team.
Like any company, Upstatement is only as good its people. We have very good people — and very good clients! But project stress gets to everyone, life happens outside the office, and lately we’ve been passing around a serious Upstatement kennel cough. As Amateur Therapists, we try to stay mindful of the ever-important human aspect of making creative work. Are people stressed? Is the client feeling unsatisfied? We make jokes, ask questions and employ emojis to try to sand down the rough parts of a project.
We also straddle the line of empathizing with the client and commiserating with the team. It’s easy to make an enemy out difficult clients, but we have to remind ourselves (and the frustrated team) that there are many external factors that could be affecting the folks on the other end of the phone. Happy people on both sides make for more successful projects.
Producers play zone defense. If any problem comes into our area of the court, we deal with it — which is why a creative or technical background is more important to for an Upstatement producer than traditional PM training. For me, that’s meant making .gifs for presentations, giving design feedback, and hopping into Wordpress sites to try to recreate bugs in an effort to keep the momentum going on projects. I know Cameron has filled similar gaps in his projects, too.
If we can’t address a client or team member’s problems, we’ve at least read the playbook, and know where to pass the ball to keep the game going.
But wait, there’s more!
…We just don’t know what it is yet. A big part of this job is defining what it is, and that means some ambiguity in the day-to-day. We do a lot of checking in — are producers being helpful? Are teams equipping producers? How can we all do better?
We think constantly asking those questions is what will make the digital producer (or PM, Chief Worrier, Baller, etc.) an awesome and successful position at Upstatement.
(If this sounds like your dream job, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org)