The evolving role of an agency Project Manager has been interesting to watch over the past 10 or 15 years. Project Management grew up in a shell-shocked environment in which creative agencies wrestled with the digital revolution and the onslaught of continuous, often monumental, change. As Project Management lurched toward becoming a well-defined discipline, how could it possibly have avoided an identity crisis? It’s tough being a stepchild. In the agency world – which had just learned to cope with the end of the three-martini lunch – Project Management was a specialized discipline that migrated from the foreign territory of IT and engineering. At the same time it was often seen as a natural offshoot of print-driven Traffic Management, a well-honed, well-understood discipline that had been around since the early 1900s. Project Management as a discipline had a difficult birth followed by over a decade of turbulent growth and change.
The PM’s core mission has remained essentially the same, even as the complexity of an average project has exponentially multiplied: The timely, on-budget delivery of best-practice assets. This largely fiduciary function is central to the uneasy “Church and State” relationship between Project Management and Account Management.
Agencies that have tried to mitigate the uneasiness of the relationship by simply combining these disciplines have for the most part crashed and burned. Today’s experienced Project Manager has not only learned to co-exist with Account Management, but has been embraced and supported as a valuable member of, and resource to, a strategically focused marketing team. Or not.
Almost a decade ago The Journal of Business Strategy figured out that the successful and impactful Project Manager will have to provide far more than the narrow fiduciary role that was an extension of Traffic Management. “…All too often, project teams are asked to carry out their work in a vacuum. They are told what must be done, but not why. Not knowing how their efforts will help achieve the organization’s strategic goals or what impact their efforts will have on the bottom line typically breeds the ‘this too shall pass’ syndrome….Communicating the rationale behind project definition, planning, and implementation is fundamental to the successful use of project management….
As linear, project-by-project tactical execution has evolved into figuring out how the pieces of a “strategies within a strategy” puzzle fit together – involving a multitude of channels, accessed in multiple ways, by mere slivers of target audiences – Project Management has evolved from a relatively straightforward role to a complex make-or-break discipline within the creative agency. At forward-thinking agencies, the PM’s singular focus on “command-and-control” has evolved into a consultative role that must understand and harmonize at least 4 core domains, 3 of which they can’t control: the agency’s internal environment and culture; the client’s organizational environment and culture; the brand’s strategic goals; and the broader external environment that represents the marketplace at large.
As Rick Freedman has written in TechRepublic,2 today’s successful Project Manager is a “social facilitator” who finds and enables input from outside the internal environment. “…[PMs] need to transition from managing tasks to managing interactions and transitions….To set the context, [compare] collaborative management [to] the hierarchical, command-and-control style of management that many Project Managers still apply. Rather than proceeding as if all intelligence flows from the top, collaborative managers look at the dispersed network as the source of innovation and creativity….By seeking inspiration outside the normal channels, PMs can enlighten the team about new approaches that can stimulate innovation.”
An article by George Konstantopoulos in the Project Management Institute’s Project Times3 tracks the evolution of the consultative Project Manager. “…The role of the Project Manager has recently morphed [in such a way that he or she] must holistically diagnose the current internal and external environments….I refer to this revised role as a ‘consultative Project Manager’…. Consultative Project Managers must have the
cognitive abilities to internally and externally diagnose a business situation and provide reconciliatory recommendations supported by complex domain-specific data. Additionally, this person must holistically understand strategic intent and opportunities, translate organizational strategy into tangible executable actions, and deliver the results needed to satisfy the vision supporting the strategy. This amalgamated role is in high demand today….”
In other words, an organization that sees the Project Manager as a valued member of the team will benefit if the PM has the ability to place a specific tactic within the context of the brand’s overall strategic goals as well as the business and cultural environment in which the brand – and the agency – must live. This PM is empowered to help mitigate risk beyond just budget and timing. While other members of the team may also have this ability, they don’t simultaneously have control of the end-to-end execution of a project that may make or break a strategy.
In an article titled “What Project Managers Need to Know About Strategic Planning,”4 the International Institute for Learning is very direct in its support for consultative Project Management. “[A Project Manager] will not be able to link Project Management to corporate strategies and position Project Management as a solution to problems if [he or she] does not understand the driving business strategies….The successful selling of Project Managers as partners in the delivery of solutions versus simply as pairs of hands is timely and critical today. Partners understand business drivers and enable value creation. Pairs of hands administer and execute deliverables. Partners are consulted. Pairs of hands are merely informed.”
It takes a team to implement strategy. Cost control is an essential underpinning of the financial success of the internal environment, but it is relatively immaterial to the overall success of today’s complex tactics and their impact on a brand’s strategic imperatives. In order for Project Management to be a valued discipline within the creative agency, the expectation must be that the PM is exposed to and understands the strategic drivers, benefit levers, and macro-environmental factors that ensure success. Effective Project Management is not a small job in a closed environment; it’s a big job in a complex world.
1 Longman A, Mullins J. Project management: key tool for implementing strategy. The Journal of Business Strategy. 2004; 25.
2 Project managers’ new role as social facilitator. TechRepublic/CBS Interactive, June 28, 2011.
3 The evolution of the project manager. Project Times. PMI, October 12, 2010.
4 Bill Richardson, PMP. What project managers need to know about strategic planning. International Institute of Learning, 2008.