When I was at a larger digital agency, I found that project managers were easily marginalized. They were paper-pushers and number crunchers with very little insight in to account strategy and communication. They were the guys and girls who told the account team “No” when they agreed with the client on unthinkable tasks, scopes and timelines. They were the guys and girls who sat down in a meeting and freaked out when they realized that the creative director had assigned nine designers to one banner ad concept design. They were also the ones who found out about changes in client direction last, but had to react first. At the end of the day, the project managers were the backbone of the project, but they weren’t perceived that way.
I was assigned, as the sole project manager, to the agency’s largest project and managed a portfolio of related projects on one brand—these were web sites, media campaigns, banner creative, SEO, etc. It was a lot of work; enough work for the agency leadership to put an account team of 4 on the project. Being outnumbered meant that I needed to do my part to make sure that my presence was known, understood and respected.
I knew things needed to change when my role on the project started to emerge as the guy who just dictated deadlines and ran internal status meetings with zero insight into client decisions or communication. In a way, I had to prove myself and almost earn the holy privilege of being “client-facing.” It was not easy getting there, but I made my way.
Are you stuck in that rut behind your desk? If yes, I’d suggest a few things to get out of it (if your answer is “no,” go here):
Engage your account team. It’s so easy to sit behind your desk and focus on numbers and the next task. Here’s the thing: they’re not going to come to you and engage you in your account’s strategy if you hide behind your monitor. Talk to them. Attend every meeting possible: you are invited, no matter what anyone says (but…know your boundaries, obviously-don’t try to go to a client dinner uninvited). In the end, being “in the know” and building a good relationship with your account team will make things easier for everyone, and it will make your job a lot more fun.
Prove your knowledge. If you’re at a big agency, you should know your process like no one else on your team. You, out of everyone, should understand how one deliverable relates to another, and how long your team should take to complete said deliverable. This knowledge is key in client meetings. You should be answering to the “why does it take so long?” question. If you can prove to your account team that your knowledge in that realm is golden, there is no reason you should not have a seat at the table.
Ask questions. You’re at the center of the project, so you need to know what’s happening at all times, on all fronts. You obviously can’t be in every meeting when you’re running a big account, so you’ll have to ask questions to find out what you need to plan properly for the team. If your account team is not filling out contact reports on every visit or major conversation, they should be (no, seriously). Either way, you should not be afraid to ask questions about strategy, client feedback, things that were said in meetings, etc. It’s all a part of the process, and any nugget you glean might just make the internal strategy for presentations and process easier for the entire team in the future.
So here’s the part where I caution you. What do you get from being more involved? Well, it gave me the satisfaction of being much more involved than I had ever been, but it certainly gave me bigger headaches and more difficult questions to answer. But I loved it! It was in this role that I was able to work on my communication skills with my internal team and the clients. It also helped me to hone my negotiation skills, because I was constantly “playing devil’s advocate” and making people understand both sides of the situation (between the agency and the client). I also got to watch some really great coworkers handle rough client situations. I learned a lot and would never give that experience back.
Alas, I am now a sole project manager handling internal workflow and day-to-day client contact. I’m also working for a boutique agency, so it’s very different. But I have to say, I feel like I’ve got the best of both worlds.