Maia Dunkel is a modern-day Mad Woman (technically, from a job perspective she’s a Pete Campbell-type, but she does work at one of the last agencies actually on Madison Avenue). A NYC-based Account Executive with strategic and creative chops in all mediums, she has served in several account roles at major agencies like Ogilvy, Saatchi & Saatchi and Razorfish having worked on top global brands such as Huggies, Head & Shoulders and Campbell’s.
Other interesting facts about Maia: she was born and raised in New York, speaks fluent Russian, and is a published author.
I had the pleasure of working with Maia at Razorfish. Together, we blurred the PM/AD lines, conquered a huge account in launch mode, took names and won a goofy award. Working with her made me realize that Account and Project Management can truly be a yin-yang relationship. Our skills were complimentary, so we reaped the benefits of each other’s expertise along the way. So, doing a Q&A with Maia was a no-brainer. I hope you enjoy!
Who are you? (What do you do for work?)
I am a Management Supervisor in the pharmaceutical group at DDB – New York. I’ve been here for 8 months and I really like it; the people are very smart and strategic. And nice!
I know that you have not always worked with project managers when working in traditional advertising agencies. How did the transition of adding a PM to your team affect your work?
The first Project Manager I ever worked with was you! So, I spent 8 years in the business never having worked with one. At first I really didn’t understand what a PM did. Having worked solely at “traditional agencies” in the past, I was so used to the Account Team doing everything. When I was assigned to a project with a project manager, I really didn’t know how that role would fit in. But you showed me. And after not long, I figured out a PM’s role versus mine. Having a PM really kept me focused on the bigger strategic issues and client relationships versus the more day-to-day project-level work.
What I came to realize quickly is that a good PM can and should be an account person’s right hand man (or woman!) and the two should operate as a team. Your PM is not a messenger. He or she has his own unique role and adds value in a different way. Obviously, in a digital environment there are a lot of details to manage and an account person cannot do it alone. The two roles are needed and really compliment each other.
Do you think that oversight of account strategy is in the realm of a project manager’s role?
I think if a project manager is not thinking about strategy, they are not doing his/her full job. It is CRITICAL that a PM understand strategy and evaluate creative on a higher-level than just “making it work.” You can really tell the difference between a PM who “gets it” and one who doesn’t. If they don’t get it, I just don’t see them as adding much value. Nor does the client. A PM who is strategic is going to help make the work better.
I've heard some PMs say that account people are there to say "yes" to clients, and the PM is there to say "no." How does that resonate for you?
An account person should never say “yes” to anything without first running it by the rest of the team. The first answers should always be, “let me get back to you,” because once you say “yes” you have to deliver. Otherwise, it looks really bad in the clients’ eyes to go back and say no. Both the account person and project manager should be saying “how can we make this work?” and then figure out a plan together.
There is some truth in that account people want to please the clients, and PMs want to be realistic. But I’ve found over time that there is usually an option to please the client as well as the agency. The job can get done well and good strong relationships are maintained.
One thing I really can’t stand, though, is the instinct to say “no” automatically. Whether it’s a PM, a creative, or an account person, shooting an idea down without any exploration is such a buzz kill and really hurts team morale. Advertising requires flexibility and in this day and age we need to be more operationally nimble. If you can’t be, I suggest getting a job at Swiss rail.
Are project managers a constant fixture in your current role?
It’s interesting, DDB employs project managers even in the non-digital channels. It’s great! I find it to be so helpful because it frees the account team to focus their time on other areas while the PM can really take the time to sit with the creative and/or production teams to walk them through details, where an account person might be a bit rushed. A PM can really help to nurture the creatives and put them at ease by making the process easier.
Do your projects run any smoother with a PM involved?
It depends on the PM! If it’s a good PM, absolutely. But a bad one can create a game of telephone; another layer that causes a breakdown in communication. It really all depends on the person.
What is the best thing a PM can do for you?
Be a partner, keep me honest, and make my job easier. And vice versa; a good account person should make the project manager’s job easier. A strong PM will flag things for you, but not be a hurdle in the process. A bad PM will just get in the way and make me feel the need to just do things myself.
A great PM gets the politics of how an agency-client relationship works and will have ideally worked with clients directly, or have a desire to understand and appreciate what we do. Also, it’s very important for PMs to understand all of the nuances of how each piece of communication to the client (and internally) must be carefully thought out and well-written.
What's the worst thing that has happened to one of your projects as a result of poor project management?
One project manager I used to work with used to shoot e-mails off to the client without me knowing. I’m not against a PM having direct contact—in fact I encourage it. But this particular PM didn’t seem to understand the big picture or check in with me, which was problematic. So we were never on the same page. What it comes down to is that an account person and a project manager should be a united front; the absence of a close-working relationship makes for too many cooks in the kitchen and no one knows who’s in charge.
What common things happen in your day that can destroy your productivity? Could a PM help to keep you on track?
Yes, a PM could definitely keep me on track. Timelines, SOWs, communicating feedback to the creative team…all of that stuff is important and is a major time suck. A PM should want to get involved and be client-facing, because that experience allows them to fully understand the decisions that are made, and in turn, allows them to communicate tasks effectively to the team. Being present fosters accountability!
How do you communicate best with your team?
I prefer to speak in person, especially with the creative team. I have found that they prefer it too, and appreciate it when you go and talk to them directly. Trust me, it makes a world of difference. Creatives should be spoken to in normal plain English–not marketing jargon.
I also think that sitting in close proximity to your PM is the best, because the two should have an ongoing communication throughout the day. If you can’t do everything in person, then make a phone call. If you can’t call, work down the chain: IM, e-mail, certified mail, UPS, etc. 🙂
Do you ever work with remote teams? If yes, do you ever find it difficult to communicate with your team remotely?
I struggle with long hallways. So much gets lost in translation. In that case I think it’s really important to call and have written conference reports. I also think having group check-ins, even if it’s once a week on the phone, is a good idea. A team status will keep everyone on track and in the know.
Another thing I don’t like is long e-mail chains. If it goes over three responses, get on the phone and work it out. Some people use e-mail to deflect confrontation but it’s better to nip things in the bud.
Anything else you want to add?
I’ve worked with people who don’t understand the PM role and don’t use PMs to their advantage. This is a bad way to work. An account person might be scared that a PM will outshine them or take their power away. They’ll try to shield PMs from the client. This is weak-minded and immature. It’s not “anyone’s” client. It’s the agency’s client!
As David Ogilvy said: “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”
It’s kind of the same idea. Empower your project manager and you will be a better account person. Limiting your project manager’s role makes you look small, and I guarantee the work will be worse.
And yes, I love Mad Men.