Agency project management is a critical skill for keeping projects on track, on time, and on budget.
From graphic designers and programmers to copywriters and analytics experts, many teams have to be pulling in the same direction. Smaller agencies might get away with employees taking on multiple roles to get the job done, but most agencies need a dedicated project manager.
These seven tips for effective agency project management will help your team stay on track.
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1. Define Clear Goals
Defining clear goals for the project and each team member is essential for executing a successful project management strategy. There should be one primary goal, with many objectives being met along the way.
Good agency project management should employ either a SMART or a CLEAR strategy to achieve goals.
Use the acronym SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, timely) to define achievable goals to manage risks effectively and clearly:
Example of a SMART goal:
“Within four weeks, I want to increase the average click-through rate of Client X’s Google Ads campaign from 0.8% to 1% by optimizing the ad text through split testing.”
Or use the acronym CLEAR (collaborative, limited, emotional, appreciable, refinable) to make achieving goals dynamic, fast, and flexible if problems or opportunities arise:
Example of a CLEAR goal:
“By June 1, our creative services team will develop three campaign concepts for Client Z, including mood board, manifesto, tagline, and sample executions. This project connects with our agency’s mission of empowering brands through storytelling to connect with consumers in deeper, more meaningful ways. We will refine the three campaign concepts as needed following input from Client Z on June 1. Then, by July 15, all participants will align on one winning concept to execute in the fall.”
Whether you go with SMART or CLEAR, remember that taking the time to name your specific goals will help you set and achieve milestones.
The result? It’ll be that much easier for you to lead your project to successful completion.
2. Use Project Management Software
Good software won’t replace a good project manager, but it sure makes your job easier.
Some agencies want to reduce costs and use spreadsheets. However, project management software can save time and headaches in the long run and is well worth the investment.
Mushegh Gevorgyan, CEO and founder of Dowork.ai, says project managers are the “driving force behind all the projects” at an agency. “They need to be equipped with modern tools rather than outdated software or, what is worse, spreadsheets, millions of spreadsheets.”
The key role of project management software is keeping things organized and providing a central hub for communication and workflow. It’s a tool that is only as effective as you allow it to be, which is why picking the right one is important.
If the software is too complex, includes too many unnecessary features, or otherwise just doesn’t mesh with your style, you won’t use it. Take time to review its capabilities and, if possible, take it for a spin.
The right software will not only save you time and money, but it will also help boost productivity on your team and make your clients happier.
Examples of popular project management software used at agencies include:
3. Customize a Process That Works for Your Specific Needs
Despite marketing claims to the contrary, there’s no “one software to rule them all” when it comes to agency project management. You’re going to be using multiple tools—a stack of them.
As an example of what I mean by this, I asked one of our agency clients, Lform, a B2B web design company, to share some of the tools they use to keep projects on track.
Here’s their stack, as told by Brandon Fenning, head of operations and lead engineer at Lform:
“We use Asana as our primary project management tool, and it’s set up with all our ongoing work, both internal and client-facing. All projects and their tasks are managed from there. We also use Asana to coordinate with third-party firms and freelancers, adding them to projects as needed.
“Each project is set up using a Kanban sprint-style workflow, where items are created in a ‘Backlog’ bucket and then are moved into a ‘Reported,’ ‘In Development,’ ‘Ready for Testing,’ etc. column as the work progresses to completion.
“For a few clients that want a more hands-on approach, we add them to their projects so they can collaborate, add comments, add tasks, and so on. This is particularly useful for tasks that have an extended, multistep-turnaround such as copywriting and blog post creation/approval.
“The client can add comments on the task as it progresses, and everyone involved in the project can see the feedback in a central location instead of having to search through emails. This also helps avoid any information getting lost, as everything is in the Asana task. Since Asana also tracks modifications to tasks, you can see who edited what and when if there’s any lack of clarity.”
“For time tracking we use Harvest, and each project gets set up with the exact hours in each bucket, e.g., Design, Testing, Content Integration, Project Management. This is how we check if projects are staying within their time budget and identify potential overages, and also gather data for future estimates. When we perform project retrospectives (which are part of every large project), we check whether there were overages and how to avoid them in the future.”
“For code, we use Github and use pull requests to add comments to updated code, which the developer then reviews and marks complete as they handle any feedback. We also manage outside developers here and add and remove them to project repositories as needed.”
Storage and Docs
“We use Google Docs for our document and file storage. This is also organized by client as well as our own internal drives. Each client has their own drive, and we share access with them as needed so they can provide assets and collateral to us for their projects.”
“We use SparkMail for emailing because it has useful team collaboration tools such as being able to share emails instead of forwarding them, which is cleaner to manage.”
“We use Google Calendar to manage all our meetings as well as important deadlines, such as site launch dates, that the entire team should be aware of. Additionally, if anyone is not going to be available, this also gets added to the calendar so everyone knows who is available on any given date.”
“We are currently using Adobe Sign for project milestone sign-offs but are migrating to DocuSign because Adobe Sign is confusing to use and expensive for what it does, relatively speaking. We do not recommend Adobe Sign!”
Fenning wanted to add one more thing: “What ties everything together is we create client codes and project codes for every client and project. We put these codes into Harvest, Asana, the Google Drive labels, etc. and use them consistently across all the platforms, so everyone knows what goes with what.”
Creating these client and project codes may seem obvious, he said, “but it was a game-changer for us in terms of organization of projects and ensuring nothing gets overlooked.”
“Every estimate or contract that’s approved ends up as a uniquely ID’d project across those services,” Fenning said. “For example, if the client code is INSTH, one project code would be INSTH-0001, the next would be INSTH-0002, and so on.”
4. Know When to Offer Your Team Freedom
There needs to be a certain amount of give-and-take with agency project management. Hold the reins too tight, and your team will see you as a micromanager. Let them have too much leeway, and deadlines will be missed.
Some things aren’t negotiable:
- Projects must be completed by the deadline.
- Certain milestones must be reached in order.
- Specific deliverables need to be made to fit a client’s expectations.
Outside of these requirements, however, you should offer some freedom to your team members to tackle challenges in whatever way they’re most comfortable with.
Allowing for individualized approaches opens up creativity and invites unique perspectives. It also builds your team’s confidence. Whenever possible, encourage collaboration and brainstorming to help facilitate the sharing of ideas and experience among team members or across departments.
In the agency world, the only constant is change. As a project manager, you’ll need to adapt to new problems that arise and be open to novel solutions for them.
Another quality of an excellent project manager is to know when to do something yourself and when to delegate to a professional. If needed, the experts at Super Copy Editors are ready to back up your in-house team with our professional editors and proofreaders. Learn more about how we work with agencies.
5. Keep the Lines of Communication Open
Clear communication is at the heart of any good project manager and successful project.
You should always have multiple lines of communication open with all of your team members—on both laptop and mobile.
Every member of the team needs to know:
- What’s expected
- When elements are due
- How their contributions fit into the big picture
Furthermore, project managers need to constantly communicate with stakeholders and anyone else with a vested interest in the project’s outcome. A detailed initial plan, regular progress updates, and approval of work should be swift and seamless with the client to get the job done as soon as possible.
Creating and communicating a detailed initial scope of your project is necessary, as the client will inevitably request changes. When they do, and the client asks for something out of scope, you can more easily manage the client and rein them back in.
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6. Learn to Embrace Failure
Failure is something that’s rarely talked about in terms of agency project management, which is a shame because that sets up false expectations.
The truth? Everyone is bound to fail at something.
You will inevitably have some plans that fall through and ideas that don’t pan out. What matters is what you do next.
Jack Ferraro, author of The Strategic Project Leader, stresses that the best project managers “do not fear failure, but rather learn from failure and rebound with even more confidence.”
The ability to learn from failures and apply that knowledge to future endeavors is what sets successful agencies apart from those that can’t cut it in the real world.
So let’s try this: Whether your next project is large or small, make sure you do what you say you will do.
Project managers can delegate tasks but cannot delegate responsibility. Each team member has to accept accountability for the job assigned. Ask them if they have everything they need to do the assignment. Show your team you believe in them, and they will believe in themselves.
And when you yourself make a mistake? Take responsibility for it, fix it, and move on.
Here are some essential tips to remember to stay accountable:
- Use your analytics to back up your decisions and correct your mistakes.
- Identify problem areas and brainstorm ways to avoid or fix them in the future.
- Be open and honest with your team when problems arise or when you make a mistake.
7. Don’t Neglect the “Why”
When you’re establishing a project’s parameters, it’s easy to get caught up in the details.
For best results, though, you need to look beyond the surface and explore what’s underneath.
Start with an in-depth discovery process with your clients. Work with them not only to learn what they’re looking for but also what their ultimate business goals are and what is driving those goals.
When you understand why a business approaches problems and opportunities the way it does, you’ll have a more intimate understanding of the brand and have better odds of producing what the client is looking for the first time.
Carry this “why” principle through to every aspect of the project itself. Be sure that team members understand why things must be done in a specific way—when they have the full picture, they can make judgment calls and smarter decisions that will lead to better results.
Don’t forget! Download “Agency Project Management: 7 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Team” to keep it handy and take action on it. Click here to download it now.
Final Thoughts on Agency Project Management
The key to solving problems for a project manager at an agency is often straightforward.
Coupled with fundamentals like communication, honesty, and accountability, a little creativity can go a long way to avoid frustration or disaster for your project.
When you do these key things, your project (and your agency) will have an excellent chance at success:
- Focus on what’s essential.
- Communicate your needs clearly with others.
- Trust your team.
- Do great work.
Oh, and one other thing…
When so much is on the line, the last key to being a successful project manager is to make sure your content is tightly focused, error-free, and as professionally written as possible. At Super Copy Editors, we’re proud to be the worry-free proofreading vendor for agencies and marketing teams of all sizes.
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