Project management is the ultimate tool for disproving all the worst stereotypes about creative teams.
It helps us to be immaculately organized. It makes our work more quantifiable.
The reality is that many creative people are great organizers and communicators and can work in simpatico with non-creative clients. But project management goes further by systemically enabling a clear and organized approach to work.
This guide will take you through everything you need to know about creative project management, from its processes and challenges to the role of a creative project manager.
Our aim is for you to leave with the tools to better deliver creative projects for your clients and stakeholders and understand everything from process to platform to client satisfaction.
What is creative project management?
Creative project management provides a framework for getting creative work done from ideation to wireframing to delivery.
Creative leads, directors, or project managers typically handle everything from briefs and standard operating procedures (SOPs) to task progress, milestones, revisions, and the final delivery of the project. Creative project management can be broken down into five defining features:
Tasks: The work of the project is broken down into tasks and monitored through task management software. Tasks are assigned to specific team members with deadlines and can include project milestones to deliver a draft or wireframe, make revisions, and send for client approval.
Stakeholders: Those involved in the project are project stakeholders. The whole team, including internal and external stakeholders, collaborate on projects freely within the same platform. If you’re a creative agency, this could include your clients as well.
Progress: Everyone adds updates on their progress through regular meetings. Creative team updates help stakeholders or clients visually see the progression of a project until completion. This also allows creative team leads to address resource allocation issues or other bottlenecks that could prevent hitting the deadline.
Delivery: The team works through a project life cycle. This allows the team members to hand off the creative assets to the stakeholder or client and move on to the next deliverable.
Let's be real, these points only scratch the surface of creative project management. To truly understand the process, we need to look at the key areas of a creative project lifecycle.
Project management for creative teams: process and lifecycle
The project management process for creatives evolves through the project's lifecycle stages. From initial engagement to creative signoff, it plays a specific role at each stage. An easy way to break down the creative project management life cycle is within these four stages.
The creative project starts when the team and its client agree to work together to deliver a particular goal. It could be a website project or an advertising campaign. The point is that all the key players agree on what's about to happen.
During initiation, the project team writes down its key objective in a project charter, which will need to be signed off by the leading stakeholders. The team can then set up its process and project plan.
At this stage, carefully defining client objectives and project scope is crucial. What exactly does your client want you to deliver, and how exactly will you deliver it?
Every creative project scope should cover:
Timelines: To help clients understand how long a project will take and when critical milestones will be delivered. A project timeline within scope should be a visual or a dot-pointed list to help the client quickly review, collect, and send back recommendations during the initiation phase.
Milestones: These are a project's big-ticket items that signify an important step, like meetings, deadlines, and deliverables.
Deliverables: Deliverables are what a client will receive at the end of a project (or at various milestones throughout the project), so they're important to include in the scope. If you build a website for a client, deliverables will consist of mockups, design prototypes, and wireframes.
Reporting: How will the client keep track of the project's progress? Regular reports keep stakeholders in the loop with what stage the project is at, whether it's staying on budget, and how many milestones have been reached. Inside the scope, clearly state when a client will receive these reports (e.g. every Monday morning by 10 am) to help manage expectations.
Budgeting: The scope should also include a detailed breakdown of the project's budget, including billable hours and expenses. This section should also include a disclaimer about handling requests from the client regarding work that falls outside of the project scope. Project managers may wish to include details of extra fees that will be charged if this happens to minimize scope creep.
You should also discuss how project progress will be tracked and reported, and how often you will communicate with your client throughout the project.
We suggest you encourage your client to stay in touch exclusively via your project management platform, as this will ensure communication is transparent and always within the context of the project.
It also prevents important messages from getting lost in email chains or chat threads.
The second stage of the project lifecycle, planning, is all about defining the work that will go into the project and assigning that work as tasks to relevant team members.
To do this, the project team should collaboratively identify the steps it will take to achieve the project goal. In some cases, the tasks can be divided up thematically between different groups within the team, e.g. Creative/Marketing/Development.
Another important step during planning is to identify project milestones.
These are target dates that represent a major landmark on the way to project completion like all copy reviewed and sign off on all assets. This high-level measure of project progress can be valuable for senior stakeholders, who may only have the time to check in on the project sporadically.
Project managers can turn deliverables and milestones into digital project timelines using a tool like Teamwork.com. Tools like Kanban boards and Gantt charts allow project managers to create timelines, add milestones and tasks, and give clients a visual representation of milestones and delivery dates.
A Teamwork.com Gantt chart gives creative project managers and clients a visual of how long a project will take and when tasks are expected to get done
The planning stage also involves working out who is available to work on the project and how many hours are needed per resource. You may need to outsource some tasks to a third-party, such as a freelancer or another creative agency. This process is called capacity planning.
Project management software that is specifically geared toward client services teams is essential here. Teamwork.com's Workload Planner allows creative project managers to view and manage each team member's capacity.
The tool allows project managers to see if a creative team member has spare time to schedule extra tasks on their calendar. But it's also a great way to spot if someone else's schedule is overloaded and assigned too much work.
If that happens, creative team leaders and acting project managers can use the Workload Planner to drag-and-drop tasks onto another team member's calendar. This helps leaders easily balance the entire team's workload in one space.
This helps move along the progress of a project by team members giving full visibility into their own statuses. But for client services teams, you need to ensure your team can also track time spent on each task.
Time-tracking software shouldn't be used to micromanage creative teams. Instead, it can be used to identify scope creep and create more transparency into workload capacities for clients to see.
There are only so many hours in the day, right?
And for agency owners, time tracking is a more accurate way to provide clients with a detailed bill. Use this software to understand common project time estimates so your team has enough time to do the work.
Also, this is a great opportunity for leaders to know how much additional work they can absorb or if there are enough resources for new clients. A good method for workflow tracking is using a kanban board view.
This is where tasks are represented by cards, which can be moved along a series of columns indicating task status like In Progress, In Review, With Client, or Approved. Kanban boards make it easy to spot bottlenecks so they can be fixed before they become a serious problem.
Other options for monitoring team progress include visualizations such as Gantt charts, which were mentioned earlier. During the execution stage, there may be times when a team member finds they cannot complete a task due to an obstacle they have encountered.
In these cases, they can flag up the blocker that's getting in the way, so their teammates can help them find a solution.
4) Creative signoff
This is when the client signs off on the creative project, marking it as finished. Easy peasy or pain in the neck?
The final stage shouldn't be skimmed or over-planned. So, how do you meet in the middle? Kick this phase off by making sure all assets and tasks have been properly signed off before it heads to the client.
Once any changes are made internally, it's time to present the work to the client for final review. And hey, we make this stage easy too.
With Teamwork.com, you can invite clients to the platform for free, so their side can monitor, review, or approve specific projects for a more streamlined process. At the same time, if you're worried about a client getting too involved, (it happens because they care!), you can easily set user permissions to only give access where it makes sense.
Furthermore, Teamwork.com Proofs enables you to manage the entire lifecycle of a proof, from creation to client sign off, in one place. You can see historical feedback, use comments to interact with key stakeholders, and even review external feedback from clients and collaborators inside your own project management system. It's a sure-fire way to faster file approvals!
The importance of a creative project manager
A creative project manager usually leads the project management process, but that doesn't always mean they are only project managers. In fact, a lot of team leads are the movers and shakers of projects and tasks.
What helps is when the right software enables your team to easily and efficiently manage projects without always needing a dedicated or sole creative project manager. Many creative teams have no trouble sharing the responsibility of managing projects.
The core traits of a traditional project manager and a creative lead are usually similar. The role is often in charge of organizing and managing parts of a project from start to finish, including:
Pre-project planning: Defining budgets, timelines, milestones, the scope of work, and available resources.
Communication: Expectation setting, status updates, and feedback. They can also be the main contact for a client.
Progress: Ensures projects stay on track, while also monitoring timelines, task progress, workloads, and milestones.
Key creative project manager responsibilities
If you decide that your project will need a creative project manager, it's important to understand just what that role requires.
Core responsibilities of a creative project manager include:
Leading clients through project planning.
On-boarding team members onto the project management platform. In most cases, this means setting each team member up with a profile on a secure, web-based digital platform, and then teaching them how to use it.
Training team managers in the specific project management approach that will be used to deliver the project. This is often referred to as the project management methodology.
Leading team meetings on project progress.
Ensuring the team sticks with the project management process.
Helping team members to navigate around blockers. A blocker could be anything that’s preventing someone from getting a task done, from a lack of required materials to a technical problem.
Creating progress reports for relevant stakeholders.
Taking part in project evaluation.
Creative project managers also have to balance keeping a good relationship with their team and making sure projects are delivered on time. Successful creative project managers will be able to do these three things incredibly well:
1) Creative project managers build an atmosphere that drives creativity
Openness and transparency are important for creative teams, especially when a project has many moving parts or they're juggling several tasks at once.
To keep everyone working at the top of their game, creative project managers need to plan every step of the project and keep the rest of the team in the loop. They must be transparent about project goals, timelines, milestones, and KPIs.
These folks also need to create a space where their team can collaborate and talk to each other. Working from a centralized hub means your entire team is connected and working together.
2) Creative project managers direct team members without micromanaging
Projects can get stressful when they involve tight deadlines and budgets. However, creative project managers need to respect their creatives and trust them to do their jobs without micromanaging them.
Watching their every move won't just hurt productivity; it can dampen the team's morale. Instead, creative project managers should focus on planning, setting goals, and building a clear project framework for the team to follow that helps them stay on track.
3) Creative project managers give their team a pat on the back
Everybody loves getting told that they're doing a good job, especially creatives where there's so much room (which is usually unwanted) for debating what is good. Creative project managers need to remember to empower their team with positive reinforcement to keep morale high.
Hitting important milestones or timelines is a great time to pat the team on the back! A good approach for creatives that work together regularly is to ensure the team can rotate through various projects.
This helps keep the dynamic fresh and gives every team member the chance to learn how to deliver new assets. It's all about perspective!
Special considerations in creative agency project management
A creative project is much like any other: it only succeeds if the team delivers against the planned tasks, deliverables, and success metrics. A standard project management process is the best way to achieve these aims.
With that said, there are some special considerations in creative projects, which you may need to address in order to ensure everything runs smoothly. Let’s look at some key points to consider.
Measuring creative success
During the planning phase of a creative project, the project team will need to identify success criteria for each project deliverable. These are the metrics that will be used post-mortem to measure if each project goal was accomplished.
If not, it helps you analyze how far you got, and what factors led to this real-life vs. expected outcome. How exactly to measure success can be a controversial topic among creative teams.
For those working with clients, the criteria for success are usually determined by the client. For example, if a brand asks a creative agency to create some new images to use in adverts, it's the client who will define what success looks like.
These could be performance-based goals around conversion or click rates. But the goals could also be around meeting delivery requirements per month or quarter.
The point is that most clients need insights to ensure they're getting what they paid for. Just make sure to create a detailed list of project requirements within the contract or somewhere that is easily accessible so everyone knows what is expected from the start.
For many creative project teams, success is achieved through a combination of hitting delivery goals and maintaining production. That's why we love our project health report, which allows teams to track and manage projects based on task progression.
Project managers and clients can get an instant idea of whether or not a task is on track, ready to start, or delayed. It's also a good idea to link this report with one that gives a client an update on the project budget.
Teamwork.com's profitability report combines billable time with logged hours to calculate the total project cost, allowing project managers to see how much of the project budget is left.
Accommodating the need for client signoff
The success status of creative projects is often subject to client sign-off.
For instance, if a team’s graphic designer is creating a poster, there are more steps the creative project manager needs to take than simply assigning a single task to the designer. They'll also need to create and assign tasks like outlining the design and submitting it to the client for approval.
Some project management platforms offer ways to expedite sign-offs for the final stages of a creative project.
Teamwork.com allows creative project managers to build a task list that contains both the executable task (e.g. creating the poster image) and the signoff task (e.g. client approval), which should be assigned to the relevant stakeholder.
The creative agency and the client can also use comments within each task card to communicate and record their feedback so the designer and any other stakeholders can see how it's progressing.
When a client is added as a collaborator inside a Teamwork.com project – which we previously mentioned, is completely FREE – they can perform basic actions like:
Write new messages
Reply to comments
View estimated times
The creative project manager will control the client's permissions, so if they want to grant them more access to a project board, all it takes is a couple of clicks.
The benefits of using project management software for creative project management
The right project management platform can give you those crucial boundaries you need when it comes to flexible project management.
In the case of Teamwork.com, flexibility is accommodated through a variety of features, including:
Assigning work to teams rather than individuals: This encourages team members to find their own creative solutions to tasks. It also reduces the potential for micromanagement, which most creative teams will find stifling.
Workload views: This provides an at-a-glance view of each team member’s availability and enables easy task assignment.
Customization: This gives your team options to create custom workflows that are unique to your way of working.
Each creative team is likely to have its own needs when it comes to project management. The more flexibility you have in your project management platform, the better.
Of course, it’s not all about flexibility. This isn’t some kind of contortionists’ convention.
Another key benefit of project management software is that it can provide ways to track the time you spend on individual tasks within a project. When it comes to the time for billing, you can use the records from your time-tracking to explain to the client why the work took exactly as long as it did.
Project management can also provide a useful space for collaborating with clients in-context. This way of working together helps ensure all project work is captured and saved in a place that’s easy to find.
Creative Project Management FAQs
1) What is creative project management and why is it important for creative agencies?
Creative project management is a framework for getting creative work done from ideation through to delivery. It enables creative teams to handle everything from task progress, milestones, and revisions, to the final delivery of the project.
2) How does project management differ for creative teams compared to other industries?
A creative project is much like any other, but there are some special considerations for creative project management. These include identifying success criteria for each project deliverable, and accommodating the need for client sign-off.
3) How does creative project planning differ from traditional project planning?
The main difference between creative and traditional project management is the types of projects being executed. Traditional project management focuses on more structured, traditional projects, whereas creative project management focuses on projects that require a high level of creativity and originality.
4) What tools and software are commonly used for project management in creative agencies?
Most creative agencies use project management software to plan, track, and measure projects. Useful features include assigning work to teams rather than individuals, workload views, time-tracking, and customized workflows.
5) How do you balance creative freedom and project deadlines in creative project management?
By using project management software, you can invite clients to monitor, review, or approve specific projects. But if you're worried about getting a client too involved, you can easily set user permissions to only give access where it makes sense.
6) What are some strategies for effectively managing client expectations in creative projects?
Most clients need insights to ensure they're getting what they paid for. Be sure to create a detailed list of project requirements within the contract so everyone knows what is expected from the start.