Ultimate guide to creative project management
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. And it makes what we do easier to understand from a right-brained perspective. Admittedly, if there’s a slide in your office, there’s nothing project management can do about that.
Of course, the reality is that many creative people are great organizers and communicators, and are more than able to 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 use project management to deliver creative projects – from process to platform.
What is creative project management?
Creative project management provides a framework for getting creative work done. Here are some of the defining features of the process:
The project team defines outcomes that the project must deliver. This could be anything from app designs to campaign assets. These outcomes are often referred to as deliverables.
The work of the project is broken down into tasks. These are assigned to specific team members, who are asked to complete the task by a certain deadline. For example, in a project to design a billboard, you might assign a task to design the creative to a graphic designer, and another task to write the ad copy to a copywriter, and so on.
People involved in the project are thought of as ‘project stakeholders’. The whole project team, including internal and external stakeholders, collaborate freely on the project within the same project management platform. If you’re a creative agency, this will probably include your clients.
Everyone updates each other on their progress through regular team meetings. As a creative team, you should be looking to make this a stimulating feature of your projects, so don’t be shy to involve shared activities or even games.
The team works through a project life cycle. Initiation > Planning > Execution > Signoff.
These points really just scratch the surface of what project management is. For much more detail, read the Teamwork guide to project management.
Project management in the creative project lifecycle
The project management process evolves through the stages of a creative project’s lifecycle. From initial engagement to creative signoff, it plays a specific role at each stage.
An easy way to break down the creative project management lifecycle is:
Stage #1: Initiation
The creative project starts when the team and its client agree to work together to deliver a particular goal. It could be a website design, it could be an ad 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 project management process and get ready to 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? 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.
Stage #2: Planning
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, e.g. ‘All ad creative signed off’. 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 fleetingly from time-to-time.
The planning stage also involves working out who is available to work on the project, how many hours are needed per resource, and so on. In some cases, you may identify a need to outsource some of the project scope to a third-party, such as a freelancer or another creative agency. This process is called ‘capacity planning’.
Stage #3: Execution
Project management really comes into its own during the execution stage of a creative project.
Team members can collaborate on tasks within a project management software, marking them ‘complete’ as they progress through the project. The software should let them track the time they spend on each task, as this will help you to identify incidences of scope creep during the project, and present a detailed and accurate bill to the client once the project is completed.
While your team members get on with their project work, the project management process keeps track of all the moving parts of the project. A good method for workflow tracking is using a kanban board view, where tasks are represented by cards, which can be moved along a series of columns indicating task status, e.g. In progress, Review with client, Approved. This approach makes it easy to spot bottlenecks, so you can fix them before they become a serious problem.
Other options for monitoring team progress include visualisations such as Gantt charts and project timelines.
There may be times during the execution stage where 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.
Stage #4: Creative signoff
This is the stage where the client signs off on the creative project, which marks it as finished.
The project management process is invaluable during creative signoff, as it can make the work of the creative team quantifiable.
All the documentation from the project, as well as a record of all the project tasks, can be stored in a project management software and presented to the client at the point of signoff.
When all parties are happy, the project ends, and we crack out the proverbial bubbly!
Is creative project management compatible with my project?
Any type of creative work that requires people and work to be organized can benefit from project management.
Here are some examples of creative projects which are commonly delivered using project management:
Project management can be used to organize all the people and processes that go into creating a creative asset. In a project to make an explainer video, that would include the director, 3D animators, scriptwriters and so on.
Whatever your creative team does, project management could be the solution that holds your projects together and keeps them focused on their goals.
What does a creative project manager do?
The creative project management process is usually led by a project manager. If this person is a specialist in managing creative projects, they might be considered a creative project manager. This is basically the Rizzo to your Pink Ladies.
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, 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.
Not every creative project needs a project manager. In fact, many creative teams have no trouble sharing responsibility for project management throughout the team. If you decide to go without a project manager, just be sure all the key responsibilities of project management have been assigned to team members. A good approach for creative teams that work together regularly is for project management leadership to rotate through the team from project-to-project. This helps keep the dynamic in a team fresh, and gives every team member the chance to learn project management from a leadership perspective.
Special considerations in creative 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.The best way to achieve these aims is through a standard project management process.
With that said, there are some special considerations in creative projects, which you may need to address in order to help things run smoothly for your project team. 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 deliverable of the project. These are the metrics that will be used to measure how fully the project goals have been accomplished.
How to measure success can be a controversial topic among creative teams. However, the following approaches can usually give us the success criteria we need for creative project management:
Success criteria are set by the client. Creative projects are often delivered by a creative team, on behalf of a client. For example, a brand might ask a creative agency to create some new images that will be used in its adverts. In such cases, the client often sets the project’s success criteria. These could be performance based – for example, “The images should make at least 70% of consumer focus group members feel positive and appetised.” On the other hand, the success criteria a client sets for a creative team might simply be specification based: “The images need to be X, Y and Z.” Creative teams need to be thorough in setting specific, measurable success criteria for the creative projects they work on for clients. Further, any project-critical requirements should be written into the contract between the team and its client.
Commercial factors. Many creative projects have commercial aims which are essential to their viability. For example, if you were designing a new landing page for your agency, you would typically require an increase in the conversion rate from visitors to enquiries, in order to make the project successful. Commercial factors translate very easily into success criteria, e.g. “Increase landing page conversion rate from 0.5% to 1%.”
Productivity factors. Some creative people and teams use project management as a way to be more organized and increase their productivity. In this scenario, the key success criterion is simply to get tasks done.
Creative factors. As a creative team, you’re going to want your work to be true to your own identity, as well as your client’s. This aspect of project success can be measured through metrics such as the level of adherence to your brand guidelines, or how well public perceptions of the project deliverables match up to your brand identity.
For many creative project teams, the fullest form of success is achieved through a combination of commercial and creative factors. Delivering on commercial factors while underperforming on creative factors could affect the team’s sense of identity and its reputation, while missing commercial factors could harm its viability. Creative teams should be sure to set up all the success factors which apply, during project planning.
Accommodating the need for client signoff
The success status of creative projects is often subject to client signoff. For instance, if a team’s graphic designer is going to create a poster, there are more steps to the project management process than simply assigning a single task to the designer. Instead, we need to assign the task of creating the poster and submitting it to the client for approval. Furthermore, providing that signoff becomes another task, which is in this case assigned to the client.
Some project management platforms offer ways to expedite this typical feature of creative projects. For instance, in Teamwork, you can create a task list, which contains both the executable task (e.g. create an image), and the signoff task, which should be assigned to the relevant stakeholder. You and the client can also use comments within each task to directly record their feedback, so you can refer back to the conversation in future.
In other cases, signoff may need to be facilitated through the creation of a totally separate task for the relevant stakeholder. This approach is relatively inefficient, but it can get the job done.
Flexible project management
The nature of creative work and its success factors often demands a flexible approach. From writing copy that resonates, to capturing the essence of a subject in video form, there tends to be more to creative excellence than jumping through a certain array of hoops.
With this in mind, we sometimes need to adopt a flexible approach to creative project management. This could mean being relatively flexible on deadlines for certain tasks; giving the team a project management platform they can use via any device, rather than just your office-based computers; granting permissions for stakeholders to change aspects of the project setup; or whatever else it takes to give room for the creative process.
The benefits of using project management software for creative project management
As we mentioned in the previous section, creative tasks and projects sometimes demand a high degree of flexibility. The right project management platform can instill this crucial quality into the project management process.
In the case of Teamwork, flexibility is accommodated through a variety of features, including:
The capability to assign 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 some creative teams find stifling.
Our Workload feature, which provides an at-a-glance view of each team member’s availability and enables the easy assignment of tasks.
Options to create custom workflows, unique to your way of working.
Each creative team is likely to have its own needs when it comes to project management. So, 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.
3 P’s to get started with creative project management: platform, people, process
By this stage, we hope you will have learned a thing or two about how creative project management works. It’s a process that’s not without its challenges – especially since a managed approach can come as a culture shock to some creative people.
If you’re interested in getting your team started with creative project management, we recommend taking a ‘3 P’s’ approach. (And yes, we invented that name – how’s that for creative brilliance?)
The first P in the 3 Ps stands for Platform. Which digital project management platform will you use to deliver your creative projects?
We’d naturally be delighted if you’d give Teamwork a try for free, but we understand that we may seem like a biased advisor on this particular point. In any case, be sure to choose a project management software that’s flexible enough to foster a creative approach, and intuitive enough for everyone to get on board with easily.
The second P is People. Who is going to be responsible for your creative project management?
If you’re part of a small creative team, it’s likely that one of the existing team members will lead on project management. This person (or these people, if the responsibility is shared) will need to learn the essentials of project management, and guide their teammates through the process. The intuitiveness of the project management platform becomes especially important in this sort of setup. Larger creative teams or projects may be in a position to hire a creative project manager, who will lead the team through each step of the project lifecycle.
Finally, the third P stands for Process. What are the specifics of the project management process you will use to deliver your creative project? Your chosen process should be fully documented and made available to team members as part of the project documentation stored on your project management platform.
With the right platform, the right people and the right process in place, you’ll be ready to bring your creative potential to fruition through project management.