Episode 279

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Who is responsible for keeping the agency’s work on time and on budget? That is an oft debated topic among agency owners. At AMI we believe that a specific role (Project Manager, Traffic Manager, etc.) to keep everyone and everything on track is a luxury if you have fewer than 10 employees and by the time you’re at 15-20 employees, it’s usually a necessity if you want to keep your team and clients happy. But who you hire and how they go about implementing a traffic system is a challenge many agency owners struggle with.

Ben Aston is a self-taught digital project manager with over 15 years experience in the agency world. Realizing how difficult his own learning path was and how few resources exist for those interested in developing these skills, he turned his focus to training others on how to develop the craft of project management.

In this episode of Build a Better Agency, Ben and I talk about what a project manager does and how this role will help grow your bottom line. We get into the nitty gritty of what makes for successful project management, including defining the skills for an ideal project manager, injecting flexibility into planning, reframing time tracking, and solving the problem of the dreaded “scope creep.”

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev, or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here.

Project Manager

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • At what size agency would a project manager make sense
  • What skills creates an ideal project manager
  • Why project management is such a challenge for a majority of agencies
  • How to recognize project management issues
  • The necessity for creative and craft briefs
  • Solving the problem of “scope creep”
  • How to inject flexibility into project planning
  • Defining negative scope
  • How to create effective templates
  • The need to reframe time tracking
  • Best practices for successful project management
“Unfortunately, project management is often an afterthought.” @thedigitalpm Click To Tweet “A project manager is trying to create certainty where there is uncertainty, clarity where there is confusion.” @thedigitalpm Click To Tweet “If you start from a very clear creative brief, everything else will flow from that.” @thedigitalpm@thedigitalpm Click To Tweet “Time tracking isn’t a trap. It’s a technique to better manage people’s time.” @thedigitalpm Click To Tweet “Being intentional about creating touch points with the team is key to keeping a project on track.” @thedigitalpm Click To Tweet “Hoping is not a very good strategy.” @thedigitalpm Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Ben Aston:

Additional Resources:

Speaker 1:

Welcome to the Agency Management Institute community, where you’ll learn how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money and keep more of what you make. The Build a Better Agency Podcast, presented by White Label IQ, is packed with insights on how small to mid-size agencies survive and thrive in today’s market. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey everybody, Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build a Better Agency. I’m excited that you’re here. Today’s topic is probably one of the most frequent topics of conversation that agency owners want to have. And so I went looking for an expert on this topic because I know it’s important to you. I’m going to put a pin right there on that. I know I’ve got you on the edge of your seat with bated breath, but first I also want to tell you about a mini course that we have launched. I mentioned this in my last solo cast, we’ve put together a little mini course that’s called My Future Self. And what it is is, it’s actually an exercise to help you think about where you personally want to be in your professional life five years from now. It’s a series of questions, a guided… I was going to call it a guided meditation but that of course is not exactly what it is, but a guided set of questions… We should do a guided meditation sometime. That would be interesting. But anyway, I’m sorry. I digress.

Drew McLellan:

Anyway, it’s a guided list of questions that walks you through where you want to be in five years. And I will tell you, I did an exercise similar to this about gosh, 12, 15 years ago. I was working with a coach and I was astonished at what I came up with. I was also a little dismayed because where I saw my future self was very different than where I was at at that moment. I will also tell you that today, I am living that future selves life, almost to the T. I’m not going to get into now. There’s more explanation about the mini course on the website. If you go over to agencymanagementinstitute.com/myfutureself, all one word, myfutureself, all one word, you’ll see it. And we’ll put a link in the show notes as well, but I’ve had several people do it. And they’re astonished at the results, but they also are excited about what they uncovered about themselves. I would hope that for you as well.

Drew McLellan:

All right, let’s get back to this super important topic that I was hinting at. One of the biggest challenges for agencies, I am a firm believer that there are four core quadrants, if you will, that if you have excellence in all four, you’re going to have a rock solid, profitable, scalable, sellable, if you want to, down the road agency. And those four quadrants are leadership, and that’s you and your leadership team, you really have to be firing on all cylinders, doing all the things right to grow your team, to attract the right people, to make the right choices. That’s one quadrant.

Drew McLellan:

The next one is biz dev, and that’s about having a biz-dev system in place that really attracts your right fit clients right to you. And then the third quadrant is getting it done. And that is really, how do you actually do the work with excellence? How do you deliver the results you promise for clients? How do you deliver on time and on budget at a really high level? And when you get that quadrant right, then the fourth quadrant of course is money. And that’s all about pricing and proposals and making sure you’re profitable.

Drew McLellan:

But today’s topic falls into the getting it done quadrant. And one of the keys to getting it done in most agencies today is having someone who is riding hard over all the work. You can call them a traffic manager or project manager, whatever you want to call them, but they’re the person in your shop who really knows where everything’s at that is allocating resources, maybe working with department heads to make sure that everybody’s plate is full, but not too full. They are watching like a hawk deadlines and budgets and things like that. This is a skillset that is incredibly valuable to clients.

Drew McLellan:

Many of you have asked me, when do I need to have that person? What I will say is that I think an agency of any size can benefit from that if you can afford it. When you’re small and you need almost everybody to be billable, it’s hard to justify a traffic manager or a project manager, although I believe they should be billable. And I talked about that, I think in the solo cast where I talked about project managers and traffic managers, but I think you should put 15 minutes of their time on every project that runs through the shop, and then they’re super billable. And believe me, they are going to touch every project for at least 15 minutes.

Drew McLellan:

But anyway, if you’re 10 or 12 people or less, a traffic manager or a project manager may be a bit of a luxury, but incredibly valuable. But by the time you get to 15 people, 20 people, you need this person. You need someone to keep you on track to keep making sure nothing falls through the cracks. And the traffic person or the project manager, whatever you want to call them, their job is to make sure that everybody else is really clear about what their job is that day and that week. They can save an agency a ton of mistakes and time and money and unhappy clients. Super important.

Drew McLellan:

The problem is, most agencies don’t know what one looks like, so it’s hard to hire for one, and they’re not sure how to train someone if they want to groom someone to be in that position. I have been following and been acquainted with a gentleman named Ben Aston for a while. And Ben has an interesting… His own career path is interesting, but basically, he self-taught himself project management and realized how hard it was and found some resources. And then eventually actually created the digitalprojectmanager.com website. And it’s actually a training and membership site where for about 150 bucks a year, you or your employee can become a member. They have access to courses, templates, samples, eBooks, and there’s a mastermind group specifically for project managers. Ben has figured out how to really create a craft, a skill set around this, and then to teach it.

Drew McLellan:

I wanted him to come on the show and chat with us about what a project manager does and what do they look like and how do you as an agency owner or leader find them, and what should you be looking for when you go looking for that kind of a person, and what can you expect them to bring to your shop? I know that this is going to be a lively conversation. I have a ton of questions for Ben on your behalf, and so I just want to jump in and get started. All right, Ben, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Ben Aston:

Thank you so much for having me.

Drew McLellan:

Give the listeners a little bit of an idea. Project management is a hot topic any time I’m talking to agency owners, how is it that you come to have this knowledge and all this insight into a critical pain point in most agents?

Ben Aston:

Do you know what, my professional career I guess started off in advertising agencies in Above the Line agencies. Actually, my first account was on working for Stella Artois. I was working on beer, which is everyone’s dream.

Drew McLellan:

It’s like the dream client, right?

Ben Aston:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

Especially when you are young.

Ben Aston:

And one of my first days was going to the brewery and drinking beer. That was a [crosstalk 00:08:26]

Drew McLellan:

What a shame.

Ben Aston:

I started off in account management at Above the Line agencies, but transitioned into digital pretty early on. And it was then that I was really able to apply my technical skills because I’d been building websites since the age of 14, so I knew how to get stuff done in the world of digital. And so the transition to digital project management I thought would be a pretty easy one, but it actually turned out it was quite hard for me because when I landed in this project management role, I realized there’s nothing out there telling you how to do this.

Ben Aston:

But digital project management as a field of expertise was very much the Wild West. It was very fast and loose. Everyone was doing things different ways. To be honest, I found it quite hard right at the beginning of my career. Thankfully, I had some good mentors around me who taught me how to do things, but that experience, I guess, of falling into a role and not really knowing what I was doing is something that I actually discovered was something that was very similar experiences. Across the industry, people often found themselves-

Drew McLellan:

That’s the agency onboarding system, right?

Ben Aston:

… Yeah. Definitely.

Drew McLellan:

Welcome to your job. Here’s your desk. You have a cloud meeting [crosstalk 00:09:51] in 10 minutes, and by the way, be excellent. Go.

Ben Aston:

Can you just pull together a quick estimate and timeline because we told them that we’d present it in this meeting? That was very much my experience. Frantically, this is true, I was on YouTube trying to figure out how to create a Gantt chart. And man, under massive time pressure, I did it and it ended up being okay. But that experience really stirred me a bit later on in my career to start this website, thedigitalprojectmanager.com. And through that experience of running this community for the past 10 years, and through I guess 15 years of agency life… I’ve worked at agencies with big brands, like Wunderman and DDB, and smaller agencies as well, including Tag and an agency called FCV here in Canada. My whole career has been really immersed in the agency world.

Drew McLellan:

You talk about digital project management.

Ben Aston:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

Is that different than… Most agencies don’t just do digital, they do traditional, they make stuff that you can hold in your hands. Is project management project management, or is digital project management something different?

Ben Aston:

I think digital project management is the same as project management. I always think of it as a flavor of project management. It’s a context and an environment in which we’re managing, leading, directing projects. Actually, when I was at Wunderman, we sat next to the Y&R team and we were the Land Rover account and we were digital on one side and Above the Line on the other side. We were working hand in hand with one another and depending on the type of project, maybe digital would lead it or maybe Above the Line would lead it but we’re working on integrated campaigns for the client. The client doesn’t really care how it happens, they just want the campaign to go live. They just [crosstalk 00:11:59] In my mind, digital just describes the environment or the types of projects that we’re running, which tends to be involved with screens and with data and with interaction in some way.

Drew McLellan:

And when you say Above the Line, just for our clarification, you’re really talking about traditional advertising, right?

Ben Aston:

Yeah, TV, radio, press.

Drew McLellan:

Why do you think this is such an Achilles’ heel for most agencies? We’ve been doing agency life for a long time. You think the idea of, how do you get a project to go from start to finish on time and on budget would be something we would have mastered a long time ago? Why haven’t we?

Ben Aston:

I think particularly in the digital world, I think it’s because things are evolving so quickly. I think when we’re creating something like a TV commercial or a print ad, that poll process tends to be quite predictable. We know the parameters of what needs to happen. The process is quite predictable. When we’re working with technology, I think there’s a lot more uncertainty. And I think actually in a digital world, when we’re looking at agencies that focus on digital projects, I think project management can often be a bit of an afterthought. Projects can tend to be run by the person who seems to be the most organized, maybe someone more senior, but who hasn’t really got time to do it.

Ben Aston:

And then this gap appears, it’s hard to manage these projects because there’s a lot of uncertainty there. We need to define a lot more upfront so that we know exactly what we’re trying to build and why we’re trying to build it. And I think some of that, I guess, intense planning, intense thinking, becomes more of an afterthought and then we run into problems because really, I think we haven’t defined the brief properly, we haven’t planned properly. And then we don’t manage to control it because we don’t know what we’re managing and controlling. So we end up in this disaster of late projects that are over budget.

Drew McLellan:

One of the things I find fascinating is that for many agencies, no one owns project management. They may or may not have a tool, a project management software or whatever, but many agencies are lacking the person who is overseeing and driving project management. Is that manageable? Does that work? Have you ever seen that work where it’s a committee-driven activity?

Ben Aston:

I think in a small agency, I think that can work, but I think once you’re past five to 10 people, I think that becomes very difficult to sustain. At that size, you’re beginning to run into resourcing challenges or resource allocation issues. You’re not all talking every day. It begins to become problematic as you grow and as you scale, but also as you start to deliver more complex projects. I think typically what happens in a small agency is that the CEO is the de facto project manager to begin with, and then it sometimes gets passed through to account management. But these holes begin to appear as the team size increases, as the complexity increases. And you realize that maybe… I think the early warning signs are the projects are going over budget, they’re being delivered late, the client’s not happy because they didn’t get what they thought they were getting. These are all telltale signs that there’s a project management issue that can be addressed and should be addressed.

Drew McLellan:

What I say to agencies is, a traffic person or a project management, whatever title you give them, is a luxury below 10 and pretty much a necessity after you get to 10 because no one person can carry it all in their head at that size anymore. When you’re four or five people, maybe a person can keep track of everything that’s going on when it’s due. And by the way, the agency owner is the worst person on the planet to be doing this work because they’re not detailed people as a general rule, right?

Ben Aston:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

And they’re in and out of the office all the time, so really not well crafted to be that role. When you think about the ideal profile of a good project manager or traffic manager, what do you think are the necessary skills and personality traits that make up the ideal candidate for that role?

Ben Aston:

I think the soft skills and the character are probably what I look for most importantly. I’m interested in someone who’s innately curious, someone who asks lots of questions. I think they have to be reasonably outgoing to be able to step out and ask these uncomfortable questions to people more senior than them when they feel like there’s uncertainty there. I think as a digital project manager, what we’re trying to do is create certainty where there is uncertainty. We’re trying to create clarity where there’s confusion. And that requires us to be curious, to ask questions, to be bold. And so we’re looking for someone who’s got that tenacity in asking questions, that curiosity to dig into the crux of the problem and get to the bottom of issues. I think that kind of curious, inquisitive, tenacious character is important. Someone who’s reasonably outgoing enough to ask those questions.

Ben Aston:

Obviously, organization is important. Someone who thrives being organized, but also likes to make that muddle less muddled and create clarity there. I think those soft skills are really important. And then obviously the technical, the hard skills of creating estimates, timelines, statements of work, managing and controlling projects, the more experience you have in doing that, the better you’re going to be at it. But I think it really comes down to those soft skills. And what wraps all these things together is communication. I think of communication as that wrapper that enables us to do all these things well. We can have the hard skills, but if we can’t communicate clearly around it, then it’s not going to be effective. We can ask lots of questions, but if we’re not then relaying those responses to the right people, we’re not going to be effective.

Ben Aston:

So communication ultimately is the thing that… That is what project management is, we’re communicating, we’re making sure the team know what they’re supposed to be doing and relaying that information back, we’re providing clarity around what has to be done and why. It comes down to communication. But the core of that person has got to be someone who has this interest, this drive to dig into the project and really get into the weeds.

Drew McLellan:

And I think one of the traits that they need is they have to have a high emotional intelligence because you’re trying to get a lot of different people with a lot of different personalities to do stuff when you need and want them to. You have to know, who do you kid around with and who do you scold and who do you bribe with chocolate and who do you… You have to be able to read the room and know how to get people to do stuff they may not want to do.

Ben Aston:

A hundred percent. Emotional intelligence is so important. I think when project managers fail or aren’t doing perhaps such a good job, it’s because that emotional intelligence perhaps isn’t where it needs to be, is because they’re not engaging with their team in the right way. And I think as project managers, we’re constantly having to have difficult conversations. Difficult conversations are something that we’re doing every day, multiple times a day, whether or not that’s with the clients and managing expectations, whether or not that’s with the team, trying to define our expectations and find out where people are at, why they haven’t done the work that they said they would do. It’s an ongoing difficult conversation. So yeah, emotional intelligence is super important.

Drew McLellan:

But all of that said, even if you have the right person, they need some of the right tools, they need the right information. Let’s talk a little bit about project or creative briefs, because I think that’s a place where a lot of agencies either don’t do them at all, or they do them in a very cursory fashion, sort of sets the whole project up to fail. What are your thoughts about creative or project briefs and what do we have to do to make them better?

Ben Aston:

I often think about briefs, and this was right at the beginning of my career, if we have spam going in, we’re going to have spam coming out. And it was actually Steve Harrison who was a big fan of the creative brief. And that’s carried with me throughout my career. The creative brief is so important because if we haven’t got that right, everything else that follows is just not going to be right. We’ve got to get the right work done in the first place, and then we can worry about getting the work done right. But so often we’re not actually doing the right work, and it comes back to this, we think about product market fit, thinking about, is this desirable? Is it feasible? Is it viable? I think so often we start projects because the client asks us to do them when there isn’t really a product market fit for it.

Ben Aston:

So I think asking those difficult questions upfront helps us do the right projects in the first place. We’ve just mentioned creative briefs there, but I think what’s important is that we look at, as an agency, what’s the kind of work that we’re doing? Are creative briefs what we need, or… I like to use different types of brief, creative briefs, craft briefs, action briefs. Having different types of brief, different types of work, depending on what stage of the project we’re in, but also I’ve worked with clients where we’re working on more of a retainer model and actually, the brief can be as simple as the client, in the first instance, filling in a form. If what we’re doing is really quite productized, it can be as simple as a form. And I think the more that we can design our briefs around the type of work that we do rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, it gives us a lot better ability to actually deliver something that works.

Drew McLellan:

You said a craft brief. I’m not familiar with that phrase. What does that mean?

Ben Aston:

For me, a project typically would have a creative brief and that’s the foundation. That’s giving us the rationale of the project, it’s giving us the high level insight into why someone should believe what we’re trying to say. It’s giving us that insight, the USP. It’s giving us some high-level insights, but it’s not defining exactly what needs to be crafted. Maybe after we’ve come up with the concept, we’d use the craft brief to then design the user experience or the design or the development. It just goes into a bit more detail. We know why we’re doing it, it’s what it is.

Drew McLellan:

So one is conceptual and then the next one is about the deliverables?

Ben Aston:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

And who do you believe should be completing those briefs? How should those get done?

Ben Aston:

I think it needs to be collaborative.

Drew McLellan:

What you’re saying is the AE shouldn’t do it in a vacuum and then just send it to the creative folks?

Ben Aston:

Yeah, that will not ever go down well. The briefs have to be signed off by the heads of departmen