If you’ve ever worked in an agency, you’ve been on one side or the other: The creative side or the accounts side. And by side, I mean both structurally and physically.
Oftentimes, the two departments sit at separate ends of an office or even different floors. Unfortunately, there's a mental separation as well.
Like any social system where groups of people are separated, it’s easy to think of the group outside your own as “other.” This is escalated in an agency setting, where neither side may fully understand or appreciate the other’s job.
The designer becomes frustrated because the project manager is Slacking them yet again to do a last-minute task, on top of all their other looming deadlines. The project manager is frustrated because they asked the designer to do this task already, two weeks ago.
Resentments can build fast, the two groups somehow becoming opposing sides rather than two parts of the same team. The creative side decides managers are stressful and unnecessarily frantic. The accounts side decides creatives are divas who have to be “handled” or tiptoed around.
In an ideal scenario, these teams allow each other to do their best work. But if you’ve worked in any agency (perhaps with the exception of very small, 4-5 person studios), you know the ideal is not always the reality.
I can speak better to the “creative side,” so I will. As a designer, we often work more closely with project and account managers than we do with other designers. They are part of every workday and every project. And so it benefits us to work well with them for two reasons: 1. Because it will make our day-to-day more pleasant, and theirs 2. Because it will make our work better.
And here I will state a truth you might not want to hear: working better with account and project managers doesn’t only require better collaboration skills. It requires being better at project management yourself. Here’s how to do both.
1. Anticipate your project manager’s questions
You know your project manager is going to have questions for you, probably from the moment you walk in the door in the morning. It’s their job. Make it your job to anticipate what those questions may be, and answer them before your project manager has a chance to ask you.
This simple effort immediately makes you better at your own work. You start thinking ahead and noticing little details you might have overlooked before. You become a better communicator because you’re proactively reaching out instead of dodging messages and emails. You assure your team you are thinking of the full picture, so they trust you more. This, in turn, helps you sell your work internally and allow the PM/AM to become your greatest advocate to your client.
2. Communicate your progress daily, or more
Your project manager shouldn’t wonder where you are on a task at any given moment. If you’re plugging way on it and making good time, leaving them out of the loop creates unnecessary panic. If you’re behind, you can circumvent the panic by proactively communicating.
Better communication requires sending one only message at the end of each day. My team calls it the Daily Status Update, and we preach it often. Simply send an email listing what you got done (with links to WIPs, if you have them), what you plan to do tomorrow and what you’re stuck on. That’s it. (Unless you're on a tight timeline, in which case midday check-ins are always helpful.)
Your Daily Status Update should take five minutes at the end of each day and will save you countless hours of standup meetings, damage control meetings, emails and Slack messages. Daily communication lets your project manager know you’re aware of the deadline and doing your best to meet it. It allows them to give the client a heads up and spare their anxiety too (which is what usually causes PM anxiety – it’s a chain that leads back to you.) It also allows your PM to reroute you before you get started for the day, if needed, rather than interrupting your focus halfway through.
You might already get a task list each morning from your project coordinator. It doesn’t matter. Send your update anyway. It will keep you accountable and the effects will trickle down all the way to the client and back to you.
3. Overcome your aversion to “being managed”
Most designers hate the idea of being managed, especially if you’re coming from an independent position. But that’s just our egos talking. The best of the best artists, CEOs, founders, entertainers and more have managers. Why? Because it allows them to focus on what they do best.
Your project manager is by no means your assistant, but they will make your life easier if you let them. Rather than putting them on the opposing side in your head, consider them your ally. Visit their desk now and then to catch up, especially if you’re sitting on opposite sides of the office. Strive to learn how they work and think so you can find the best way to “customize” your working relationship. Find a system together that works well for both of you, even if that’s not how you do it with other project managers.
The ultimate goal is to feel like you and your project manager are a dynamic duo. You can read each other’s minds and anticipate each other’s needs. You’ve hacked the system to make both of your jobs easier and more enjoyable. You are mutually using each other to your own advantage.
The best account/project management relationships I've had were in very small, 4-5 person studios. Why? Because everyone was wholeheartedly on the same team. They didn’t consider the other department, “other.” They weren’t sitting in different parts of the office, they were cramped in one room basically sitting in each other’s laps. They chose each other and knew they needed each other.
The best project managers I know also have something in common with the best designers I know: they are diligent and proactive. To work better with a project manager, seek to be a better project manager yourself. It will make you a better designer too.