Why Your Agency Needs Fewer Project Managers and More Producers

Is it better to police a creative team or be part of one?

Producers are often measured by the quality of a team's output, not just its efficiency. Photo: Getty Images

Are you wondering why your agency's workflow process is broken, or why it's so hard to get great work out the door? Maybe it's time to stop hiring project managers and hire producers instead.

Most agencies use these job titles interchangeably, but understanding the distinction is imperative to improving agency workflow. It's more than vernacular—it's about mindset. It's about being part of the work, versus merely managing work effort.

The first step to recasting your project managers with producers is recognizing the main differences between the two:

1. Measures of Success

Understanding how your production lead values his or her contributions to the team is key to understanding their mindset.

Project managers manage action items and resources. They see themselves as the owners of the master plan and project documentation. They serve as team coordinators, checking to-dos off a list. Project managers consider "on time" and "on budget" as their ultimate success metrics.

In contrast, producers love the creative work just as much as the creative team. Producers consider themselves members of the creative team and the center that helps empower the rest of the team to do brilliant work. They are heavily invested in the project and are equally proud to see the campaign go live. Producers measure their own success by the quality of the end deliverable.

2. Response to Change

Change is inevitable in the world of marketing and advertising. Observing how your production leads cope with it is another opportunity to understand how they are wired.

Producers know that change is part of their everyday reality, whereas project managers see change as a risk to be mitigated and monitored.

Crucially, producers make it a point to fully understand proper production process, so they can appreciate trade-offs when the rulebook must be tossed aside. Rather than use process as an obstacle, producers know how to keep their team safe in uncharted territory.

3. Holistic Vs. Specialized Approach

How big of a sandbox is your production lead willing to play in?

Producers strive to be channel agnostic. They're game for playing in the digital, traditional and yet-to-be-invented spaces. They'll seek out answers to the hard questions and are energized by new challenges. But project managers crave skill specialization, which is often reflected by the pursuit of certifications proudly emblazoned on their resumes and LinkedIn profiles.

4. Managing Finances

Observe how tightly your production leads hold on to baseline project estimates. Can they adapt these numbers to evolve with the project, or do they police their original figures?

Producers serve as guardians of budget and scope. If they are doing it well, it should feel to their team like they're creating a padded guardrail, not handcuffs. They prefer to make financial realities part of an everyday transparent dialogue with clients.

Project managers can get lost in the comfort of managing Excel spreadsheets. They live by their CYA file and reluctantly take on the bad cop role, showing up for "the talk" when budgets run in the red.

5. Emotional Intelligence

A production lead's ability to adapt his or her approach and communication style for different audiences is an essential differentiator between project managers and producers.

Producers have high emotional intelligence and strive to understand what makes a team member successful. They'll wear whatever hat is required, be it that of cheerleader, warden, psychiatrist, drill sergeant, nudge or best friend.

Project managers don't understand why people don't just do their jobs, and can be heard remarking in an exasperated tone, "I'm not a babysitter!"

Maybe your agency's "workflow" problems aren't process issues at all. Ask yourself one simple question: Have I hired project managers or producers?

The road to recovery begins with an honest answer.

Michelle Kinsman is svp, executive director of production and operations at Digitas Health. Follow her on Twitter at @callmekinsman.

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