The Top 10 Characteristics of Great Digital Agency Project Managers

Christine  Meginness

February 11, 2015

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I read a compelling blog post recently that outlined the top 10 traits of a great PM. I think the author's insights are right on. He mentions many of the characteristics I look for when I am growing my own project management team, and traits I hope to find in my clients' project managers with which I regularly interface. The post sums up qualities of a strong PM in any industry, any company, anywhere.

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I've been doing project management, and managing project managers, in digital agencies for a long time, and I've come to find that there is a unique set of qualities required for even a great project manager to be truly successful working on digital projects in an agency environment. So I decided to put together my own top 10 list:

1. Balance the needs and desires of your client with the needs and desires of your team.

Great agency PMs (not just digital ones, actually) need to be Janus-like in many ways. On one hand, you need to make sure your clients' expectations are being met, that they feel taken care of and that everything is under control because you're communicating with them every step of the way, and they're delighted with the work. So you need to crack the whip on your team to make sure they deliver. On the other hand, in order to deliver that quality work on time and within budget, you need to make sure your team is feeling taken care of, that you're communicating with them every step of the way, and that you're removing obstacles to help foster creative thinking. So you need to hold your clients to the constraints of making fast and firm decisions, and not pushing the boundaries of scope. Project managers who not only "get" this delicate balance, but can also practice it with prowess every day, are a must-have for successful digital projects and programs.

2. Appreciate your geeks.

Your technical resources are the ones that are going to make sure that all of the great strategy, design and creative thinking can actually come to fruition. If you operate in a "stuff rolls downhill" capacity and put unrealistic burdens on your developers to deliver the moon in a tiny timeline or budget, everyone will end up being disappointed with the compromises that have to be made. Your technologists should be a part of the strategic and the creative process from the beginning, and their inputs during those phases of the project shouldn't just be welcomed, they should be cherished.

3. Learn the language of technology so you can speak confidently and authoritatively about it to clients and designers.

Inviting your engineers to be an intrinsic part of your project from the beginning doesn't mean that they'll want to be, or should be, the only person who can answer technology-related questions from your clients and team members. Understanding terminology, some best practices, and common scenarios in digital builds, and being able to respond to some level of technical inquiry, will make you a stronger leader on your project.

4. Be good at quality assurance.

You can schedule as many internal reviews, QA cycles, and copyedits as you like, but as the PM you are the ultimate filter between what your teams are delivering and what your client sees. You've got to have an eye not just for detail, but also for those little things that could pass QA muster but that you know would drive your clients crazy. In order to be a good client advocate, you must actively contribute to the quality controls on a project.

5. Be willing to get your hands dirty.

I have never project managed a single website build where I did not end up doing at least some content entry. I've found myself making some quick fixes to wireframes, doing a bit of massaging to HTML, and writing functional requirements documentation. Were any of these things technically "my job" at the time? No, but when you're there in the trenches with your team, you need to be willing to throw off the poncho and dive into the mud when necessary.

6. Understand that there is no single digital tool that solves all problems.

Find the best-of-breed set of tools that help you do your job. Microsoft products, Google Drive, online chat, time tracking software, status reporting tools, project communication hubs, project review sites, and countless other tools are needed, and you need to be comfortable using them all. I've yet to find (or hear anyone else who has found) the magic bullet of a single online project management platform that does it all.

7. Consume digital media regularly and stay abreast of trends.

If you are going to work in the digital media space, you need to avidly and regularly use the types of sites and applications you are designing and building for your clients. This will help you be a more strategic member of the team as well as be a good first line in answering client questions and concerns.

8. Ease your clients' fear of the unknown.

While you live and breathe digital on a daily basis, many of your clients do not. Re-platforming, or moving offline properties online, or even having to learn how to use a new content management system, can be daunting for your clients - and not just for the marketing folks, but the IT teams as well. You've done this before, you're the pro, and it's your job to ease your clients into these new digital tools with finesse.

9. Appreciate, but don't take unfair advantage of, the flexibility of digital media.

I used to joke that a website isn't carved in stone but rather is an ice sculpture. Unlike a TV commercial or a billboard, you can make a lot of types of changes to a website fairly easily. But it's easy to fall into the trap of "we can fix that during the build" or "we can come back to that after launch." As the PM it's your job to ensure that the strategy we set out with actually gets delivered on launch day.

10. Work on the "client" side at least once in your career.

If you work at a digital agency, you are moving a mile a minute. You are used to an incredibly fast pace, to making dozens of decisions a day, to moving ahead with lightening speed and adaptability along the way to do whatever it takes to get the job done. In all likelihood, most of your clients do not work in an environment like that, which can feel stifling or frustrating to your drive to plow ahead. The best digital PMs have spent some time on the "corporate" side, and can appreciate the intricacies of having to operate within a large, multi-tiered organization. With that insight, you can both bring a better understanding to your client's roadblocks, as well as provide some tested solutions for getting past them.

If you need guidance from an amazing digital project management team, who just happens to have a phenomenal team of strategy, UX, content, creative and technology specialist on our roster of resources, please contact us so we can help you make your next website initiative a reality.