Get Your Digital Project Management Out Of My Digital Production by Matthew Cook

Digital Project Managers and Producers get a hard rap sometimes because we deserve it.

Let’s be clear right off the bat about the difference between a Digital Producer and a Digital Project Manager (DPM). They are different, don’t listen to the “we all make stuff happen” moniker that seems to get tossed around everywhere. A rose is a rose, but in this case we’re not talking about a single role by two names. We’re talking about two different perspectives and directions of effort with overlapping skill sets. There’s no explicit definition that everyone seems to agree on, so here’s mine.

Digital Project Manager - Concepts, drafts, scopes, and manages process toward end deliverables. Facilitates clear communication across platforms and skill sets. Coordinates stages of effort and tracks progress.
Digital Producer - Concepts, drafts, scopes, and facilitates creation of a specific set of deliverables. Speaks to the rightness and fit of specific work toward specific end goals. Builds perception of value in her team and their collective output.

Dig in a little deeper, you say? Well ok then.

A Digital Project Manager is a lens poised over a project. She brings focus, clarity, and awareness, but leaves material change to other members of the team. There’s a sort of disdain that often comes to these people. Always focusing on the shortfalls and issues without being the one who has to do the work to fix them. Other project management failures look like unexpected crunch time, lack of communication and understanding between any parties on the project, insufficient planning, failure to adapt plans, or losing clear sight of the quantifiable effort to complete the making of all the things.

DPMs fill a gap between goals of the business hired to do the work and the operation and smooth functioning of the team or studio of designers/developers. Their skills highlight cost (and profit), ensure timelines, allow for accurate higher level management control of the client relationship, and provide a mechanism for morphing and adapting effort on the project.

A Digital Producer is the tactician counterpart to a project lead such as a Design Director, Technical Director, or Creative Director. She’s the right hand. She guarantees completion at a specific level of quality and fitness through communication and learning/expertise; simultaneously in the weeds on problem issues yet accurately utilizing the entire breadth of skills and roles on the project. Producers are always leading the charge but never the subject matter expert. They get in over their heads, they’re messy, they’re barely good enough. Failure for this role looks like staying too topical on a project, disengaging from hard conversations, reluctance to find and clarify gray areas, and not building a sense of value in the client’s mind.

Digital Producers sit squarely in the middle between the project, the client, and the team. They’re the fastest learner in the room. They bring clarity to all parties and their business function is tied more to value than dollars. They ensure the client perceives the rightness of the project’s direction. In her role, she champions her team’s vision and expertise, her client’s needs, and the business’s need for profit and control—all simultaneously. She must play or solve for any missing part: code, UX, content strategy, or design as needed. The business is respected and reliably successful at delivering excellent solutions to clients’ needs because of the Digital Producer.

Both roles are very valuable to the business, the team, and the client. They’re also emphatically not mutually exclusive.

I work with companies structured in the Hollywood Model. We sometimes like to call it the Avengers Model. To carry that metaphor forward, if the project team is The Avengers, a DPM would be Coulson and a Digital Producer would be Nick Fury. Both are essential to the team, but neither can carry the weight that the Avengers inevitably must bear. They approach problems in a drastically different manner side-by-side. Ironically they’re also both easily defeated when they get isolated and in over their heads.

If DPMs and Digital Producers get a hard rap because they deserve it, they should also be championed when their projects are successful. 

But they rarely are, and in a way that’s really ok. There’s little to be gained from publicly extolling either of these roles along with the work that the team completed. Awards, portfolios, and best of breed websites rarely have much from a visuals aspect to point back to the DPM and Digital Producer. However, the client, the team, and the business have a lot to gain or lose based on these roles, and should value them extremely highly because they ultimately guarantee smooth team functioning and consistent performance; both of which highly affect prices, profits, reputation, and morale.

The result of our collective success as DPMs and Digital Producers is hard to quantify, but our failures are glaring. When communication falls through and the business loses a project, it’s easy and right to blame us. When a project is successful and wins awards for design and interaction, it’s easy and right to champion the business and the team; but often this seems to mean we get marginalized. When we’re buried or lost in a project and go AWOL, it’s easy and right to call us out.

So how do you properly champion these roles? Don’t conflate them and gauge their efficacy with a singular set of measures. Find ways to measure success unique to their disparate goals and emphases. Create mechanisms to champion and congratulate their contribution. Chances are, if your business is successful and growing, these people are a huge part of that consistent upward trend—even though you mostly notice them only when they aren’t performing at their best. Don’t simply concentrate on assessing failure and assigning blame. Recognize that organizations like .Net are wrong when they fail to acknowledge production and project management as key to good work and good projects in our industry. Realize that Digital Project Management and Production are functions that grew out of necessity, not classical education. Find smart ways to invest in and utilize us.

Steps 1-6: Selling and Qualifying Clients in the Hollywood Model by Matthew Cook

Last week in The Prequel I talked through an introduction to selling and qualifying given my experience over the past few years. Here’s a quick recap:

  1. The business model I work in is called the Hollywood Model.
  2. The process I’m outlining assumes sales are driven by reputation, referrals, and attraction.
  3. This process is designed for a two-man (or woman!) team.
  4. These steps are designed to qualify clients, not just sell them.
  5. A major goal in using these steps is to push potential clients that are a bad fit for you toward a “no”.
  6. I’ll be framing everything by how I work with Arbitrary

It’s time for steps 1-6 of 12, let’s continue! Everything starts with [1] The Initial Contact, when a person or company reaches out to Arbitrary. It may be a personal friend of Jamie’s, a larger agency, or an end client looking for a small team. We treat each potential in light of how they relate to us. It’s bad manners to reply to a friend like a stranger, and it’s uncomfortable when you’re too chummy with a big corporation.

After the potential client gets in touch, our first reply back is [2] The Handoff. Jamie replies with a personal note saying thanks, expressing interest, and passing the baton to me, the producer. The goal is to keep Jamie’s time sacred while also building trust in the producer role. Lots of potential clients are testing to see if Arbitrary is an actual company or just a front for Jamie’s contract work. The client should feel like they’re discovering the company structure and being given a personal contact, not like I’m the gatekeeper to Jamie.

Next comes the [3] Producer Contact. I step in, echo Jamie’s interest and appreciation, then start the conversation.

Immediately following are the [4] Initial Questions, a predetermined set of bullet questions that we change slightly each time we send them. Sometimes steps 3 and 4 are the same email, sometimes they’re separate. It depends on how detailed the client’s initial contact is. Was there an RFP? Do they sound like this is a big project for them? Did they ask lots of questions? I balance the formality of my reply with the formality of the inquiry while also creating the tone of Arbitrary’s communication. This is the first opportunity to display to the client how we’ll talk with them.

The initial questions we send can vary depending on the work, but more important than rewriting the questions, I let the client know that they’re templated. I say that I realize I’m asking them to do some homework which I assign to all potential clients, and tell them why: I want to help both of us make sure we’re the right fit for each other right out the gate. This alleviates my workload so that I’m not generating fresh questions for everyone who shows up, and it puts the client in a predetermined frame of mind. Here’s a paraphrased rundown of what we ask:

  • Can you recap what you’re looking to get done?
  • Have you started any of this work already?
  • Is there a hard deadline for completing this work? What drives that deadline?
  • What does your team look like, what roles do you have on staff?
  • How did you find us, and did did someone send you our way?
  • Are you talking to any other people about this project, and can you tell us who they are?
  • What is your budget for this project?
  • What specifically are you looking for us to accomplish on this project (as opposed to other teams your your internal team)?
  • Anything else?

Dan Mall has a great write-up about this step titled, Prequalifying Clients that I added a few thoughts to a while back. He’s been working on this step a lot longer than I have. It’s well worth reading.

If replies to the initial questions don’t throw up any show-stopping red flags, we move on to the [5] Initial Call. This is a call with only me–no Jamie. It’s important to draw that producer distinction and keep the client’s mind focused on how to set up the work and what they need to communicate. Throwing Jamie in at this point causes the client to feel like he’s just a freelancer (rather than team leader) and changes the topic of discussion from defining the work to testing out expertise, which is the first step toward free consulting. Again, let the client know it’s just them, anyone they feel like bringing, and the Producer. Also let them know the agenda, which almost never changes. It looks roughly like this:

  1. Tell us about your project. What are your hopes, dreams, and fears?
  2. I’ll ask you questions so that we can discuss details.
  3. I’ll tell you the story of Arbitrary; most importantly, why we do what we do, and why that makes us special.
  4. You can then ask me questions.
  5. Wrap up by talking about next steps.

If things went well and the opportunity still feels right, I take all of my findings to Jamie, and we start putting together [6a] Project Options and running them through a [6b] Project Net worksheet (see an example of that worksheet here). 

It’s paramount in this model that we pose multiple options for successfully completing the project. It builds confidence in our expertise, displays our comfort working with complex solutions, and up-ends the budget conversation. The real struggle here is offering multiple options that are truly different. We want to offer Option A and Option Turtle, not Option A and Option B. Clients are good at math. If I offer them incrementally additive options, they’ll subtract pieces they don’t want to pay for and calculate a price difference. I want them thinking about value. The value of the team, value that they put on the work to be done, and the value of one approach vs. another completely different one. This pushes them to think about what they truly want and can afford given the packages I communicate to them. 

The project net worksheet is our way of double checking ourselves. Because this process is set up to work in a value pricing approach, we can sometimes get lost in figuring out how much our services are worth in a given scenario. If we get lost, our client definitely will. These two spreadsheets give us a space for sketching out numbers. We can compare multiple options side-by-side and flesh out the final or preferred option. It’s a way to guess at components and estimate profitability; taking the things we want to do, and helping us think about the cost and income earning potential. This also gives us a jumping off point for thinking about the friends and contractors we’d want to bring on for the project. We talk to the team we want to hire early and intelligently. This is a good place to start looking at contractors, thinking about the roles and potential people to fill them.

That’s it for steps 1-6. If successful to this point, we’ve either pushed a client to realize they’re not right for us or we’ve sold them on the idea of Arbitrary and built confidence that we’ll return with the right project structure. 

Without a clear picture of why we do what we do and the value we have to offer our clients, we have nothing to sell and steps 1-6 will feel hopeless and contrived. Starting the conversation can sometimes feel like grasping at straws, but the better we get at finding the right vision to communicate, the more we can refine how we sell it. 

Next week we’ll run through steps 7-12 and some things I’m still working on. As always, feel free to say hey in the meantime.