project manager

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.