In my first job in the advertising industry, the agency had separate account management and project management functions. It wasn't until my second job in the ad business, at which these two functions were combined, that I fully appreciated the value of having distinct account and project management roles.

We at Cella Consulting have often seen in-house creative shops blur the distinction between account and project management since they are perceived to be similar, but, in truth, the two roles are quite different. They require different skill sets and different focuses - and there is even a natural tension between the two functions in providing good service to clients. Account management is all about strategic management: understanding client needs, defining solutions for those needs, "selling" those solutions to the client and advocating for that solution during the creative process. Project management is all about the details: tasks, resources, deadlines, accuracy and coordination between different process participants.

Unless a creative services group is purely a production shop (i.e., in the mode of reacting to client orders), management of a creative services group is ill advised to fail to make the distinction between the account management and project management functions. Headcount and budget restrictions may not allow for two full-blown departments, but the distinction is necessary for effective management of the group. Management should not assume that a good project manager will be good at ferreting out client needs and, likewise, a good client service person may not be the best at managing the complex details of creative execution. But even if the skills are present in the same people, there needs to be sufficient time allowed for a combined account/project manager to do both roles since both are highly time-consuming tasks.

Account management is probably the most undervalued skill in internal creative groups, yet it involves strategic thinking and requires wide knowledge of both the client's business and creative solutions. A good account manager needs to do the following on complex creative projects:

  • Spend time with clients to understand their communication challenges; this is not merely attending meetings with the client and asking them what their needs are, but gaining deep knowledge about the business problems that the clients are solving
  • Suggest solutions by marrying knowledge of creative with the understanding of the client challenges; clients tend to be very busy people who value tremendously an account manager that can define effective solutions for them
  • Write creative briefs (or ensure they are written well) and make sure there is a common understanding of objectives between the client and the creative services team
  • Push the project manager to meet client deadlines, but without negatively impacting quality or overtaxing creative resources
  • Serve as the client advocate within the creative services group and review interim deliverables before the client sees them to increase the likelihood that they will meet with the client's approval
  • Make sure that the client understands what was done and why it was done (ideally relating what was done back to the creative brief)
  • Capture client feedback in a structured manner so that each iteration moves the deliverable closer to finalization
  • Obtain feedback from the client after the project is over so as to gather learnings for the creative services group

On simple projects (e.g., directed updates to a previous piece), the account manager can skip many of the above activities and leave others to the project manager. As such an account manager can focus energy on strategically complex challenges; a project manager does not have this luxury since even the smallest project requires some degree of management. A project manager must do the following on a project-by-project basis:

  • Ensure that project requirements are clearly understood by all involved
  • Set and communicate deadlines for key tasks, negotiating both with account managers about client needs and with creative staff about the time they need to do a thorough job
  • Ensure that the creative staff has all they need to do their work (e.g., the right files, the creative brief, clear deadlines)
  • Remind the account manager, the client and creative staff of upcoming deadlines
  • Warn the account manager (or the client if the account manager is not involved in the project) if a deadline looks like it's going to slip
  • Juggle resources and deadlines and then adjust and communicate project schedules accordingly
  • Manage internal iterations of the deliverable prior to a client presentation
  • Gently remind the client if they delay in providing feedback
  • Ensure quality by making sure proofreading and brand reviews are done in a timely fashion (and that enough time is allowed for these things to happen)
  • Ensure proper project close-out, including archiving of files so they can be easily accessed when needed in the future

These two different functions need to be attached at the hip; constantly communicating, occasionally disagreeing but all the while looking out for the interests of clients, management and the creative staff. The exact organizational structure to determine who should do project management, who should do account management, where such staff members should report and how many of them are required should be custom determined for each organization. But both functions are necessary for a high performing creative services group.

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