Agency project management: your complete guide

Anyone working in a creative, marketing or advertising agency will know that projects rarely get over the finish line without a curveball or two.

If you’re an agency project manager, you’ll likely be dealing with a wide range of clients, personalities and skillsets and juggling multiple projects – all in a rapidly changing environment, and under strict time pressure. It’s fair to say you’ll have your work cut out.

In this guide, we’ll explore the need for effective project management, the particular challenges of managing creative projects, and the strategies and tools you can use to help.

In this guide:

What is agency project management, and why is it so important?

The Association for Project Management defines it as ‘the application of processes, methods, skills, knowledge and experience to achieve specific project objectives’.

A project has a defined beginning and end. A set of requirements – usually outlined in a scope document – are delivered within a specific timeframe and to a set budget, with the whole thing overseen by a project manager.

In a creative, marketing or advertising agency, project management is vital. An agency depends on keeping clients happy with work that’s on brief, well executed and delivered on time. Resources need to be allocated carefully, times and costs need to be controlled throughout and everyone in the team needs to be working towards a shared set of objectives. And of course, each project has to be profitable. None of this would be possible without effective project management.

Read more: How to manage agency projects more profitably

What’s the difference between project management and creative project management?

Every new project brings a new set of challenges, and that’s especially true if you work in the marketing or creative industries. As an agency project manager, your job is to ensure the team deliver the required assets – on brief, on time and on budget.

Creative project management differs from traditional project management in a few key ways:

  • The need for a flexible approach
    The nature of the creative industries means project managers will need to think on their feet and switch up their processes to keep everything moving. Projects involve a lot of variables and moving parts, so any methodology that’s too rigid in its approach isn’t going to work.
  • A broader range of clients
    Unlike those with an in-house role, professionals in an agency work with a wide range of clients. A project manager will have a lot more variety, but may not have the same depth of understanding as someone who works with a single brand day in day out. Rather than a single focus, you’ll have many.

  • Managing people with different skills and priorities
    An agency project manager will be working with a broad team of individuals, from web and UX developers to designers, branding experts and copywriters. You’ll need to keep everyone aligned and working towards a single goal, as well as on schedule. And you’ll also need to manage the expectations of a range of clients, with varying levels of experience and expertise.

  • A balance of creative vision and business acumen
    This is a big one. While traditional project managers are all about the business side, an agency project manager will have to balance this with creativity. You’ll need to make sure you deliver for your client, but also give the creative team the freedom to do great work, respect their judgement and recognise that the process won’t always look the same.

What’s the role of a project manager in a creative agency?

As an agency project manager, you’ll oversee each creative project and, ultimately, be responsible for its success. You’ll work with both clients and stakeholders and internal creative teams, interpreting the client’s requirements, keeping everyone working towards shared objectives, and making sure your team members have the information, time and resources they need to meet the brief.

Depending on the type of agency and the requirements of each project, teams could be made up of graphic designers, art directors, copywriters, web or UX developers, videographers, photographers, and more.

So what makes a good creative project manager?

Beyond being highly organised and methodical in your approach, essentially you’ll need to be a people person. It’s about nurturing relationships with both clients and creatives to understand people and get the best from them.

You’ll need to be able to inspire, guide and motivate your team, creating an atmosphere where creativity can flourish. Effective communication is also key – a good agency project manager will communicate clearly, be an active listener and share project objectives, timings, milestones and KPIs. You’ll also need to be strategic in the way you assign tasks, play to individuals’ strengths and give people the framework they need to stay on track, while trusting them to do their jobs.

You’ll find some more thoughts in our blog: How to be a good project manager

Types of project management in a creative agency

Since agency projects can be so wildly different, there’s no one guaranteed route to success. Instead, there are a few different methodologies, and the best approach – or combination of approaches – for your project will depend on the needs of each client and team.

A project management methodology is a set of rules, principles, and processes for managing a project. Project management methodologies commonly used in agencies today include:

This is the traditional, sequential approach. The project is broken down into stages and each one must be completed before the next one can begin, with no overlap.

It’s best for long projects that progress in a very linear way, with well-defined requirements and timelines, so whether or not it’s suitable will likely depend on your client. For example, if you work with clients in healthcare or government bodies, where each stage needs documenting for regulatory compliance, this step-by-step approach would be really useful. If, like many agencies, your projects tend to be more complex, or the scope or parameters can shift throughout, this methodology would probably be too rigid.

Agile project management is a far more flexible, dynamic approach, allowing teams to respond quickly to changes and inviting more collaboration from clients. The focus here is on continuous improvement – repeating processes, reviewing and getting better each time.

The agile methodology tends to be a good fit for the fast-paced creative agency life, where you often need to switch up plans at a moment’s notice. The snag is that if you progress through different stages too quickly, you’ll have to go back just as many steps to implement any changes.

Scrum is a popular methodology within the ‘agile’ family: work is carried out in short sprints, giving you the opportunity to test and review at regular intervals. It’s ideal for projects that aren’t that well defined or require you to think on your feet.

The incremental approach lets you adapt and improve as you go: you may have gathered data from the first sprint of a digital campaign, and want to make use of it within the second. Since everyone needs to stay aligned, successful scrumming relies on collaboration and communication.

Kanban is another form of agile project management. It’s a highly visual approach, using a board divided into three columns – to do, doing and done. Though simple, this can be really effective, especially considering that many creatives are visual types.

Using Kanban boards can help you streamline workflows, catch bottlenecks early and keep work progressing. It’s brilliant for smaller agency teams, where you need to make the most of everyone’s time and are often working on multiple projects simultaneously.

You’ve probably heard of lean manufacturing, which focuses on increasing output and minimising waste. Lean project management follows the same principles. It means stripping out anything that doesn’t add value (such as overservicing), minimising bottlenecks and delays, optimising utilisation rates and using metrics to monitor project performance. In other words, making the process as efficient and streamlined as possible.

Lean project management is great for smaller teams or projects with limited resources. It’s also a good approach with clients who place a strong emphasis on optimising processes and getting the best value they can.


The right methodology will make life easier for you and your team, as well as help you meet your clients’ expectations. If you need more versatility, you could adopt a hybrid approach, picking and mixing different aspects of waterfall and agile methodologies to get the best of both worlds.

What is the creative agency project management process?

Project management begins way before you start ticking tasks off the list. We usually talk about it as having five distinct stages, as defined by the PMI: initiation, planning, execution, monitoring and closing.

Stage 1. Initiation: finding out more
This comes before you even begin scoping or planning the project, and is often called the ‘discovery stage’ in agencies.

You might have an initial meeting or phone call with your prospective client, or maybe send them a short questionnaire. All with the aim of finding out whether they’re a good fit for your agency – before you invest too much time.

It’s a good idea to write your findings up in a standardised template, including the objectives, ballpark budget and stakeholders, as well as rough scope and an estimate of resources needed.

Stage 2. Planning: mapping it out
Next is the all-important planning stage. A detailed project plan will ensure everyone on the team has the same expectations and understanding of what’s needed. You should:

  • Set goals and key performance indicators (KPIs)
  • Outline scope – list your objectives and Talk to clients and stakeholders about what they want to get out of the project, then break it down into a detailed list of tasks.
  • Set a budget – create an accurate estimate by looking at the tasks required to complete the job, then assessing which resources are needed and how long each task will take. You can look at similar past projects on budget to establish the necessary time and expertise (and check out our blog on how to improve your estimating).
  • Assess risk – think about what could go wrong, and the strategies you could use to prevent or mitigate those risks. Problems commonly arise from miscommunication, scope creep and lack of resources.
  • Send a proposal document to your client, outlining the project scope, timeline, budget and deliverables, as well as defining the project’s criteria for success

Stage 3. Execution: getting stuff done
This is where the bulk of the work happens, guided by the project plan you prepared earlier. As project manager you’ll need to:

  • Allocate resources – decide who will do what and how long each person will need. Efficient resource allocation is the key to remaining cost effective, and there are plenty of agency resource management tools to help you make the best use of everyone’s time.
  • Create a timeline – break the project down into smaller phases and tasks and create a Gannt chart, adding deadlines and milestones.
  • Manage your team’s schedule – make sure all the tasks that you’ve allocated are completed within the necessary timeframe, avoiding bottlenecks and keeping the project on budget. Workflow management tools can help with both scheduling tasks and keeping everyone informed of real-time progress.

Stage 4. Monitoring: staying on track
Monitoring the project’s progress will give you regular opportunities to review and reevaluate. In this stage you will:

  • Host regular status meetings – check everyone in the team is happy with their task and working towards the same goals. Communication is key.
  • Track progress – identify any delays and risks, and use a project tracking system to assess progress against the planned budget and timelines.
  • Collect client feedback – make sure the work is on course to meet your client’s expectations. Review amends internally to decide how to proceed and identify any areas that fall outside the original agreed scope, then agree on the next steps with your client.
  • Revisit KPIs – evaluate project progress against the objectives and KPIs you established earlier.

Stage 5. Closing: wrapping it up
Here you’ll make any final tweaks, deliver the final work, get sign off from the client and wrap up the admin side. It’s a good idea to follow a structured approach to finalising a project – for example, you might hold a project evaluation meeting to identify and document areas for improvement and lessons you can take on board for next time.

Check out our guide: Create stronger agency processes for better project management

What is the project management triangle?

The project management triangle is a simple model used to visualise the three competing demands of every project:

  • Scope – what needs to be done
  • Cost – how much it will cost
  • Time – how long it will take

The theory is that, to get the best project outcome, all three need to be in balance.  Hence the popular variation on the common law of business balance, ‘good, fast, cheap: choose two’.

According to this principle, if one constraint changes then one or both of the other two need to be adjusted to maintain quality. For example, if the budget is cut, or fewer resources are available, the scope will need to reduce to avoid a decline in quality. If the scope increases, you’ll need to allocate extra time and / or resources. It’s the project manager’s responsibility to keep a close eye on all three variables throughout the duration of the work.

Avoiding scope creep
A common risk in a marketing or creative agency is known as ‘scope creep’. This happens when clients ask for extra features or small, incremental changes mid-project, expanding the scope beyond what was originally agreed and putting time and budget under pressure.

It’s a big issue. According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), scope creep sneaks up on almost 50% of agency projects, with nearly 40% of agencies going over budget because of it.

How to avoid it? There are four main strategies:

  1. Be completely clear on the brief and the scope right from the start.
  2. Communicate with your team and client throughout and be open about any challenges.
  3. Document any changes to the original project plan.
  4. Use a project management tool to track changes, manage teams and keep the scope on track.

You can read more in our blog: 5 reasons agencies over-service, and how to avoid it

How to choose the right project management software for your agency

Agency project management software is obviously a hot topic around here. We’ve seen first hand how the right software can help streamline processes, keep teams aligned and provide valuable business insight – improving profits as well as performance.

In a fickle, fast-faced industry, where a single misstep can throw an entire agency-client relationship into jeopardy, specialist agency project management software can give your agency a serious competitive advantage.

If you’re starting to consider the best options for your agency, read our blog on how to choose an agency management system. Or for a closer look at how Synergist’s end-to-end project management solution, book a demo today.