Agency project management: Your 101 guide

Agency project management

Welcome to our agency project management blog series, where we set out to uncover all you need to know about running effective project management programs at your agency.

In this five-part series, we’ll cover everything from the basics to methodologies, processes, teams, and tools. The goal? Help you navigate the agency project management landscape with ease, finesse your strategies, deliver more profitable projects, and last but not least—build lasting and fruitful relationships with your clients.

Throughout the course of the series, we’ll show you how to level up your agency project management game with the help of seasoned agency leaders sharing their knowledge and expertise.

You can find the other parts in this series here:

What is project management? (generally)

Project management is the discipline of planning, organizing, and overseeing the execution of a project across its entire life cycle, from project initiation through to project closure

It involves defining what project success looks like, setting (realistic) project goals, determining and assigning tasks, identifying and allocating resources, setting timelines, managing budgets, and coordinating team members to ensure successful project completion within the defined constraints.

Project management focuses on efficient resource utilization, effective collaboration, risk management, and meeting project objectives while adhering to quality standards.

Project management is a tough gig as it is. But at agencies? Oh, it’s a whole different ball game.

Why is agency project management different?

In general, project management has a lot of moving parts—in an agency setting, well, multiply those by 1,000.

Overall, project management at agencies has a unique challenge on its hands as it requires a blend of client-centricity, creativity, adaptability, and effective coordination with cross-functional teams. 

From multiple projects and tight deadlines, to project scope changes and (unsolicited) client feedback, here’s why project management in agencies is a different kind of beast.

Multiple projects

As an agency project manager, you likely oversee multiple projects across who knows how many clients

Then, each of these individual client projects has:

  • Unique goals
  • Timelines
  • Budgets
  • Resource demands (meaning, your capacity planning needs to be on point)

The real kicker is all of that’s going on for every project, all at once. 

Author Elizabeth Harrin stresses the seriousness of it all in her book Managing Multiple Projects:

“Managing multiple projects with competing deadlines can take it out of you. Here’s the truth: without the skills to manage multiple projects, you’ll crash and burn. It is no surprise that workload is the top cause of burnout.”

High levels of collaboration, communication, and teamwork 

For agency projects, you’ll likely need to collaborate across multiple project teams throughout the project life cycle. So rather than a handful of specialists shaping deliverables, you’ll need multiple hands on deck to get projects across the finish line. 

This requires next-level communication and teamwork. You’ll also need a superstar planner to put the puzzle pieces together, with the management finesse to keep project progress rolling. 

Relationship management (with your team and clients) 

To stay competitive as an agency, client satisfaction is key. Satisfied clients lead to retention, repeat business, and referrals, which keeps the lights on.

So, you don’t just want to get deliverables over the line, you need to ensure they meet client expectations. But you also don’t want to overburden your team because that can cause ill will in-house.

Tight deadlines 

In creative work especially, there’s a common thread that quality trumps speed. Of course, if you have to choose between them, you should pick quality. 

But in an agency setting, nine times out of 10, you need to have quality delivered at speed to stay competitive. That means you’re likely wobbling atop the unforgiving balance beam of tight deadlines—not just for one client, but several.

Why project management is so important in agencies: Agency veteran, Zoe Ashbridge, explains

According to our featured expert, Zoe Ashbridge, agency project management is all about agency operations and processes.

“Processes will take an agency from good to great, seriously!”

“Without them, everything feels like a scramble, and the customer experience quickly becomes disjointed,” says Zoe. 

But scrambles to the finish line and poor client experiences aren’t the only reasons agency project management is critical.

Let’s take a closer look.  

It protects staff well-being and ensures client satisfaction 

Agencies are notorious for their lack of work-life balance, as client demands and deadlines often come first. But the answer could lie in better processes.

“Building processes allows you to look after people correctly,” says Zoe. 

“For example, if you know how much time something takes, then you know how much time to allocate and what’s reasonable to ask of your employees.” 

Agency project management doesn’t just contribute to effective workload planning for your team. It also makes it easier to track how much time a task or process may take. 

That means you can “quote more accurately and give your customers a better gauge of how long something is going to take,” says Zoe.

It promotes work-life balance (preventing staff churn)

Agency work-life balance historically hasn’t been at the forefront of agency culture. But a lack of work-life balance caused by unmanageable workloads can lead to agency burnout. And employees experiencing burnout are “2.6x as likely to be actively seeking a different job,” says Gallup

Given that agencies already face a talent shortage. Well, retaining your existing talent is more important than ever.

It improves client retention (more important than ever)

Nearly 40% of brands may consider ditching their agency in the next six months, so solving the ever-present client retention challenge just became more critical.

Simply put, if you don’t have strong project management in your agency, it’s not just your staff that will suffer—your business will, too. 

If your clients are among the 40% with itchy feet, subpar service delivery due to poor project management could see your existing clients jump ship. 

It promotes continuous improvement (so you can stay competitive)

Plan, document, and implement standard operating procedures (SOPs) as part of your PM process. 

In the PM spirit of agile, your SOPs empower you to produce gradual improvements each time you execute them. That means you won’t stagnate as an agency—you’ll stay organized, nimble, and competitive.

Zoe brings documentation front and center, recommending that you document processes, including all team members required for each stage. 

“By documenting your processes, for example by keeping them handy in your project management tool, you can refer to them time and time again. This aids continuous improvement and efficiency,” says Zoe.

7 agency project management challenges (and solutions)

Agency project management faces various challenges that can impact project success and overall agency operations. Ultimately, these will have an impact on client relations and the agency’s bottom line. 

Let’s take a look at some common challenges along with how you can tackle them.

Challenge 1: Client expectations and demands

Clients may have high expectations, tight deadlines, and ever-changing requirements. Balancing client demands while managing resources, timelines, and scope can be challenging.

Solution: Our expert Zoe says that a sound resource allocation strategy “means that you can quote more accurately and give your customers a better gauge of how long something is going to take.”

So by following an agency project management process that tracks team time, you can provide more accurate quotes against future projects. 

That means you’re less likely to undersell how much time and budget each of your services or packages require to be successful. Plus, you’ll also reduce the likelihood of tight deadlines. 

Challenge 2: Resource allocation and capacity planning

As mentioned earlier, agencies often work on multiple projects simultaneously. If you’re not on top of it, this can quickly lead to resource constraints. Effectively allocating and managing resources across projects, considering skillsets, availability, and workload, can be complex.

Solution: Invest in resource management software that provides a clear overview of project timeline(s), including tasks, team schedules, and resource allocation. This will help you plan your team’s time—factoring in whether they’re over or under capacity.

Challenge 3: Scope creep and project changes

Real talk: clients can be difficult. They might request changes or additions to the project scope out of the blue. Managing scope creep and assessing the impact of changes on timelines, resources, and budgets is essential to avoid project delays and increased costs.

Solution: Prevent scope creep from the very beginning by setting expectations and creating complete clarity in the project scope. This requires that you fully understand client needs and project goals. But the best thing you can do during the project is to stay vigilant when it comes to changes and consistently communicate the impact of those on the project, timelines, and budgets. Then, you can let the client make an informed decision.

Challenge 4: Communication between cross-functional teams

Communication between different departments, teams, and stakeholders can get messy. Agency projects typically involve teams with different skillsets and expertise, so coordinating these cross-functional teams (while ensuring effective communication) and aligning their efforts can be a challenge.

Solution: If you’re in an agency setting, it’s likely that your project manager may double up as your account and resource manager. 

So look for a PM who:

  • Actively listens and communicates effectively
  • Creates a shared sense of purpose for all project stakeholders
  • Resolves conflict with integrity and humor
  • Can establish and outline clear project goals (from the start)
  • Manages client and team expectations 

Those qualities in a project manager can help reduce friction and establish effective working relationships across the board. 

Challenge 5: Team culture and burnout

As we all know by now, team burnout is a real issue. Adding to demanding clients, agencies in particular often have fast-paced, deadline-centric cultures that can push employees to their limits.

Solution: Better agency resource planning and management is the best solution to prevent agency burnout. It’ll also help you transition from that old-school agency hustle and grind to a positive team culture that makes your staff want to stay for the long haul.

Challenge 6: Scaling agency project management processes

As agencies grow, scaling project management processes becomes vital. Establishing standardized project management practices, tools, and documentation to ensure consistency and efficiency across projects can be a challenge.

Solution: Invest in agency operations from the very start—and keep investing in it. It’s not just what will keep processes running smoothly, but it’ll help your teams be more productive, and ultimately lead to timely delivery of projects and happy clients.

Challenge 7: Tech debt and outdated tools

Many agencies are stuck using legacy systems and processes that simply aren’t built to cope with the challenges modern agencies are facing. And when the need for flexibility and scalability truly come knocking, spreadsheets won’t be the answer.

Solution: Swap spreadsheets for a flexible project management tool that also has all the resource management capabilities you’ll need. (Alternatively, run your project management tool and resource management software alongside each other.) 

The importance of resource management within agency project management

Poor resource management is one of the top causes of project failure. Now that’s a yikes-worthy insight. 

That’s why we’ve broken down how to use agency resource planning and management in your project management approach.

How project management for agencies differs by type

Project management in agencies doesn’t just differ from general or in-house project management, it also differs depending on your agency’s specialization. 

Let’s examine how project management can vary for the following five agency types:

  1. Marketing agency
  2. Creative agency
  3. Design agency
  4. Digital agency
  5. Web agency

1. Marketing agency project management

A marketing agency helps businesses develop and execute marketing strategies. This can include everything from developing strategies and campaign planning to content production, performance marketing (think ads), measurement, and reporting.

Because marketing is so broad, a marketing agency’s service offerings are typically broad too. This means not only will you serve multiple clients (potentially across varying industries), but you’ll also offer multiple services to fulfill marketing campaign needs. 

So what does this mean for your marketing agency project management approach? Well, to succeed, you’ll need next-level planning across every client project’s full project life cycle.

That means:

  • Create crystal clear project definitions and objectives—you’ll want to keep an eye on those project scope statements
  • Make sure project monitoring and control processes are up to date—you don’t want any mishaps
  • Stay on top of opportunities for continuous improvement by capturing lessons learned from each project. Use feedback and insights to refine project management processes

2. Creative agency project management

Creative agencies have a cross-functionality between marketing, advertising, and branding services often involving many different production and delivery teams serving up integrated campaigns across multiple channels, such as web, social media, TV, out-of-house advertising, and more.

That means:

  • Your resource estimation and planning need to be on point 
  • Matching team skills across project demands becomes essential
  • Aligning project timelines and resource allocation with project needs officially becomes advanced level

3. Design agency project management

Design agencies often face a balancing act between creative freedom and client feedback. There are likely many people (and opinions) between project initiation and reverting the final deliverable. 

That means: 

  • In-house brainstorming (so your creative people can be creative)
  • External feedback (so your clients can voice their opinions) 
  • Revisions (so your creatives can soak up feedback and ensure your clients’ needs are met with finesse) 

4. Digital agency project management

A digital agency specializes in digital marketing strategies and services, including website development, online advertising, social media marketing, and content marketing.

As we all know, the digital landscape moves quickly, especially when it comes to tech advances. Take ChatGPT, for example. It went from a virtually unknown tool to reaching 100 million users two months after launch.

In the midst of rapid tech evolutions, digital agency project management is even more important. 

That means:

  • Using tech to deliver high-quality and innovative solutions for clients
  • Utilizing new tech to improve agency operations 
  • Upskilling your teams when it comes to using new technologies, tools, and other resources

5. Web agency project management

A web agency specializes in website development, design, and maintenance. Web development and design projects can be complex. You’ll likely need multiple specialists to drive critical tech requirements

That means:

  • Quickly identify the right resources by matching skills across project needs
  • Manage project scheduling across different project phases
  • Manage scope creep across different phases of the project

Project management in agencies: What’s next?

The future of project management in agencies will be marked by digital transformation, agile methodologies, remote work, data-driven decision-making, client-centricity, and a focus on continuous learning.

In the next part of this series, we’ll dive into agency project management methodologies to help you build better processes and, eventually, see the impact on your bottom line.

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