PROJECT MANAGER VS CREATIVE: We explore how the relationship really works
They say that behind every great project is a great project manager, but we wanted to find out how a relationship between a project manager and a creative really works. Is it ever fair to liken their role to puppet masters pulling at the strings of creativity and the designer? Or is it more likely that the uncensored ideas of a creative will continually override timelines and budgets?
To find out more about the dynamic between these two roles, we spoke to three leading design agencies about projects they’ve worked on and their thoughts on what makes a successful partnership. From client relationships to budgets, time scales, and impossible ideas, we try to dissect the relationship between those that realise an idea and those that keep it on track.
Channel 4 rebrand, 4Creative
Last year Channel 4 launched a new identity bursting with bespoke typefaces and a whole load of colour. It was a big project for 4Creative and involved multiple people from different teams including 4Creative producer Lou Oliver and creative director Alice Tonge. “We’ve worked together loads,” say Lou and Alice. “We launched 4seven a few years ago and worked together on a Born Risky brand project called Alternative Voices. Both were very challenging and intense projects and we quickly realised we worked well together.”
As producer, Lou’s first thoughts when the brief came in were about “time and money and how the idea can be protected within those constraints.” For Alice, it was a more knee-jerk reaction, “I thought: ‘Shit. Don’t fuck it up. I hope Lou is producing.’” But the pair agree that talking is the key to bringing their ideas together. “I want to fully understand the creative so I know where Alice is coming from. Luckily she’s great at including people in the process,” Lou explains. “I try not to bog a job down with production pressures, but she’s amazing at understanding all aspects of a job.”
“Lou is super creative and will always push an idea further. For example she gets genuinely excited when we all think something can’t be done,” explains Alice. “The Channel 4 project was the Russian doll of rebrands and Lou’s mega to-do list meant all I had to do was worry about the ideas.”
“They tend to want the impossible, but trying to achieve that or something close is the most rewarding part of the job"
Lou Oliver, 4Creative producer
In terms of dealing with bumps in the road, Lou says: “Any difficult conversations were mainly down to time pressures on the creative but they were resolved by stepping back. It isn’t always productive to keep pushing.” Alice adds: “We were quite good at walking round the block and eating chocolate biscuits when it got a bit tense,” adds Alice.
The best thing for Lou when working with a creative is the bounty of ideas. “They tend to want the impossible, but trying to achieve that or something close is the most rewarding part of the job,” Lou explains. For Alice, it’s the direction Lou gives to a project that she really appreciates. “She made it all happen! That’s definitely the best thing. Without her, the ideas would still be on a sheet on paper or swirling around my head and not on TV,” Alice says. “The flip side of working with her is that she won’t let me chill out. There was a rebrand whip and my creative butt got it most days… But 4Creative is such a can do place that the limitations are normally things you can’t argue with.”
For Alice and Lou the producer and creative relationship is vital if they’re to create exciting work together. “If you understand each other’s roles and pressures you can work together to achieve something great. If a producer is involved in the creative process then they are invested in making it happen,” says Lou.
Design Council Spark, DesignStudio
DesignStudio is known for its work for Airbnb, Logitech and sports brand Head. One of its latest projects was for the Design Council’s Spark, a product innovation fund it created to accelerate products to market. DesignStudio’s task was to develop a new brand identity to launch Spark and it was up to design director Rich Lyons and project manager Hayley Hyland to make it happen in an interesting way.
This was the first project the two had worked on together but they both had an understanding of how each other worked already, making it easier to jump straight in. “With any project we have to understand the budget and project timescales. In the case of Spark we were working to fairly restrictive timings and costs,” explains Hayley. “This is discussed with the creatives even before the project is signed off to make sure we can make it work. Even when the budget is tight we’ll make sure the creative work is the best it can be.”
“As creatives we’re filled with immediate ideas of what we could do. Getting the right team in place is key at the start of a project"
Rich Lyons, DesignStudio design director
For Rich it’s the initial feelings and ideas about a project, and the practical implications that help him see where it might go. “It’s important to understand the client and audience, with Spark we were working with the Design Council, which is really exciting as a designer, it meant collaborating with likeminded people who really champion design,” he explains. “As creatives we’re filled with immediate ideas of what we could do. Getting the right team in place is key at the start of a project – myself, Hayley and the rest of the team will get together to work out who has the right skills and knowledge.”
“The design process was fairly organic,” explains Hayley. “We spoke every day, and I was involved in all the key steps in the design process meaning we can be aware of how the work is evolving.” As well as this constant communication Rich feels it’s Hayley’s ability to “add that important client perspective” can also help the process as a whole.
Similarly to 4Creative, the most common conflict Hayley comes across in a project is “how a creative idea can be brought to life within a client’s budget.” As design director Rich also feels timing can be a recurring obstacle: “I always want more time during the creative stages for the team to develop the best work possible.” For him, working with a project manager sometimes means that keeping things on track, considering budget and timings can put a strain “on the ideas we want to create.” But ultimately it’s a team effort, “Hayley is incredibly good at taming our wild minds, I’ve met no one like her when it comes to haggling!”
Likewise Hayley values Rich’s attention to detail and it’s her creative background that has led her to project management. “I studied photography and found I preferred arranging the shoots to taking the photographs. My role at DesignStudio is now a mixture of project management and client services,” she explains. “I understand the creative process and will certainly give input in the strategic and creative phases if I feel I have something to add. It’s important at DesignStudio that everyone is considered equal.”
Louisa Phillips Dunn
Adidas StellaSport SS16, MadeThought
Luxe, slick and sublime are the words that come to mind when looking through London design studio MadeThought’s portfolio and its work for the Adidas StellaSport SS16 campaign epitomises this sleek sophistication. Client director Louisa Phillips Dunn and art director Thorbjørn Ankerstjerne both worked on the project and it was the first major brief the pair had worked on together.
The priority for the studio is always creative vision but it’s up to Louisa to align the thinking and making behind a project, especially this one with so many components to consider. The next priority is allowing adequate time for this process. “As soon as we received the brief and digested all of the details, we sat down as a team to agree the creative and strategic objectives,” explains Louisa. “These conversations help us find a balance between the client’s expectations and our own,” adds Thorbjørn.
As with so many studios, it’s “delivering the work on brief, on budget and on time” that becomes the most difficult challenge, Thorbjørn believes. “There are always constraints so it is my job to gently remind the team, while facilitating the creative process and remaining realistic about what’s achievable,” Louisa says. “Normally, these difficult conversations are actually the richest in stress-testing what is crucial to the concept.”
“Dealing with both the creative team and the client is a delicate balance. It comes down to emotional intelligence and the ability to gauge a situation”
Louisa Phillips Dunn, MadeThought client director
For this project in particular, Thorbjørn found it was collaborating with both Stella McCartney and Adidas that was most challenging: “They both have very different business objectives and expectations,” he explains. But Louisa’s ability to deal with both the creative team and the client proved incredibly useful. “It’s a fine line and delicate balance but it’s something I really enjoy,” says Louisa. “I think it comes down to emotional intelligence and the ability to gauge a situation.”
It’s Louisa’s creative background that has no doubt provided her with this sensibility. “I trained and worked as a graphic designer before moving into account management. My past has been invaluable in understanding the creative process,” she says. Thorbjørn agrees: “[Louisa] knows how to guide us without it feeling like we’re being constrained… It’s great to have someone worry about budgets and timings, because it lets the creative team focus on pushing the idea.”
Both Louisa and Thorbjørn believe a healthy relationship between creative and account management is key. “If you’re not aligned things can quickly unravel. It really helps when you are both coming from the same place and understand various nuances throughout the process,” says Louisa. “We are all in it together and take interest in delivering the best solution,” says Thorbjørn. “So it’s very important we’re all on the same page as the process would be impossible without good people.”