If you’ve ever seen an acrobat spinning plates on their hands while balancing on a tower of chairs, you have a slight idea of what it takes to be a creative project manager.
They’re leaders who understand both how to nurture the creative process and bring ideas to life. They organize, orchestrate, and track the logistics of delivering projects on time and under budget. Put simply, they work miracles.
But traditional project management tends to focus on helping software development, construction, or manufacturing teams increase productivity and consistently meet quality standards.
Creative PMs on the other hand manage teams of “idea people," documenting workflows, and coordinate input from beyond the creative team while sticking to tight deadlines. Because of these unique needs, traditional project management tools often don’t work for creative teams or their clients.
Unique creative project management techniques, as well as the right software, drive improvements by automating administrative tasks, creating a centralized hub for communicating requirements, collaborating on creative projects, and sharing feedback.
What we'll cover
Table of contents
What is creative project management?
We often assume that creative teams need to be left to innovate on their own. After all, marketing, branding, and advertising inspiration can’t be manufactured (or forced.
However, just because a lot of the creative process is organic, doesn’t mean that there aren’t components that need to be managed too. Managing creative projects means overcoming and avoiding bottlenecks in performance or delivery caused by disorganized review processes, approval issues, and more.
A creative project management process gives creative teams in the area of design, marketing, video, web development and more a specific framework in which to set, track, and achieve project expectations. With this framework, creative teams can harness the power to accelerate and track growth and performance.
Creative project management and operations that need to be managed can include a multitude of things, including:
- Project intake and assignment: Choosing the right projects and delivering them to the most appropriate team members.
- Creative briefs and SOPs: Providing team members with the right guidance to keep them working at their best.
- Communication: Keeping up-to-date with the creative team, project owners, clients, and more.
- Review and revisions: Checking the quality of the work, asking for edits, and approving projects.
- Delivery: Getting the creative project signed off.
- Asset management: Ensuring all assets are not only delivered on time but also distributed and stored for appropriate access throughout every step of the creative process.
Creative project management vs. other types of project management
While project management for creatives requires similar tools and strategies to project management tools, there are some significant differences between the two.
Traditional project management doesn’t address work-in-progress needs that are essential to shepherding creative through the management process. The work-in-progress actions involved with detailed review and approval—adding comments within text files, adding markups to design files and images, making annotations within videos—are an additional layer underneath the usual “status updates” found in project management.
Additionally, creative project managers and management systems must track content updates, not just deadlines and tasks. Typical project managers and systems provide updates on the progress of iterative changes and facilitate conversations around content drafts, but they don’t actually coordinate iterative changes to be made on files themselves and often split feedback into multiple conversation streams that have to be compared against content files or versions. The processes that you implement will differ according to your company, clients, and the needs of the projects.
For example, let’s say an ad agency is designing a billboard with a particular tagline. The project could get all the way to the final stage where designers are modifying the final file to fit the height and widths of specific billboards when the tagline has to change. In this instance, designers would jump backwards in the process to modify the tagline while still working on changing the final file sizes.
Additionally, creative project management tools (CPM) often measure success differently. Good concepts and designs in this sector are generated from moments of meaningful inspiration. This isn’t something that any company can force. You need to give creators some space, and enough time for the “creative magic” to take place.
Despite this, a creative project manager still needs to find ways to inspire, motivate, and support workers in achieving their goals. Efficient and well-managed creative project management software brings structure, process, and even measurability to the creative workflow, so teams can improve consistently.
6 creative project management best practices from Ziflow's creative team
In 2022, Ziflow’s internal marketing team found itself in the incredible position of needing to rapidly expand its in-house creative team. We rapidly recruited and onboarded an entire team of talented graphic designers, motion designers, and copywriters to take Ziflow to the next level and scale our marketing efforts.
However, our creative project management process was still ad-hoc and suited for a smaller company. We needed a more formal process that could facilitate the increased workload and keep the most important projects prioritized and coordinated across the team.
That’s when we found Milena, our remarkable creative project manager. She quickly identified the pain points and bottlenecks in our process and implemented the changes that our entire marketing, design, and executive team currently use.
Understand the overall goal and speak with the team
Milena stressed an important point from the beginning — never make assumptions about the issues facing your creative team. Communication is key, and speaking with creators individually as well as in a group will reveal the pain points in the creative process.
We found that after onboarding our talented creative team, we were still managing projects like a smaller company. This meant the creative team received feedback from everyone on everything, and there was a legitimate “too many cooks in the kitchen” situation. It created confusion and decision paralysis, with creators not knowing which feedback to implement.
Prioritization on creative projects was also an issue. Because there wasn’t really a planning process and lead time was a luxury, every piece of creative was requested immediately and needed to be completed “yesterday.” Quality work rarely arises when it’s produced last-minute.
Finally, assets were stored in Google Drive folders, which meant access to final deliverables wasn’t standardized.
After these learnings, we modified our process. It meant removing certain planning meetings, and having our design team meet every day while the wider team met every two weeks to discuss new project needs. Milena stressed the importance of continually adjusting and refining the process.
Assign a project owner
Harry Truman once famously said, “the buck stops here,” meaning he was ultimately the one responsible for making decisions. In the beginning at Ziflow, the buck stopped anywhere it pleased. Graphic designers and copywriters would manage entire projects, even though they were responsible for only one portion of the project.
Assigning a project owner or stakeholder to every project was critical to cleaning up the creative project management process and creating accountability. By removing the need to “own the project,” our design and marketing team was freed up to do what they do best: deliver great creative.
Enforce creative briefs
Creative briefs are the spine of the creative project management process. Before a project begins, project owners must fill in a creative brief template with a project description, requested deliverables, reference work, technical specs, and any other relevant information.
At Ziflow, our creative project manager reviews the brief for any missing information, then presents the brief (and any other new briefs) at a bi-weekly kick-off meeting with stakeholders.
After the brief is on the radar of all relevant parties, the project manager assigns tasks to the individual creators, such as graphic designers, motion designers, copywriters, etc. Those tasks are managed over the next two weeks, giving structure and clear deadlines to requested creative work.
We live by an important rule in Asana: a project is never added to our creative team’s workflow unless there’s a full, detailed brief. This is a safeguard against chaos and disorganized work leaking into the process.
Limit the number of stakeholders at any given step
Remember the “too many cooks” scenario from above? It was rectified by structuring the review process and limiting review rounds to reduce conflicting (and inefficient) feedback.
For instance, if we’re designing a video ad for social media, the first version of the video storyboard will typically only go to our Creative Director for review, where they’ll examine the imagery for branding purposes. This is usually after the initial or rough versions have stayed within the creative team for internal collaboration and refinement. This review process is entirely handled in Ziflow using our feedback tools.
After the Creative Director has their say, an updated version will land with the project owner who determines if the feedback is on track and in alignment with the goals of the original brief. Then, if necessary, further versions are brought to key stakeholders and collaborators who approve or provide feedback at very specific stages in the process.
Integrate your review environment with your project management software
As we said in the beginning, creative project management is different from traditional project management partly because of the need to manage work-in-progress feedback and content updates directly on creative assets. Creative teams often try to perform these tasks within project management software, but managing detailed feedback on assets in these programs isn’t viable in the long term.
Our creative team manages the creation of project briefs, project details, and project tasks in Asana. We then use Ziflow to manage the related creative feedback process and approve and collaborate on the iteration of the actual creative assets produced from these tasks. It’s a smooth, streamlined process that keeps everyone accountable and projects on track.
Segment creative work into several project management workflows
As we honed in other areas of the creative project management process, it became clear that further refinement was necessary. The workstream we had was simply too broad, which brought momentum to a crawl and caused bottlenecks. The project management process would have to be more granular to make it efficient.
For example, it always seemed like our design team was spinning its wheels, waiting for copy and other content elements in order to proceed with their own tasks. By breaking down the content production process further, we could shepherd copy along so that it was no longer a roadblock in the process. We implemented two-week project sprints with our Content team, which then passed completed projects on to the Design team for their sprint, and to take projects over the finish line.
With both of these sprint processes in place and dialed in, we’re able to put into place a Demand Generation sprint that spearheads the production and optimization of our paid ad campaigns.
Our three creative project management processes are designed to be one flowing stream with separate management so that efficiency is maximized within each team.
Improve the flow of creative projects
Ultimately, project management for creatives is a world apart from traditional project management strategies. With creative project management, you need to maintain a more creative and flexible approach in everything that you do. This helps to ensure that your team can make the most of their creative skills, without missing out on essential delivery dates and deadlines.
With creative project management software, you can ensure that your team has all the assistance that they need to accomplish their goals, while you have the power to oversee performance and keep creative projects on track.
The key to accomplishing your goals as a creative project manager has the right tools to help you. Solutions like Ziflow give you the support you need to develop your skills as a creative manager and guide your teams in the right direction.
based in Long Beach, CA