How to know the difference between agency project managers

Posted by: Gráinne Forde /

If you’re considering a project manager for your agency, you’re at a very crucial point in your company’s development. This crossroads could lead you to greater efficiency or business opportunities, or it could introduce complications.


Back when you started your agency, you had to do it all: product development, customer support, daily troubleshooting — and project management. As your agency grows, it’s natural to think of finding specialists to handle certain aspects of day-to-day operations.

The solution for many agency owners is to hire a project manager, but there’s no simple formula to a PM that’s the right fit for your company. When you decide to hire one, you need to be 100% clear on what kind of PM will deliver the results you need and help your agency tackle its immediate challenges.

We’ve identified four types of project managers to help you hire the right PM by matching their skills with your agency’s needs.

4 Types of Digital Agency Project Managers

If you look at 20 ads for digital agency PMs,  you’ll find a significant variation in experience required, salaries offered, responsibilities, and the size of projects that each agency handles.

Before you start getting caught up in which companies candidates have worked for or the number of years they’ve been on the job, take some time to consider your company’s specific needs.

The four quadrants below will help clarify the support your company currently needs, which will make it easier to find a PM that can provide your company with the direction it needs.

4 Types of Digital Agency Project Managers

The operational/strategic axis refers to the focus you need the project manager to provide. Are you looking for someone to improve how your agency handles projects and clients over the long term (strategic), or do you need guidance with day-to-day deadlines and staying on budget (operational)?

The hands-off/hands-on axis represents the project manager’s level of involvement in managing the day-to-day tasks. Do they need daily intervention to increase output and momentum(hands-on), or do you want a workflow expert to find new ways to improve the overall agency operations (hands-off)?

Most agency founders will answer, “All of the above, please.”

While the combo platter approach to PM skills might sound like the best choice, it’s important to understand your company’s specific needs so you can choose the best person to help steer your company to its ideal situation. In other words, you don’t want a PM who has 15 years of experience analyzing customer data when you really need help removing bottlenecks in your workflows or improving communication with your clients.  

Below, we’ve described the type of PM that’s best at handling the kind of needs outlined in each of the four quadrants. As you review candidates, make sure you understand which candidates will best serve your business.

Here’s how the four types break down:

  •      Patrolman (operational, hands-on) makes sure that each project is assigned, properly scoped and executed in a timely manner. They are the enforcers of the agency process to get work delivered to the client.
  •      Troubleshooter (operational, hands-off) is in charge of creating and improving workflows. They’re looking for bottlenecks, information silos, or other problems while ensuring that the team follows the process.
  •      Liaison (strategic, hands-on) works closely with clients to ensure projects are meeting their desired requirements. They manage projects with the client’s needs in mind to keep the relationship healthy.
  •      Analyst (strategic, hands-off) is an expert in agency processes and functions. They dive into the operational data to find new ways to increase productivity and profits across the entire agency.

Now that you have an idea of how each of these roles functions, let’s take an in-depth look at each to discover why your company might need (or avoid) that type of manager.

When You Need a Patrolman Project Manager

Patrolman PMs act as the conductor of the orchestra. They understand each person’s role and what needs to be done to accomplish the project. They constantly check in with team members to make sure that milestones are completed on time, within budget, and on spec. This frees up everyone else to focus on making the work great.

Indicators that you need a patrolman PM:

  •      Project deadlines aren’t met.
  •      Projects are often scoped incorrectly and have to be adjusted.
  •      Projects often don’t stay within budget.
  •      Team members constantly report inaccurate hours.
  •      Clients complain that the project isn’t proceeding smoothly.

If your team is functioning fairly well within deadlines and budgets, hiring a patrolman may make your team members feel micromanaged or undervalued for their own organizational skills and self-motivation.

When You Need a Troubleshooter Project Manager

The troubleshooter PM organizes your team around an established process to centralize information and monitor the team’s progress. When the PM notices that the process is not being followed, he or she is responsible for identifying the roadblocks and improving the workflow to keep everyone aligned.

In other words, the troubleshooter’s job is to help a group of individuals work together smoothly as a team, minimizing miscommunications and wasted time.

Indicators that you need a troubleshooter PM:

  •      Projects don’t follow an agency process.
  •      Important project information is often lost or hard to find.
  •      Assignments fall through the cracks.
  •      Repetitive tasks are not automated.

Teams with good communication, workflows, and morale probably don’t need a troubleshooter, who might unintentionally interrupt the positive flow that your team already has

When You Need a Liaison Project Manager

The primary goal of the liaison PM is to interface with clients, building trust by aligning expectations at the onset of a project and keeping them informed throughout the project’s lifecycle. The liaison PM keeps client satisfaction high by managing creative reviews, approvals, performance metrics, testing cycles, and keeping the agency team apprised of client feedback.

Indicators that you need a liaison PM:

  • Clients constantly send work back for multiple revisions.
  • Clients are suddenly leaving without comment or feedback.
  • Clients are not included in the process, resulting in unwanted surprises and missed deadlines.
  • You have valuable but time-consuming clients that are preventing your team members from focusing on their work.
  • You base decisions out of unfounded fears rather than data, leading you to make mistakes like undercharging for projects.

If your company already has a good relationship with clients, hiring a liaison PM may make your clients feel as if they no longer have a close connection to the developers or designers who are handling their projects.

When You Need an Analyst Project Manager

An analyst PM is a highly-experienced project manager with a deep knowledge of the agency business and is focused on improving profitability by reviewing project costs, project performance, and project estimates. If your agency is working hard and generating revenue, but can’t seem to make a decent profit, an analyst PM digs into your operational data to identify and fix the problem spots that might be eating into your bottom line.

Indicators that you need an analyst PM:

  •      You’re generating revenue, but don’t know why you’re not making a profit.
  •      You consistently underestimate project costs and hours.
  •      You have a low billable ratio.

You need to increase your margins without increasing your fees.

While every business could use some help identifying where they could tighten up their workflows and billing practices, businesses that are set to grow may need someone more visionary to guide them to greater profitability.

Hire a PM Based Today’s Needs, but with an Eye to the Future

The term project manager can be a catch-all — from taskmaster to client manager to operations analyst. When you’re considering PM candidates, don’t look for a jack-of-all-trades generalist or get dazzled by flashy talent. Start by considering your company’s immediate needs first.

Finding the right type of project manager will become much easier when you understand how to identify the kind of PM who has a track record delivering results that can help your company overcome its challenges. Not only will you be able to identify top candidates quickly, but you will have an excellent chance of selecting someone who helps you solve short-term problems while giving you tools to plan for the future.

When you use this process to find a PM who’s a good match for your agency, you’ll get better results, and your new PM will be able to dive into work that matches his or her skill set. That’s a win for everyone.

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Grainne Forde
Marketing specialist

2 Comments

Erik S.

I love the axis and the breakdown of the different roles. As a recent digital agency PM myself, I can attest to “all of the above” being a major need, especially for smaller agencies that take a all-hands-on-deck approach. However, as agencies grow and require additional project managers, it can definitely be valuable to specialize the area of expertise of each PM!

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Gráinne Forde

Erik,

Great to hear that you liked our axis and the role breakdown so much. Make sure to subscribe to our blog so you don’t miss more upcoming posts like this 🙂

Gráinne

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