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Brett Harned

Brett Harned

Digital project management has been a part of the web from the beginning, even if we didn’t call it that when we started. As the digital services industry matured, we loosely formalized the role of a digital project manager. But the gaps and differences from one shop to another has led to some confusion. Especially with the increase of account managers being brought on at digital agencies. And now, a tangled web of AM, PM and DPM has us all a little confused as to who should do what. Listen in as Brett Harned shares why we should focus on clarifying the role and not the title. And more specifically, the human beings we task with the responsibilities. 

Don't miss your opportunity to be a part of the conversation! Get your ticket for the Digital PM Summit, this October 15-17 in Las Vegas!

Announcer:
Welcome to The Bureau Briefing, a podcast by the Bureau of Digital, an organization devoted to giving digital professionals the support system they never had. Each episode we're going to talk to a member of our community doing awesome, inspiring things. Now for your host, Carl Smith.

Carl Smith:
Hello and welcome to The Bureau Briefing. With us today, we have got the Founder of The Digital PM Summit, author of the recently released book, "Project Management For Humans," part of the team here at the bureau, and a digital PM consultant at BrettHarned.com, Mr. Brett Harned. How's it going, Brett?

Brett Harned:
Hello, hello. Good. How are you?

Carl Smith:
I'm good. We were talking last week about account management and project management, and digital project management. This was something that we have been hearing more and more across the community, and not just the digital PM community, but also the owners and the operators, and everybody's talking about. I had shared with you that my experience from being with an advertising agency, back before the web showed up, because I'm old.

Brett Harned:
Old.

Carl Smith:
Old. Was that account managers and project managers were always at odds with each other in the advertising world. Account managers were always trying to make sure the clients were super happy at the expense sometimes of the projects. And the project managers were always trying to make sure that the projects were done on time and on budget and it became this thing. Then, a couple of years ago, I started seeing the title "account manager" at digital shops. I was talking with you because I wanted to get your take on how does all of this work together? Account managers and digital project managers.

Brett Harned:
Oh, tangled web. So many responses to that. I don't think there's a single answer, and I think we can dig into that, but there are so many agencies doing different things. Like, an agency of the same size, same output, will be set up differently, just depending on what they've decided to do and the roles they've decided to create. I think for me, my point of view on project management or digital project management specifically within the agency, is that you don't need the formalized role or title.

It can be whatever you want that person to be called, I guess, but really you just have to have somebody there who is keeping a look out after ... I can't speak today. Sorry, Carl. You need somebody who's going to be looking after the budget and the timeline, right? In a small agency, that could be a designer, developer, it could be a project manager, producer. It could be also an account manager. It just depends on what you're comfortable with and the skillset that you have in-house. 

I think no matter what, project management skills are necessary. Is the role necessary? Maybe not. I think that's okay. When it comes to account management, I've also been in that large agency space where account management and project management are separate roles or entities. It wasn't as a PM. As someone who was actually recruited into that role as a PM, from a role where I was an account director, I did not like it. Because in that large agency setting, the PM is really just focused on the internal side of things, right? Like, they're focused on financials and timing, not as much about overall project strategy or sometimes not even communicating directly with clients, which I think is kind of a mistake.

But then you know, there are places where the account and project management work really hand-in-hand to make sure that a client is getting the full complete picture on what a project is and they're getting what they want at the end of the day, and the team is also treated the same way. Like, they're talking about strategy, they're also talking about internal logistics, they're kept up to speed on things that are happening within the agency, which to me is really where the sweet spot is.

Then there are agencies where the agency only employs a project manager, or let's say a producer, digital project manager, whatever the title is. That person is kind of responsible for both, right? So, they're working on the front lines, working with clients, so they're "client facing."

Carl Smith:
Client facing, yeah.

Brett Harned:
A term that I hate.

Carl Smith:
I hate it so bad.

Brett Harned:
[crosstalk 00:05:27] from that world, right? It's almost like an account management job, but add onto that account management more project management skills. Like, planning, resource forecasting, keeping an eye on budgets, that kind of stuff. It's like all over the place, so it's kind of hard to focus in on one piece of it, you know what I mean?

Carl Smith:
I think that's dead on. When I speak with owners and I say, "Why did you bring in somebody in an account management role?" What I hear is they were worried that they weren't getting the value out of the relationship. What I mean is, the additional projects, right?

Brett Harned:
Right.

Carl Smith:
A lot of one and dones, and they didn't have somebody who was explaining to that client the other capabilities of the agency. They didn't have somebody who was asking, "What other things do you need? What other work do you have going on?" I think that was the thing in the traditional model, right? That account manager actually, there was this sense that they were higher up on the totem pole. Even though there may not have been a traditional hierarchy, there was an anticipated one, right? Or an inferred one.

The project manager, basically the account manager would say, "Well look, I promised it so you've got to figure it out," you know? That was the war. With a digital project manager, they already have that role before the account manager came in with the client. Now, maybe they weren't asked or trained to go after more work, right? That wasn't necessarily their skillset, wasn't the ... I don't even want to say schmoozing, but just that inquisitive nature. They were much more that focused on getting the project done the best it could be.

An account manager comes in later. If I were a digital PM, I would almost feel like I kind of got booted from the relationship or asked to step aside. I agree with you, it depends on the culture of the shop, and the way that it's run, but it's just an interesting dynamic to bring somebody in to be in charge of a relationship when there's already a relationship.

Brett Harned:
Yeah. I agree with that. I also kind of question how meaningful the "relationship" is if you're really just there to manage the relationship. Like, if you're not involved in the work and you're not a part of day-to-day, what's happening, like what's actually being done, the work that's being done on the project, then what is the value that you're bringing to the project, to the client, and to the team?

For me, there's not much value if you're just there to come in and sell something. There's nothing that says that a PM can't just say, "Oh, there's a need here with the client or the team can identify that there's a team with a client that warrants additional discussion" and that goes to someone else. But again, it really just goes back to the organization and it kind of comes down to the personalities of the people who are in the roles are already preexisting.

I know that when I was at Happy Cog, I hired a few project managers there in this kind of more hybrid role, and I've got to tell you, it was really difficult to find the person who has skills for both, the person who is detailed and analytical as much as they are outgoing, easy to talk to, strategic. Those are almost like two opposing skillsets, I guess, in some way. It is hard to find the person who can do it all, so in that sense, I understand. I absolutely understand why someone would bring someone into that role. Do I think that one role is more senior or more advanced than the other? Absolutely not. I think that's just based on the way that traditional agencies worked. PMs were always lower on the totem pole.

Carl Smith:
Right, because it was that concept that, well, project management is something that anybody could do. It's totally not true, but that's kind of ... Believe me, because I've tried. It's kind of a belief set, whereas account management is about who a person is, right? It's like, "Oh yeah, she's great with clients." I mean, that's the kind of thing that you hear people say. I'm glad that you flipped a little, because I agree, there is a strong need for account management. I would even say when you get into a bigger project, it is important for the digital project manager to have that access to the client.

I think the account manager needs to be a part of that and I don't think you need to double bill, right? Like, have two people on every call and all that kind of stuff. But then there's also a time where messages need to be sent out while work is being done, and I think that ability to divide and conquer is really pretty valuable.

Brett Harned:
Yeah. I agree with that. I think, again, it all comes back to how you work, what the workflow is, what the roles are, and the personalities involved. I think it's just a matter of finding the right combination of people or roles for the team is what's most important. When I'm doing my consulting work and I talked to a company that has zero project management, it's a matter of figuring out, "Okay, so do you have account managers? How do you envision project management working in your company? Let's talk about relationships and how you communicate with clients, and what the ongoing support or sales process is."

Like, those are all things that play into a decision on who you need to add to your team. Not just saying, "We need an account manager and a project manager." Like, what are clients going to be willing to pay for? A lot of companies think that, and a lot of clients have said this, they don't want to pay for project management. That's probably because they just don't understand the value of it and what project management can do for a project, to advance a project, and not be charged left and right for change requests and things like that. It's education as well as just finding that right mix I think.

Carl Smith:
And it's an interesting thing you just brought up about people not wanting to pay for project management. I don't remember that from the agency world, but I know that media commissions, you have this million dollar media buy and 15% of that, which later became 7.5%, which later became 5%, right? Like, got whittled down. That was supposed to pay for all of the creative, originally, right? And then, so account management and project management and all these things, but this is a different world. There's no media commissions, there's none of that, yet there's still this concept.

I remember telling clients the definition of a billable hour is something that we would not do if your project didn't exist, right? So, it's like that project manager is not going to verify that everything's on track if there is no project. If we're going to pay them, you're going to pay us. Clients really never had a problem with it. They've just been told at some point, "That's not something you should pay for." Just ridiculous. This is interesting to me also, because the web ... I've had more conversations lately where it feels like there's a new wave or a maturity of new shops, where you've got more people coming in with a business background. You've got more people coming in with actually a degree in something that would be of value at a digital agency.

Brett Harned:
Such a good point, yeah.

Carl Smith:
Which the first wave didn't have that. But that first wave, the digital project managers that learn the ropes on the job, right? How many metaphors or things can I work in there? They had to do everything. I mean, they were the client contact, they were managing the project, they were learning out of books or whatever, because traditional project management training wasn't applicable to digital. I mean, there was some concepts that totally were but there was so much just nuances to digital.

I guess that's the other thing. Where are people finding account managers and how are they getting trained? If I were a digital PM, and I'm not trying to dismiss the account manager and their value, I'm just trying to understand how it plays in, because it feels like we're trying to solve a problem in the digital agency space with a role, with a title. Maybe there's a different way to do it.

Brett Harned:
Yeah. I mean, I think that's where I'm coming from is that it's not as much about the role or the title, as much as it is the work or the output that comes from that traditional role or title. It's kind of like the whole purpose of my book, is the reason I called it "Project Management for Humans" is because while sure, the book is great for people who are traditionally digital PMs, or even just project managers, the central idea of the book is that project management applies to everyone in everyday life. I mean, anything from planning a vacation to having people over for dinner.

Like, things require planning and budgeting, and maybe not on such a grand, large scale as a large multi-tiered project, but at the core, we manage projects day-to-day in our lives. That stuff applies to what we do at work, so that's to say that a designer, a developer, content strategist, whoever, could pick up some project management skills and absolutely run a project while they're also contributing to the project while creating a deliverable, or whatever it else is that they do on a project.

I think same goes for an account manager, you know? Call them an account manager, and maybe they're still doing a little bit of project management as well. I think there's some weird stigma around the title "project manager" that I never really got. I think it's more in advertising and digital for some reason. I had a client last week, I've been working with them on just brushing up on some skills and understanding what the role of ... They have account managers, what it means, and they're hiring someone and they wanted to hire a digital project manager. I said, "Okay, that's great." Looked at their job description.

Two days later they changed it back because they had some conversations with their team, and the team basically said that there was a stigma that came along with the title of "project manager" so they're now hiring an account manager who's doing a project manager's job. Like, what do you do with that? You know what I mean? 

Carl Smith:
What?

Brett Harned:
This has been a conversation at The Digital PM Summit in the past, too. Like, call them a producer. I still think there's confusion around the term "producer."

Because that's used in another place, but back to where I started was there are other industries where project managers are seen as the CEO of the project, so to speak. 

Carl Smith:
They're the foreman, yeah.

Brett Harned:
They're well paid and people lean on them for very specific things and they're very practiced. We're just not there yet in digital. I think we're still figuring out like what a digital PM is. I think we've got a squishy understanding of what it is. Hopefully, we're a little bit closer now to something, but I think it always is going to come back to just the owner of a company, their understanding of what they need and how they want to set it up, and the personalities that are involved.

Carl Smith:
That story is mind blowing to me. The concept that you're hiring for one thing, but you're going to call it something else because calling it the thing that it is has a bad stigma. That's wow, right? And if you look at ... Go ahead.

Brett Harned:
No, no. I was just going to say, the argument from me doesn't stick because yeah, I get it. Like, I've been told before, like the first story in my book is about how I gave a talk about PM and somebody came up to me and was like, "I've never worked with a good PM." I get it, I get that there's a stigma and I'm personally trying to change that, but there's not much that you can do to change it if it's like this longstanding thing within agencies.

Carl Smith:
Except for wait for it to go away, right?

Brett Harned:
Correct.

Carl Smith:
Because if people don't have that experience of it ... It's funny. If you look at another industry like, hell, look at the symphony, right? I mean, a PM in a way is a conductor. Maybe they're not making the decisions on exactly how something should be translated or whatever, but they're responsible for coordinating everything that happens. I mean, I said this before, but they're the front lines. They understand how to communicate with everybody and they understand ... Even if they can't do everything, they have to understand how everything works. Obviously, it's a difficult job and your neck's on the line a bunch, but yeah, I mean obviously we're not going to solve it in one podcast.

Brett Harned:
You know what's cool, though, is you mentioned this earlier like we're all self-taught in this kind of generation of digital, or the web, right?

Carl Smith:
Yeah.

Brett Harned:
But there are courses for it. I was at a conference in the UK in January where Manchester Metro University, they brought an entire course of people who were training to be digital project managers as they got out of school. I thought like, "How cool is that? They're actually learning the business side of a creative or technical job." I think that's really important that at least it's something that's being explored and talked about and learned.

Carl Smith:
And it's something that's needed, right? 

Brett Harned:
Yeah.

Carl Smith:
The question will be, will it be accepted? Because depending on who the shop's run by, imposter syndrome can run throughout a shop and prevent really good things from happening out of fear that you'll find out nobody knows what's going on. But that is amazing that they've actually got course of study on digital project management, and it's so important. I mean, everything that we do now is around digital projects. How can you not have somebody who understands how to build and lead them?

In terms of the account manager thing, I think it's necessary. I honestly think that digital project managers have too much on their plate as it is, but I don't think that it's a situation where they should no longer be client-facing. I think it's to your point, it's more about everybody on a team, everybody's got different skills, and if there's somebody who's really good at paying attention to other client needs, and can be selling those other needs while the project's being developed, why wouldn't you want that person?

Brett Harned:
Right. Yeah, I mean it's all based on the people that you hire. I think I've said that like 14 times now. I'm sorry. 

Carl Smith:
No, no. Say it-

Brett Harned:
But I'm with you. I don't think that account management is something that should go away. Same as I don't think project management should go away. I think if there's a need for them to be separate, that's completely fine. You have to do what you need to do in order to best service your clients and also make sure that your projects are profitable and on time, and everyone's happy. If that's a combination of the roles or if it's two separate roles, it's just a matter of figuring out who's doing what and when and why, so that people aren't feeling like there's this weird competitive aspect where they're pitted against one another in those roles. It's more that they're working together.

Carl Smith:
And I think that's the biggest realization. It's like you want to have people that are working together, not people that feel some sort of animosity towards each other.

Brett Harned:
Definitely. When I was at Razorfish, I was the only PM on an account team of five people. The communications were awful. Like, we had to basically stop and say, "All right, this is what these two or three people are doing. This is what you're doing, this is what the head of the account is doing, and by the way, this is all of the stuff that I'm doing as the PM." It worked out fine, because it was multimillion dollar, multiple projects kind of account, but I did have a seat at the table. When I first started on that project, I didn't. Like, I wasn't "client-facing." It didn't work for me. 

I sat down and basically had a really good partnership with the account director, and it worked really well. I think it can be done, for sure.

Carl Smith:
It's part of the growing pains. I mean, as our industry starts to mature, we start to figure out how to be better and how to do more for our clients and for ourselves, we'll watch it evolve and figure itself out. I have no doubt that there are going to be a lot of discussions around this in the hallways at The Digital PM Summit in Vegas, this year.

Brett Harned:
Absolutely.

Carl Smith:
And hopefully, everybody's going to join us there. It's this October 15th through 17th. How was that? Was that a shameless plug or was that okay?

Brett Harned:
I cannot wait. It's soon.

Carl Smith:
I know. It's coming up fast. I'm excited, too. Well Brett, thanks so much for being on the briefing today. I really appreciate it.

Brett Harned:
Thank you.

Carl Smith:
And everybody listening, we'll be back soon. Talk to you then.

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