Digital PM trainer and Digital Project Management course instructor Rachel Gertz (@thestraymuse) is our resident advice columnist for our Ask a Project Manager series, where we aim to get real, get deep, and get practical with your most burning questions about life and career in the creative industries. Today, Rachel dishes on setting expectations and navigating internal politics when it feels like everyone has different priorities.
I face a lot of issues at work on a daily basis, things like internal politics. For example: “We want to build a quality site but it’s not the digital department asking, it’s a request from marketing - therefore we need to do this in 2 weeks instead of 3” or some kind of illogical bullshit like that. I have a senior producer who’s really great at making me aware of what’s important and what’s not. He’s always saying, “We need to lose this battle to win the war” and I get that.
But for the future, I would love to become kick ass head of production and a strong creative leader. What are some tactics and strategies I can start implementing to help me determine when and how to say no to clients? Help!
Tired of Battles
Dear Tired of Battles,
You are in a tough spot and I admire that you’re thinking about how you want to set boundaries that bring out the best in your future team. Let me break down some of the common challenges companies face when battling client needs vs agency needs vs team needs and how you can rise above all that in your future role as kick ass head of production.
You mentioned clients, so I’m going to assume you work in a digital agency. But it sounds like you’ve got intense pressure to make sure internal projects run smoothly, too. The truth is, if you want happy clients, you need to put your team first. And if you want to be making decisions that put your team’s capacity and happiness ahead of your clients, it’s all about creating a company culture that protects its people. Here are the digital agency trends we’re seeing: those who don’t differentiate their services, don’t allow for adaptable work environments that support happy workers (like encouraging remote work), and don’t partner side-by-side with clients are increasingly drifting to the bottom of the pile. You can tell when you are working at a great agency because:
Everyone’s clear on priorities and goals
Teams and clients are happy
Everyone knows how they can support the agency’s growth (it’s everyone’s job to do business development)
There is plenty of work, but it doesn’t feel rushed and people seem generally relaxed
The agency pays its people above market rates and encourages professional learning and training
The agency is known for revolutionary research and development and is making trends, not following them
A healthy company starts from the foundation, so my first bit of advice is to make sure you hold out for a role with this type of company.
💡 If you want more details, we created a guide to outline the other components that make up healthy digital agencies.
Next, you have to learn the politics so you can navigate them.
There is a fascinating power dynamic at play between executives, clients, the team, and digital producers.
Executives want to keep the lights on (marketing wants to reach more new leads, sales wants to improve the experience of current customers to increase accounts).
Clients want valuable deliverables so they can sell/do more, so they can keep the lights on.
The team wants to be happy, fulfilled, and do great work.
Digital producers want to mediate between all of these groups to make sure that everyone gets what they need. They want the project to be successful.
Did you notice anything? None of these appear to be in conflict with each other. Yet, in reality, there are always competing priorities. This is because people who are furthest away from the hands-on work have the most power and are the least involved in the details of the project, but often most invested in its success. Throw in a little added pressure or complexity and you get a stick of dynamite and a timer to pass back and forth
Executives want to please the clients, so undermine the team, but seldom the clients.
Clients want more for less to please their budget constraints, so undermine the team and PM, but seldom the executives.
Teams want to be less busy to please their families, so undermine the clients but seldom the executives.
And digital producers want everything to get done on time and on budget and may undermine the team or the client, but seldom the executives.
This is a power game playing out in front of you. Most times, the people with the most power (the ones who cut your paycheque and the ones who provide the projects) win. So the biggest thing you have to make sure of is that you have alignment when you add pressure. When the brown stuff hits the fan, is the mission of your company still the same? Or does it undermine its own foundational principles to get that work done?
You talked about wanting to know when to say no. Great producers know exactly how and when to utter those powerful two letters.
You should say no to clients when:
What they’re asking for hurts the project goals or take you further from success.
You should say no to your digital producers when:
They apply false pressure to deadlines and don’t truly understand the complexity of what you’re building.
You should say no to executives when:
They run an unethical agency that grinds down it workers and prioritizes client happiness over team health.
And you should always say no when you or your teammates are being undermined, disrespected, and feel unappreciated by any of these folks. Or if you are being asked to do something unethical. That is how we elevate the industry together.
Now, all that said, your digital producer is smart: there is a battle playing out (the healthy tension we mentioned above). And as Mike Tyson would say:
“Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.”
If you want to be that kick-ass head of production and navigate the uncertainty you’ll be facing, here’s where yeses can have even more power than your nos.
Say yes to your client when:
Say yes when you have an opportunity to:
Explore a new area that can help your company grow in a new direction (trying new frameworks, industry verticals, or new problems to solve). But make sure that the reward is worth the risk.
Say yes to change when:
You’re holding onto outputs that are precious, but stagnant (in other words, be willing to kill your darlings for the benefit of the project).
Say yes when it means you can elevate your team, your craft, or your world (we seldom get chances to do that).
And, if all else fails, you can always design a fair and equitable agency and run it yourself. ;) I’m rooting for you, Tired of Battles. You’re gonna be a wonderful leader.
Your PM pal,
Rachel Gertz is Co-founder of and a Digital PM Trainer at Louder Than Ten. She trains apprentices in digital project management so they can work full time while learning to keep their companies happy, healthy, and ready for the future. Rachel works on raising tides that float all boats to elevate the technology industry.