Like Cake & Arrow, many agencies employ both Account Managers and Project Managers within their project teams. While every agency defines these roles differently, there’s one thing we’ve come to realize as fact: these two functions need to be attached at the hip–constantly communicating, occasionally disagreeing, and jointly looking out for the interests of our Clients, the users and the internal project team.

Clients often ask if one person can do both jobs to save on budget. The answer, of course, is a polite but firm “no.” We know that for the Client, there’s much more to be gained than lost when working with this dynamic duo. Having both means the Client is getting strategy and tactics, planning and execution, and the opportunity to do more, faster. So, we took four common project challenges and addressed them from our unique perspectives as an Account Manager and a Project Manager. Here’s a glimpse into why we believe that a true AM/PM partnership is a recipe for success on any project.

Katie & Jess

1. Client loves the work and wants MORE than scoped

AM POV - Katie Gray (KG)

  • My first reaction: Amazing! The Client loves us, they see our value and want more! I quickly think–do we have the right resources to fulfill this new request? And how much extra time and budget does this new effort add to our original project? I want to be transparent and set Client expectations right away so no one’s disappointed down the road. I also think about - does the team want to do this work? We pride ourselves on helping team members grow and work on new and different types of projects.
  • Plan of action: I want to understand the full Client request–so will schedule time to ask questions, talk about the goals of this new work, and figure out what value they want C&A to add. I also want to immediately set expectations with the Client that additional work means more time and budget in some way–though we always work as efficiently as possible and group activities where we can.
  • Other considerations: What is the value we provide in doing this work? Will the team be set up for success in terms of the type of work we’re doing and when it needs to be delivered?

PM POV - Jessica Lippke (JL)

  • My first reaction: SO glad they love the work they are seeing! If they want more it’s going to cost ‘em.
  • Plan of action: Let’s define “more”. Maybe it isn’t really more, but just different from what was originally planned. I want to have the team understand from the Client exactly what they are looking for (i.e., in terms of the problem they want us to solve), and then I want to work with the team to actually validate that it is a problem worth solving (i.e, is there a rationale / data to support the claim?). Once everyone is in agreement that we want to move forward (Cake & Arrow team and the Client), I want to define the approach to solving it; What’s possible? What’s the right thing to do based on the budget the Client has to spend and based on the value that this work would bring to the table? We’d come up with a few options, make our recommendation, and prioritize from there, even if that means hitting the additional work in a future phase.
  • Other considerations: Taking the core team away from the current track of work to plan and estimate modified or additional work while also making progress on what we were originally signed up for is always a balancing act. Will going through this exercise impact the paralleled track of work that is already in motion? It’s important to be empathetic to the fact that you’re asking the team to context-switch when they’re likely already in the zone.

2. The never-ending project

AM POV - KG

  • My first reaction: Oh no. This project is going on way too long, for whatever reason, and we need to outline a path to completion with the internal team and the Client.What’s causing the delay? Is it a process issue, were there really just unforeseeable events that delayed us? What value are we losing and is the Client losing due to these delays?
  • Plan of action: Get with the team and quickly get to the root of the issue. Then break apart that issue into smaller pieces and figure out where we can affect change and course correct–and where risks still exist. Then take this plan to the Clients and be transparent as to what we found as the root causes of the delays, and how we plan to remedy them–as an integrated team. It’s not just on the agency, but the Client is a part of the solution as well.
  • Other considerations: Sometimes delays happen and no one is ever excited about delivering work later than expected. However, focusing on a solution (versus re-hashing the problem on every call), demonstrating understanding about the severity of the issue (or in some cases, ensuring it’s clear what the severity is with the Client, if they think it’s no big deal) and outlining a path forward are what will give the internal team and Client team confidence to complete!

PM POV - JL

  • My first reaction: What needs to change so that we can be successful and get to completion? Does the issue boil down to people, process or technology?
  • Plan of action: I’m in the trenches with everyone. I’m feeling what they’re feeling, and likely already understand the issue(s) causing the project to go on and on and on. I would speak 1:1 with core team members to get their take on what the problems are. Is there a common theme I’m hearing? Boil it down and get everyone in a room to problem solve together. If the issues involve the Client, what conversations need to be had and by whom to get us closer to delivery? Can we solve it with personnel? Can we solve it with a workflow change? Are we doing something we shouldn’t be doing?
  • Other considerations: It’s in our human nature to avoid conflict. Encouraging people to step away from the “doing” to talk about what’s causing the work to drag is important, but easier said than done. Chatting 1:1 makes it a safe space to discuss what’s really going on so we can get down to the nitty gritty and get back focusing on the work that matters.

3. Working with third party vendors

AM POV - KG

  • My first reaction: Get ready for the fun! Third party vendors are a great way to augment the team, but there’s a lot of risk involved in signing them on as well. If we worked with this third party before–GREAT! That means they’re proven and we all get along and know how to work together. If they’re new, it’s an opportunity to expand our network.
  • Plan of action: First thing’s first: let’s talk about working styles and how we both will measure success. If the third party believes we can all work remotely and have daily calls to check in, but the agency team thinks we have to meet in person every day, we need to get to the bottom of that ASAP, and it is best to do so up front. Setting everyone’s expectations about what’s needed from them at a high level is key. Then breaking that high level goal into manageable pieces, together, is how I’ve seen this work best. For example, a high level goal for the third party might be to develop a site that the agency re-designed. But breaking that down, how do we accomplish that goal? We have prioritized stories that will be delivered to the third party at the beginning of each week. Then on Monday afternoons we have a call to answer any questions and ensure requirements are clear. Then Tuesday we have a check in, etc. My biggest concern is that the work is done correctly and with the highest quality–and that the Client never feels the burden or weight of having a third party take on a piece of their project work.
  • Other considerations: The third party might have an amazing new way of working that the agency hasn’t tried before. We should try to keep an open mind as to whether there might be a better/faster way of achieving the same goals–the more minds collaborating, the better!

PM POV - JL

  • My first reaction: We’ve been burned before, but we know what it takes to be successful, so let’s dial in on that. One team. Always. That’s the only way this will work.
  • Plan of action: Let’s understand the key players on the vendor side. Have we worked with them before? If yes, what worked and what didn’t? Are they brand new? Who is responsible for what, and what exactly are they bringing to the table? Role and responsibilities clarity is vital. Identify where they need to be involved within our process and vice versa. Understand their schedule and have them understand ours. In fact, combine them. Showing the Client that we’re working as a united team is always the way to go. How can we make it easy for the Client to get what they need from both of us? Document everything and understand the tools they use to communicate. Setup time weekly to sync up at an Account level and discuss risks before they’re even able to come to fruition.
  • Other considerations: Everyone has a reason to want to get things done on time. We are all working for the same Client. How can we make each other look good and be successful by making it seem like we’re one team to the Client? Hone in on that.

4. Limited access to Client-side stakeholders

AM POV - KG

  • My first reaction: Something went off the rails pretty early on. Either we don’t have client stakeholders who are engaged, or we don’t have access to the right people who can help us make inroads, or the client organization is going through change and we need to adapt. We need to cut through the clutter and figure out who we need access to, then talk to the Client about how to get it.
  • Plan of action: Clearly outline the risks of not having the right stakeholders involved, implications to project timing and cost, then discuss, very transparently, with the Client team. It’s not a blame game at all, but it’s on us to explain that in order to get work approved and keep it moving forward, it takes partnership. In some cases, the day-to-day Client might have trouble figuring out who they’re supposed to pull in from the client organization. In this case, we can partner with the Client to define the type of person we need, and have them brainstorm who it could be–then validate internally.
  • Other considerations: This screams “pause the project” to me. Better to pause the work for a day or two, than to continue with unapproved work that will require weeks of re-work down the road, when we eventually have the correct client stakeholders engaged.

PM POV - JL

  • My first reaction: We’ve dealt with this before, and somehow, we manage to come out on the other end successful every single time. Although frustrating, we’ll be able to pull through again.
  • Plan of action: Explain to our main point of contact what we need that we aren’t getting. Give the Client the opportunity to explain why we aren’t able to get what we need; there may be something going on that we didn’t know about that we really need know about. Sometimes there's a reason other than everyone being busy. Explain to the Client the actual schedule and budgetary impact that this will have on the project and allow the Client to make the decision as to whether or not we move forward regardless–with a recommendation from us, of course. In true transparency, it’s important to just make it clear what this means for the project. Do we pause for a day or two? Do we move forward and alter how we work to rely less on Client availability in terms of collaboration and approval points? Can we alter the way we’re working to factor in the buckets of time that are available to us? It all depends on what assumptions we’ve made upfront that are now proving to be false. No matter what, how we move forward should be a shared decision with the Client. There’s always a path forward; some just involve more risk than others. Lay everything on the table and move from there.
  • Other considerations: Can the Client designate a proxy who is more available for certain things? If yes, make it super clear that this person has the same decision-rights as the original stakeholder, or else he or she is not really a proxy and we risk a ton of re-work once the original stakeholder is available.

It’s clear that while Account and Project Management tackle challenges from slightly different angles, the differences between our approaches are complimentary and interdependent. Part of the benefit in having both Account and Project Management teams at Cake & Arrow is that we begin to think more holistically about our projects. The ultimate takeaway is that there is no right or wrong answer in approaching these project challenges. However, with collaborative thinking and strong advocates for the Client and agency teams, there’s nothing that we can’t solve together.