How to Build a Winning Creative Project Management Strategy

By Kate Eby | December 2, 2019 (updated March 26, 2024)

Traditional project management (PM) won't work with creative teams and clients. In this article, you'll learn the skills a creative project manager needs, the challenges of creative PM, and find templates to get started.

What Is Creative Project Management?

Creative project management is a process in which team leaders organize and manage a project’s work, while nurturing the organic way that creative ideas come to life. 

Still a fairly new branch of the project management discipline, creative PM has thus far generated little data about what works and what doesn’t. As best practices evolve, however, one thing is already certain: You need an approach that fits your team. Two secrets to success are to be inspirational so you can motivate your team, and excel at communication with your team and your clients.

As opposed to creative project management, traditional project management is a process that initiates, plans, executes, controls, and closes the work in a construction project or in software development. But, it doesn’t work with creative people who design marketing or advertising projects. Nevertheless, these two styles don’t have to clash — they can work together to power your business and success. 

Traditional project management follows a clear roadmap from beginning to end, identifying roles, tasks, tools, and resources. Over the years, project managers have established and created a formal end-to-end process that can be used in manufacturing and defense, such as the U.S. Navy’s Polaris missile submarine program.

Creative projects, however, don’t produce bridges or buildings. Advertising agencies, creative studios, and marketing departments are filled with idea people. Since creative projects aren’t measured by technical specifications, project managers from other industries often struggle with creative projects.

The Benefits of Strong Creative Project Management

Strong management of creative projects will grow your company and your team. Without process, creativity can run wild — your team may get bogged down chasing ideas that don’t meet your customers’ needs or fail to finish the work. 

Creative project management transforms your success rate. Having reliable process in place will help you do the following: 

  • Guide a project.
  • Use sound business analysis.
  • Minimize risk.
  • Manage resources wisely.
  • Control the quality of what you deliver.

Creative PM also gives your team more control over its time by helping team members to avoid the following:

  • Chasing ideas outside the scope of work
  • Being distracted by the details of managing the project
  • Attending too many meetings
  • Going beyond their role
  • Doing the work of other people on the team

What Are the Challenges in Creative Project Management?

Creative project management faces unique challenges. Below, we discuss the obstacles you will face and how you can manage them.


Clients Have Unrealistic Expectations

Creative projects are different from brick and bytes products. Clients on creative projects are different, too — you’re not dealing with a company that wants a new parking garage. They may know what they want, but not what they need, or they may not even be able to explain what they want — they just want something that will drive results. Here are some ways to work with these clients: 

  • Listen: Get a clear understanding of their pain points, concerns, and challenges. When you empathize with their problems, you can work together to set clearer, more realistic goals. Doing so will ultimately help you to produce what they need, not just something you can sell them.
  • Teach: One of the most important things you will do is client onboarding. This process sets the tone for your relationship. During this time, explain the creative process, help them understand how long it takes to produce the deliverables they want, and set expectations for how they should provide clear feedback during your partnership. 
  • Talk: Have you ever gone to a meeting and realized that everyone had different visions of the final product? Keep the project on track by getting input early and often. Conduct regular status meetings and manage expectations around changes and timetables.

Resources Aren’t Interchangeable or Scalable

You can’t replace one creative director with another one in the way you might replace a light bulb. Each creative person is different, with different approaches, ways of thinking, and skills at working with others. 

In the same way, you can’t create an ad campaign five times faster by adding five times the number of people to a project. And, you certainly can’t solve a design problem by simply devoting more staff hours to it. More people can lead to more creativity, but when you add team members, you also add to the amount of time you’ll spend brainstorming, sifting through ideas, and managing team dynamics.

Likewise, creative project deliverables aren’t widgets that can be churned out quickly if you swap out team members or throw more people at the problem. When you start a project, make sure you have the right people in the right roles with the right team chemistry. Use your emotional intelligence to put the right mix together.

New Technology Disrupts Conventional Workflow

Technology gives you speed and flexibility. It transforms the way you collaborate on, review, and refine creative projects. Cloud-based technology can offer the following benefits:

  • Automate routine project management.
  • Improve communication.
  • Foster social collaboration.
  • Offer mobile tools so teams can work remotely.
  • Provide real-time reports.

Emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), and virtual reality (VR) have the potential to change the ways you produce creative content. For example, Google has used an AI experiment called Sketch-RNN that allows you to draw with a neural network model (i.e., a complex math system that can learn tasks by analyzing data). Augmented and virtual reality offer entirely new platforms for content creators. In the last couple of years, Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Ikea have developed apps, so you can see how their products will look in your office or home.

Creative project managers can use cloud-based technology to get the most out of their time and their team. Once you automate routine tasks, you have more time to focus on the future of content creation and keep your competitive edge.

What Skills Does a Creative Project Manager Need?

Left-brain project managers, focused on numbers and deliverables, can clash with the right-brain creatives who constantly churn out new ideas. How can you be successful in creative project management? Here are the most important skills for creative project managers:

  • Be Multi-Disciplined: Creative project management no longer covers just one area of expertise. Creative project managers need to understand projects for print, digital, and interactive platforms, as well as advertising, events, marketing, promotions, and technology.
  • See the Big Picture and All the Details: The whole project is greater than the sum of its parts. To effectively manage a project, zoom out to see the goal and zoom in to see the details. 
  • Be Honest and Act with Integrity: Great leaders are transparent. They share what they know, they follow through on their promises, and they walk the walk. Want integrity on your team? Lead, and they will follow.
  • Be Flexible: Few creative projects stay the same from start to finish. Things change. A flexible attitude and process will help you adapt and keep you agile.
  • Be Creative: Think outside the box as you solve problems. Hold your team meetings outside. Set target dates rather than concrete deadlines. Offer creative rewards for quality work. 
  • Be Self-Aware and Aware of Others: Successful creative project managers are aware of their feelings as well as the emotions of others. You will make better decisions when you are aware of your mood, your reactions, and your decision making. Provide better feedback, foster a sense of stability, and help your team reach their full potential.
  • Have Previous Experience with Creatives: The traditional project management approach doesn’t work with creative people trying to make creative products. A creative project manager knows that some members of the team are hyper-focused and detail oriented, while others are free-wheeling, without any sense of deadline or scope. For most creatives, their work is an extension of their identity — this can make them very sensitive to feedback, especially critiques of their work. Management will seem less daunting if you know how to approach these personalities.
  • Resolve Conflict Peacefully and Productively: Conflict can occur on any project in which people are working together. We’re all human. Conflict can even be part of the creative process when brainstorming and refining ideas. However, conflict can’t fester. Project managers need to guide the team beyond the tension, play umpire when needed, find common ground, and restore respect. A team with a toxic atmosphere doesn’t produce quality work and strains the culture of your whole organization. To mitigate this, learn how to be a powerhouse at communication.
  • Stay Current with Industry Knowledge: Establish your credibility by knowing the trends in marketing and advertising. Get familiar with the latest technology tools that will help you manage projects, drive creativity, and forecast projects accurately. 
  • Consider Project Management Certifications: Up your game, your reputation, and your value with professional certification. The Project Management Institute (PMI) ® offers programs for a range of project management professionals. Brainmeasures has a program designed specifically for creative project managers. And, many universities offer online programs for busy professionals.

Creative Management Best Practices

Project managers need to be part creative and part manager. Place creativity at the heart of every project. Become a master of creative thinking, especially if you come from a traditional project management background and don’t think you are wired for creativity. Here are some ways to foster your own creative thinking:

  • Be Curious: Ask yourself why — whether it’s a problem you encounter in your project or a traffic jam on your way home from work. Why did this happen?
  • Expand Your Interests: Read a book or watch a movie outside your normal area of expertise. 
  • Write It Down: Keep a notebook or tickle file of your questions, your ideas, and the fun facts you’ve learned. 
  • Have Fun: Take time off to let your body and brain roam. Be playful at work, and put a few toys in your work space. 

As a manager, place people at the center of the project. Creative management requires empathy. You need to understand the perspectives and problems of the creative people around you. 

Teams are filled with creative types: art directors, graphic artists, photographers, designers, and copywriters. Your role is to nurture different creative personalities and understand their quirks and characteristics. Here are some things to know about creatives:

  • They want roadmaps, not micromanagement. Tell them what you want in the project, not how you want them to do it.
  • They care deeply, and personally, about their work. Use thoughtful guidance, with a healthy dose of praise, as you provide feedback. 
  • They need clear feedback. If you don’t like something, say what’s behind your reaction. Is the design too busy? Is the copy too full of jargon or cliche? Use objective language rather than judgmental statements.
  • Inspiration doesn’t happen on demand. Give content creators the time and space they need. Sometimes, it may look like they’re not doing anything, but creativity is cooking under the surface. 
  • They are visual thinkers who may not be able to put ideas into words. You need to be their advocate, translator, or mediator when their work doesn’t meet a client’s expectations.
  • They frequently get new ideas, and they need to bounce them off other members of the team. Be open-minded about whether an idea improves your project. It might even change the project. But, also be willing to say no when it won’t work. 
  • Boundaries fuel creativity. Be clear about the scope of work, or constraints of the project, and watch how they explore what’s possible within the limits you’ve defined.

Creative Project Management Best Practices

Unlike conventional project management best practices, creative PM best practices require consideration of the following factors: Creative work is subjective; creative projects are unique; creative projects require special communication skills; a creative project’s objectives are often undefined; creative projects rely on collaboration; and creative projects change frequently.  

Conventional project management, on the other hand, provides a roadmap that defines a project and its complexity. It equips managers to gather all the requirements for a project and monitor its progress through five phases: 

  1. Initiation
  2. Planning
  3. Execution
  4. Monitor and control 
  5. Closing

Using this process, project managers can stick to timelines, monitor the budget, solve scope creep issues, and drive success. Creative project management also organizes and manages the work, but it adds another factor: nurturing the organic way creative ideas come to life.

How Is Creative Project Management Different than the Traditional Approach?

Like traditional projects, creative projects are time bound — they have start and end dates. In addition to meeting those time constraints, you also have to manage costs and work within those boundaries. Creative projects are also often interrelated, with tasks and activities that depend on one another. 

In other ways, conventional project management can be inadequate for creative projects:

  • Creative Work Is Subjective: Creative work is hard to quantify. There are few metrics or key performance indicators (KPIs) for a good design. While nothing trumps high-quality work, “quality” is hard to define. Establish criteria with objective language, but leave room for the creative process to evolve during the project.

  • Creative Projects Are Unique: They may be similar to other projects, but they are never identical. One advertising campaign can build on elements of another, but each project is unique and you must approach each accordingly.

  • Creative Projects Require Special Communication Skills: You have to translate what your clients need into specific tasks that the team can accomplish. When you manage the project, you need shared vocabulary, so you can explain what works and what doesn’t. 

  • A Creative Project’s Objectives Are Often Undefined: The objectives of your project are driven by the goals of the project. They need to be specific and measurable. One way to arrive at these objectives is to follow the SMART process: specific, measurable, achievable or attainable, realistic, and time bound. Learn more about writing SMART objectives, and use this template to help you. 

  • Creative Projects Rely on Collaboration: Unlike technical projects that typically follow a straightforward process, creativity flows when you put collaboration front and center. In successful projects, everyone works together because collaboration is baked into every facet of the team. Involve team members when setting targets and evaluating and assigning roles. Nurture the less engaged and introverted members of the team. Encourage senior members of your team to mentor the less experienced staff. From the kickoff meeting (when you align your departments with the project goals) to the final presentation, you can monitor collaboration with regular team meetings and smaller group check-ins.

  • Creative Projects Change Frequently: Clients may change their minds about what they want. Team members may have a better idea about the direction of the project. Your stakeholders’ vision might not line up with your team’s creativity. While change is inevitable in any project, strong client onboarding can help you avoid surprises later. At the same time, leave enough wiggle room for creative flexibility in the project. Don’t commit to so many specifics that your team won’t be able to put its best work forward.

How to Streamline Creative Project Management

Project management breaks a project down into five phases: initiation or ideation, planning, execution, control, and project close. Even though a project is creative, it still needs process. Here are ways to optimize these steps for your project.

  • Initiation/Ideation: A creative brief is the foundation for your project. Work with your client to identify the project’s goals and objectives, overall budget and timeline, and roles and responsibilities. Use this client creative brief template to get started: It offers a creative overview, and includes space for the client’s contact information, as well as room for describing the project budget, overview, objectives, and marketing guidelines.
Client Creative Brief Template

 Download Client Creative Brief Template

Excel | WordSmartsheet 

  • Planning: Once you’ve identified the goals and objectives, it’s time to map out how you will get there. You’ll want to organize your tasks, create a schedule, estimate the costs, and identify any risks. Use this pre-built marketing plan template to outline the purpose your business serves, as well as its strategic goals, target market, and standards of performance, to ensure you have a thorough and deliberate plan of action.
Marketing Plan Template

Download Marketing Plan Template

Word | PDF | Google Docs | Smartsheet 

  • Execution: You’ve got the plan — now it’s time to do the work. A project tracker can help you identify whether you’re on schedule and on budget, or where there are bottlenecks or risks. This project management dashboard template allows managers to stay on top of multiple aspects of a given project and view them in a single snapshot. Including charts representing a project’s overall task status, budget, and pending items, as well as space for assigning tasks and much more, this dashboard makes it easy to provide up-to-date project status reports or share information with team members.

Download Project Management Dashboard Template - Excel

  • Monitor and Control: Projects — especially creative projects — evolve while you’re doing the work. Good client feedback and approval tools ensure that everyone has access to the same information and that you stay within the scope of the project. Use this project tracker template to add tasks, status, priority, deliverables, deadlines, cost, hours, and more for your whole project. If you’re managing a large project, a project tracker template will help keep everything organized. 

Download Project Tracker Template

Excel | Smartsheet

  • Closing: Once the project is completed, it’s time to evaluate what worked, what didn’t, and what can be improved for the next project. Gather the team (or at least key members) to celebrate success, identify lessons learned, and analyze the performance of all the stages of the project. This postmortem template walks you through the questions to ask. It highlights project details, such as accomplishments, problem areas, lessons learned, and more to facilitate the process of analyzing the performance of all the project’s elements.
Project Post Mortem Report Template

Download Project Postmortem Report Template

Excel | Word | PDF | Smartsheet

Online creative project management can do the following: make your project run more smoothly, improve your efficiency, nurture collaboration, and maximize creativity, all while ensuring process. Learn more about the benefits of project management software and how to find the best fit for your needs and organization.

Project Management for Creative Teams

Project managers guide the work, but the team makes projects come to life. Therefore, your success depends on fostering an environment that nurtures creatives and encourages collaboration. Your company’s culture is critical to setting a tone of transparency and sharing. The secret ingredients are your vision and philosophy for bringing people together and giving everyone a voice.

This approach plays out in how you establish your creative workflow. You’ll need to clarify roles and responsibilities to avoid duplication or conflict, while encouraging collaboration. As you map out the workflow to support the project’s scope, make room for both creativity and efficiency. And, consider software tools that work best for your team’s structure and style. Learn more about creating and implementing a creative workflow for your organization in this article.

Project Management for Creative Agencies

Successful creative agencies have built reliable processes, so they avoid starting from scratch with every project. But, an agency’s process varies with client requirements. The most successful agencies are fanatical about their process because they’ve learned what works. 

Make sure that your process reflects your core communication and collaboration values and that it includes the following:

  • A meeting and feedback schedule that involves clients at every stage
  • Regular status updates to both internal and external stakeholders
  • A main point of contact between the client (external) and your team (internal)
  • An agency project manager who contributes at each step of the process 
  • Research for your project that mines qualitative data from your agency’s database and analyzes data from other sources

Improve Creative Project Management with Smartsheet for Project Management

The best marketing teams know the importance of effective campaign management, consistent creative operations, and powerful event logistics -- and Smartsheet helps you deliver on all three so you can be more effective and achieve more. 

The Smartsheet platform makes it easy to plan, capture, manage, and report on work from anywhere, helping your team be more effective and get more done. Report on key metrics and get real-time visibility into work as it happens with roll-up reports, dashboards, and automated workflows built to keep your team connected and informed.

When teams have clarity into the work getting done, there’s no telling how much more they can accomplish in the same amount of time. Try Smartsheet for free, today.



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