Delivery Sessions: Interviews with Great PMs (Jennifer Ma, SVP & Director of Integrated Production @ AREA 23, an FCB Health Network Company)
It’s not hard to believe that the team at AREA 23 is the best at what they do. The awards alone speak for themselves: 2019 Clio Health Agency of the Year, 2019 MM&M Large Healthcare Agency of the Year, 2020 Med Ad News Agency of the Year, Most Creative Agency & Most Admired Agency… seriously, the list doesn’t end.
But while they’re setting a precedent for innovation on every level of production, it’s not the accolades that best describe the AREA 23 team — it’s the passion behind it.
We sat down with the agency’s SVP & Director of Integrated Production, Jen Ma, to learn more about what really motivates her team to be the very best, and how today’s challenges aren’t slowing them down, but instead, taking their innovation to all new heights.
Tell us about your background in Project Management and experiences prior to becoming SVP & Director of Integrated Production at AREA 23.
Born and raised in NYC as a first generation Asian American, Jen grew up living a life based on a foundation of embracing opportunities and exceeding expectations. So Project Management was a natural match, but it wasn’t her first move. “In another life, I actually worked on Wall Street as a developer programming within risk management for many years,” Jen explained. “Eventually, I ended up in a non-profit, leading a technology shop that created and supported e-case management systems, building a platform to help case managers get people prepared and off of welfare. This was kinda my introduction into healthcare.”
A few years later, suddenly the word “digital” became part of everyone’s vocabulary. Lucky for Jen, the transition to this new world of advertising was pretty seamless. “Digital marketing was taking off pretty heavily, and I had a very technical background, so I found myself with a very interesting opportunity within this field on the agency-side. I was one of the first senior digital project managers at a private agency. I grew quickly to become the Global Head of Client Operations and Project Management, overseeing teams in NY, San Francisco, Austin, and London.
After helping to expand the agency’s footprint further, I decided to take some time to travel and explore how other top agency project management and production teams worked. And now, I’m at AREA 23, working with some of the industry’s top talent across every department.
Even though AREA 23 is a specialized agency within pharma and healthcare, we’re really focused on not just being ‘pharma good,’ but being ‘really good, good’ in everything we do — from concept to execution, especially when it comes to our passion projects.”
What skills did you develop throughout your various roles in project management that you feel have made you successful as a production leader?
When it comes to the plethora of know-hows needed to be a successful PM, Jen says acting as ‘group therapist’ is a top priority. “You have to fine tune a lot of personal skills coming up as a PM. I think those hard skills come over time with experience, but the soft skills are very dynamic, and those are what really make an amazing PM stand out. Empathy, especially right now, and understanding everything we’re all dealing with, coupled with knowing how to handle the business needs and pressures that are always there, is what will make a superb PM.
I always say it’s like being a group therapist in a way. You have to look at the bigger picture. You’ve got your killer account teams and clients looking to meet specific deadlines, and then you have your brilliant creative teams and subject matter experts who are trying to stick to their vision, and no one should have to compromise — you don’t want them to. So as a project manager it’s about earning the trust up front, being flexible and fast on your feet with solutions so everyone is on the same page. “
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges for production teams in healthcare & pharma today — and as a result of the pandemic?
“Scale is always important. What may work for a giant corporate entity isn’t always the case for a smaller, faster-moving shop or client,” Jen explained. “You have to really be flexible with the team and the approach you take to working with any business. Priorities are different; teams themselves are different, so scaling your approach is key — which ties into understanding the nature of the business and the team you have.
Right now, with the struggles of staying at home and dealing with social injustices, it’s tough to keep everyone motivated without actual face time. But our leadership at AREA 23 and within the larger FCB Health Network is sharp, fast and in tune with what our clients and what our team members need.
We’re taking some of this as an opportunity to innovate where we can. Though video and photo shoots are still proceeding, we’re taking a ton of precaution and doing what we can to stay ahead of the curve there. We support a lot of our product launches, and now that live events are mostly postponed, we have to continue to convert other opportunities into valuable, powerful, relevant offerings.”
So then how do you promote wellness and keep motivation high on a project, especially while working in a remote environment?
Jen compares the quick switch to working remotely like ripping off a band aid — you know, you don’t want to have to do it, but you know you’ll survive without it. And she credits her teams for making it work so well. “Face-to-face time is super important for so many reasons. And my whole integrated production team is so fantastic. They’re leading the charge with teams in terms of communication and working overtime to make sure the process is smooth. This obviously can be draining and can cause a lot of virtual fatigue as we’re work on a number of launches.”
And to help with that, they have a number of virtual “events” to allow their team to stay connected, while offering them a brain break. “We have some regular weekly standup sessions — like our Coffee with Jen in her kitchen, every Friday morning. We also host something similar to a Reddit AMA where folks are encouraged to ‘Ask Me Anything.’ With our team at over 80 integrated producers, we’ve actually added almost 10 new team members since March. So it’s a great way to get to know everyone.
The AREA 23 leadership has done a great job on providing a lot of different resources throughout this challenging time. Our teams are working around tricky schedules to coordinate on some much-needed time off,” Jen continued. “A lot of our production managers work across multiple portfolios, so we’re making sure everyone is taking some staggered time off when it makes sense. Everyone is so accountable and wants to be logged on 24/7, so it can be hard to proactively take the time off for themselves.”
How do you make the process more efficient, especially when working across multiple time zones?
“We have a very strong infrastructure across the whole FCB Health Network which we are really trying to dial in to automate on efficiencies. But again, it goes back to really having a better grasp and understanding of our business and the teams we’re working with. Especially at this time where everything is moving and changing so rapidly, our teams need to be adaptable and dig deeper into our clients’ business and where there’s a bigger impact.
My integrated production team is phenomenal at evolving new process efficiencies, leveraging tools and managing additional remote resources for each of their brand teams during this turbulent time.”
And throughout it all, the AREA 23 team only continues to expand, making this efficiency even more important. “Scale is always the name of the game — how do you scale your current business, how do you ensure the current business functions more effectively, how do you plan just the right amount for the future — but ultimately, you need a trusted team on the ground to build the right rapport across the board. Luckily, I have an amazing Integrated Production team and killer leads supporting our business.”
What are your favorite types of projects to work on, and why?
As much as we all love those brochures and posters (no, really… we do), it’s the passion projects that bring the most reward to Jen’s role at AREA 23. “These projects are heavy hitters for us and a big part of the reason I came to AREA 23. Obviously, it’s not all about the awards and recognition, but this does really speak to how talented everyone is and how hard they work.
Our one project called SEE SOUND, recently won the Cannes Grand Prix Award for Innovation, beating out some of the top digital innovators out there. It’s a smart device that you can plug into any room in your home, and using Sound AI and machine learning, it can identify various sounds — maybe glass breaking, a baby crying, or a howling kettle — and notifies you via the complimentary app we built. With 5% of the whole world being deaf or hard of hearing, this device helps people see sound. We actually just launched the official product preorder with our partners at Wavio (https://www.see-sound.com/).
Think that’s cool? Another passion project AREA 23 has been working on gives people with Cystic Fibrosis a place to come together in a world where everything is 6 feet apart. “We recently launched the Social Distance Squad with Claire’s Place Foundation (Los Angeles, CA), Piper’s Angels (Jupiter, FL), the Bonnell Foundation (Detroit, MI), Attain Health (Red Lodge, MT) and the Boomer Esiason Foundation (New York, NY). These teens have basically been social distancing their entire lives, so our goal was creating a safe space where they could share their stories and tips on how to get through these tough times — from wearing masks to dating to going to virtual proms, and more (https://www.socialdistancesquad.com/)!”
What does the future of production look like, and how can we prepare for it?
Planning for the future couldn’t be more critical, according to Jen. “This all is now part of the new norm for where we are headed; that covers new digital projects, remote photo shoots, and even more passion projects. This is an important moment in time for lots of reasons, but I know our team at AREA 23 is always up for a meaningful challenge.
In production, there are only so many timelines and processes we can set up — which don’t get me wrong, I could happily talk about for hours — but now more than ever, our success will stem from homing in our EQ further and figuring out what smarter ways of working will best compliment these new shifts in business priorities.”