Interview with Rebecca Gallagher, most recently Director of Project Management and Operations at precisioneffect
Can you tell me a little about how you got into project management?
I got into project management by way of being a producer at digital agencies. Back in the day I worked on coding HTML, graphics, account management, project management, and strategy. This afforded me opportunities to dig in deep with clients to understand and think bigger picture of both client and agency needs. This was a huge benefit when I moved into big 360 agencies as a project manager at the leadership level. In these 360 agencies, roles and responsibilities are siloed, which is necessary to keep work flowing and manage large portfolios of business.
What would you say are some of those specialized skills that project managers have?
We’re more than a team that delivers timelines and status sheets. It’s not just about being given a date or a cost for a project and backing into it. It is about being given the tactics and the deliverables, and then determining how we are going to get there. In order to achieve this, we ask ourselves, “What can we do to ensure that we are delivering flawlessly and executing on time, while working within the time and budget parameters?” It is really about how we can be creative and put the pieces of the puzzle together to make the project work. This critical thinking is the key to project management. I always refer to it as creative and strategic project planning.
What were some skills that you naturally had that allowed you to excel in project management?
I think that having an abundance of skills from other industries is what helped me the most. For example, I have an MFA in Photography, and I started my career as a designer. I did some work in copywriting, some work in paparazzi photography, and then went on to teach art and graphic design as a professor and ultimately a department chairperson. I even had an opportunity to co-author a book. After tackling those wonderful and challenging careers, I wanted to become a producer, where I was able to take all of those creative skills and all of that solution oriented and critical thinking into a single job at an agency.
For me, all of those unique past experiences and skills I development have altogether helped me build my own bucket of tools, and methodology of approach to project management. In any position you hold in your career, you’re gathering experience, you’re gaining insights, you’re learning how to have difficult conversations, and you’re learning how to sell your ideas so that you can actually put them out into action.
What do you think are some of the biggest challenges that PMs face in agencies today?
I think one of the biggest challenges is to make project managers feel integrated and respected as part of a larger agency experience. It’s almost like a hidden bias, if you will. Unfortunately, this still exists at some agencies, where project managers are not viewed as equal parts within the larger agency. We need to get away from that idea, and that’s where the challenges lie.
In every agency I’ve work at, one of the reasons I’ve been brought in is to change this dynamic. I spend time teaching project and account managers to partner together and build the interpersonal relationships to work as a single unit within the larger agency unit.
What I typically do is take some work off of accounts plate, such as project finances, division and approval of people hours, and give it to project managers, because to truly own a project they need to understand every aspect. This helps create a balance of shared knowledge and expertise in setting projects up for success, enhancing client relations and, something many people forget about, protecting the agency with the ability to foresee and mitigate risk as projects experience scope creep.
When you’re looking to hire a new project manager, what are the top characteristics or skills you’re looking for?
I think that’s an interesting question, because many people go and get their project management professional (PMP) certification and do all this training so they “understand” what a project manager really does. However, in the world of advertising I discourage that approach, and I believe that this is the wrong industry in which to pursue that.
So to answer your question, first you need to have interpersonal skills. For me, this is the top skill, but is equally the hardest thing to teach. If you don’t have interpersonal skills, it’s going to be very challenging to deal with everybody’s personalities within the department, and project managers work with everyone in the agency. This requires us to be pleasant, understanding, and knowledgeable. We need good listening skills, knowledge of solid process and understanding of day-to-day project status — all of this requires organization. You must understand how something flows end to end, and I know there’s a huge difference between agencies, so I’m not necessarily looking for someone to fully understand expectations in the beginning. Some of this is innate and some can be trained, but I simply need to know that a potential project manager has the right mindset for the type of work we do.
What are some changes that you would like to see in the agency space?
I would love to see producer roles come back in a new hybrid form with project and account managers working seamlessly as teammates; both internal and client facing. I envision is, and always explain it to my teams as working together the way copy and art do. They collaborate on the creative, working in tandem, both presenting internally and to clients. It’s a united front that improves internal and client relations. You can’t have one without the other, right? I see this happening at some agencies which are starting to realize the benefits of this partnership, but in all fairness, it’s a scary move to make because it goes against the traditional 360 agency silos. It really does make for a stronger agency, by creating better client experience and internal working experience.
Project Management and Operations Consultant