When I began my career in project management and creative operations, I never thought it would take me to where I am now. I started at ConocoPhillips in project management for a 300+ person Creative Services department. We had our own video production studio, a full-blown print facility with both offset and digital capabilities, and an extremely talented creative team. As an Account Manager, it was my responsibility to intake, brief, and manage projects for a number of internal clients as well as to bring in new work. Looking back, this was a true in-house agency (IHA) model before such models were common.
Fast forward to today, in-house agencies are well established at many companies, and they are winning work over external agencies. Internal agency capabilities have also expanded and evolved along with team roles and functions. With all of these changes amidst the background of more channels, more demand for content, and more competition, the need for an operations function within marketing and creative teams has never been greater.
But there still seems to be confusion about what creative operations management really is and why it's necessary if you already have project managers in place. In fact, I've been both a part of IHAs and consulted with a number of organizations where the belief is that a strong PM is the operations team. That may hold true in some cases, and not every team or company is built the same.
So, what is creative operations?
Creative operations enables everyone on the team to focus on their core role so that they can do what they do best. Creative Operations Managers build workflows, create and maintain systems, implement new tools, build trackers and dashboards, plan and manage resources, and more. We discussed in another article how in-house agencies must produce more content for more channels faster than ever. Some are thriving, but others are just treading water. With these supports and structures in place, in-house teams are able to work smarter and faster (not harder and longer), produce stronger, more creative work, and scale their impact on the business.
Take my role as a Marketing Operations Manager at Patagonia, for example. My job was to bridge the gap between marketing and creative. Working alongside marketers, we built out the operations process that changed how the entire organization launched new products and campaigns. We prioritized which products would have all the creative levers pulled vs. those that wouldn't. We moved to a standard launch cycle to improve team planning and efficiency. And we built the business case for a more robust project management tool so that the work from the creative team was more organized and so that we had a single source of truth. All of these things were so much more than project management alone.
Who then managed the projects? In this instance, there was less need for the actual project manager role. It's important to point out that we still had project management support in place. It just took the shape of highly efficient workflows, resources, and tools that the operations team put in place and managed for the creative team. This allowed our creatives to focus on the things that mattered and that we knew would affect the bottom line.
Every organization is going to need to tailor operations to what works for them. But there is an important distinction between project management and creative operations. Project management focuses on the tactical—making sure individual projects, campaigns, and programs are executed efficiently, on time, and on budget. Operations is the strategic layer that creates and implements systems and workflows and that works cross-functionally to communicate and bridge gaps. Combine the two, and you free up your team to do their very best work and have the greatest impact.