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Project Manager or Producer: Which One to Hire?

project manager and producer in office

Experienced managers know their team needs to establish solid processes for tracking and accountability, and in the traditional agency model, this role was usually the project manager. But in the Wild West that is today’s digital landscape—where best practices and technological developments move faster than a tumbleweed in a hurricane—the best “manager” for the job may actually be a producer. Many organizations use these titles interchangeably, understanding their differences are imperative to improving your workflow and efficiencies.

Put very simply, the typical project manager manages work effort and staff. The producer is more involved in the creation of the work. The digital producer will necessarily be more experienced in the actual creative process, while the PM has a functional knowledge but does not necessarily roll up their sleeves to take part in the actual work processes. Neither role is “better” than the other. They each have strengths and knowing which expert you need to lead your project or team is critical to making informed hiring decisions.

Attributes: The task master versus the guiding light

Project managers are focused on the day-to-day or minute-by-minute action items and resources needed to accomplish the work. They essentially “own” the master plan—the big picture—and all the project documentation. They manage inter-agency communications and provide updates to clients via the client account managers. Their ultimate goal may be best summed up as providing on time and on budget deliverables.

By contrast, producers are involved in the creative process and are considered a part of the creative or development team. They empower and support other team members to do their best. They may manage and track project deliverables and resources, but they are more heavily invested in the project and measure their own success by the quality of the final deliverables.

Responsibilities: The difference between project managers and producers

The project manager is likely to be an expert in processes. Their focus is more on accountability, managing resources, and monitoring progress. Their role and responsibilities are mainly administrative. They make sure that the project scope, budget and schedule are adhered to and maintained at every step along the way. Very likely they have specialized training in project management methods that inform and guide their work. They are not meant to be creators; if you want them to weigh in on design or copy, they’ll probably point you toward the Creative Director.

The producer, on the other hand, will probably be more flexible and adaptive, willing to experiment and try new processes or methods along the way. They are more likely to bend the rules (or just toss the rulebook out the window) in order to achieve great deliverables. Rather than merely ensuring tasks get completed, the producer is concerned with guiding the production process.

Team Building: What PMs and Producers look for in their staff

Both the PM and the producer manage creative and development staff, including freelancers. Project managers will probably tend to seek out and hire specialists and then onboard and expect their staff to follow well-established protocols to the letter. This fits well with the traditional agency model, but a digital-forward agency will likely find themselves needing more agility in their staffing.

The producer is apt to take a more out-of-the-box view of a candidate’s qualifications to contribute to the success of the project. They’ll be looking for soft skills like collaboration and communication in addition to the technical skills needed to accomplish the work.

Which is Better: Finding the right fit for your culture

Whether you hire a project manager or a producer to lead your team, their ability to adapt their approach and communicate and interact effectively with different audiences is critical for success. 

A project manager who adheres a little too rigidly to dogmatic processes can be seen as a drill sergeant and may receive pushback or lack of cooperation from their creative staff. A producer who is a little too involved in the creative and not focused enough on hard management tasks is just as much a liability, as they may allow practical and tactical considerations to slide. A balance is necessary, so when deciding whether to hire a project manager or a producer ask yourself if the culture of the team is better served by a by-the-book managerial type or a creative lead who can get in the trenches to inspire and co-create.

We can’t tell you which one is better, but we can help you figure out which might be best for your organization’s needs.

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