Creative Operations and Project Management: How Are They Different?

by Ryne Knudson

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Is creative operations really that different from project management? Or is it just the same set of practices—called by a different name?

While the two have much in common, the difference comes down primarily to two things:

1. Project management is the art and science of designing and executing a process to achieve a business result.

True to its roots, project management methods were first created in manufacturing environments to improve efficiency and reduce cost.

2. Creative operations is the practice of helping creative professionals efficiently deliver, and put to use, their best work.

As a more nuanced discipline, creative operations includes many elements of project management—but it goes beyond traditional PM. Creative operations is also specific to the needs of creative teams.

To be sure, there is overlap between the two—creative operations professionals rely heavily on project management methods as part of their work.

There is also a lot of variation in different types of creative operations roles. Chloe Morel, a senior manager in creative operations with a background in events management, describes her responsibilities like this:

“For me, the scope of creative operations is much broader than the scope of project management. Project management is one piece of creative operations. For a number of projects, I’m not just the project manager. I am also the owner of the project and the decision-maker and implementer.”

The key to creative operations is understanding that creative professionals are not assembly workers on a factory floor.

A graphic designer won’t know exactly how long it will take to create a new graphic or advertising design—there is too much uncertainty to estimate tasks down to the second the way one can with an assembly line.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t plan or improve the process for creative work, however—and that’s the task performed every day by creative operations professionals.

What is Project Management?

Project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to guide complex projects from start to finish.

While project management techniques have been around for centuries, modern project management has its roots in the 1950s.

For example, Dupont Corporation invented The Critical Path Method (CPM) in 1957. Dupont saved over a million dollars in one year using CPM to redesign how chemical plants were shut down and restarted for maintenance.

Diagram of the critical path method of project management

A year later, the U.S. Navy invented the Program Evaluation Review Technique (PERT) as part of its submarine-based ballistic missile program during the Cold War.

The best project managers apply these kinds of established process methods to projects—helping teams coordinate assets and resources as they work together to complete projects.

Large, complex projects benefit the most from formal project management—since the larger the project, the more difficult it is to keep everyone moving in the same direction.

What Is Creative Operations?

Creative operations is the art and science of helping creative teams deliver high-quality work in less time.

Creative operations pulls heavily from the techniques and best practices of project management—but it applies them to the unique situation of creative teams.

Jason Semall has seen the blend of strategic process design with hands-on project management throughout his career. In the past, he spent much of his time working on planning and strategy, but the COVID pandemic forced a restructuring of the team’s responsibilities, changing his duties to include more hands-on project management.

“In the past, I wasn’t as involved in the intake process for requests. It was more planning and strategy and not so much in the weeds. But now I also help get all of our requests into the team’s queue, clarify any questions, schedule kick-off meetings, look over the allocation of resources based on availability.”

Creative operations professionals can be found in-house at many of the biggest brands, and you’ll also find them working at agencies.

The Role of Technology in Creative Project Efficiency

Creative operations professionals are often responsible for the technology used by their creative teams.

For example, creative operations professionals might help a creative team move from an ad-hoc storage method to a centralized cloud-based digital asset management system—a change that can dramatically improve efficiency and eliminate wasted work.

Wherever you find them, creative operations professionals spend their time creating processes that help creative teams deliver creative assets to internal or external clients—on time and on budget.

The 3 Areas of Creative Operations

To fully understand creative operations, you’ll need to master these three core areas:

1. People

Creative professionals have a unique role in your organization. They are—quite literally—creators. The job of creative operations is to create an environment where your creative teams can deliver their very best work.

2. Process

Process is everything a team uses to get work done. That could include creative briefs, planning meetings, reports, approvals, feedback forms, or anything else you create to help the creative team create and complete their work.

3. Technology

Technology includes every tool your team uses. That could be software for your illustrators or a digital asset management system for storage and delivery of assets to stakeholders and clients.

Where To Find Creative Operations Professionals?

Creative operations professionals often come from one of two career paths:

  1. Creative (writers, designers, etc.)
  2. Project management

Creative operations professionals often have a varied background that includes time in both creative and management roles.

Jason Semall, for example, had roles in both project management and creative before moving into creative operations.

“I started in traffic and production, then worked for a few companies where I set up their workflows for them, did traffic for them, including my current company. Then I moved more into the design side for probably the last eight years. Then a couple of years ago I started getting back into the operations side of things.”

If you are a creative professional by training and are moving into creative operations, you’ll need to learn project management techniques as well as the idea of continuous improvement.

If your background is more on the project management side, you’ll need to know what it’s like to work as a creative professional.

That will mean spending time talking to your creative team, getting to know their workflow, and doing your best to understand what you can do to help. You’ll need to gain their trust, so they don’t constantly feel like you’re interfering with their work.

How Do Creative Operations and Project Management Work Together?

Imagine you’ve been asked to improve the workflow for a 50-person in-house creative team.

After talking with the creative director and several of the senior leaders, you find that the team is having a difficult time completing projects.

“We have hundreds of projects in process at any given time,” the creative director tells you. “We get them started, but they often stall when we try to get them approved by project owners and senior management.”

This situation is very different from a manufacturing line—where each task can be timed down to the second.

But even so, it’s still a flow of work through a standard process, which means traditional PM practices such as The Critical Path Method can still be very helpful.

A creative operations professional might use CPM to redesign the approval process, working with stakeholders inside the creative team and in management to standardize approval, so everyone knows what’s expected of them.

The Payoff: When Creative Operations and Project Management Work Together, Everyone Benefits

When creative operations and project management work together, everyone involved will benefit.

Creatives will see annoyances taken away and roadblocks cleared from their workflow. Project managers will see better performance, higher quality work, and more projects delivered on time.

Most of all, everyone involved—no matter their title—will enjoy their work more—since everyone’s work will flow more smoothly.

Returning to Chole Morell’s experience:

“I found that my brain works really operationally, even when I was working on an events team. I’m happy to pick out the tablecloth color, but that’s not what revs my engine. I get really excited about figuring out how to make a process better and improve efficiency.”

When creative operations and project management work together, work is a better experience for everyone.