Agency Project Management with Donna Sargeant

“I love the very quick and fast pace of working in an agency and on my projects.” 

Project management roles are pretty similar across industries, in that PMs are mostly responsible for facilitating projects and teams to a successful delivery while keeping a keen eye budgets and deadlines. That’s certainly the case for agency project management, but for some reason it’s just a little more different. Is it the fast pace? The clients? The huge network you have in a global agency? The creative culture? Or maybe the way a PM is viewed and utilized in an agency? 

In this episode of Time Limit, we talk to Donna Sargeant, who is a program manager at Wunderman Thompson, a global creative agency that helps its clients meet their business goals through the strategy and execution of digital and print projects. In the interview, Donna provides a glimpse into agency life as a project manager, and we touch on:

  • What does a project manager do at a marketing agency?
  • How to get into agency project management
  • Project management roles and team structure
  • How PMs work with account managers
  • Agency process

About our guest


Donna Sargeant
Program Manager, Wunderman Thompson

Ordonna Saregant has a passion for organizing teams; Donna started her career in Leadership Consultation working with many Fortune 500 clients: Credit Suisse, Viacom, Bloomberg organizing large transitions. As a Program Manager, she has led software infrastructure projects and network projects ranging from SharePoint upgrades, disaster recovery, migration initiatives, and data governance for both the public and private sectors. 2020 has been an equally exciting year as she led a digital transformation of a leading automotive company with an agile team.

Episode Transcript


Brett Harned:                                          Hello, and welcome to Time limit. Brett Harned here. Thanks so much for checking out the podcast. This episode is all about specialization in the project management field that operates just a little differently than a lot of other fields, and that's agency project management. I had the pleasure of connecting with Donna Sargeant, who's a program manager for Wunderman Thompson, which is a global digital agency headquartered in New York, but with 200 offices in 90 markets. This conversation was a lot of fun for me, because I worked for a long time in the agency world, and I know and have spoken a lot about the challenges of those roles. It was fun to dig out on everything from how to get an agency PM job, all the way through to how you work out process with clients, and everything in between. I think you'll enjoy this interview with Donna. Check it out.
                                                      Donna Sergeant, thank you so much for joining me today on time limit. How are you doing?

Donna Sargeant:                                        I'm great. Thanks for inviting me.

Brett Harned:                                          Absolutely. I'm so excited to talk to you today about agency project management. It's something that you and I have in common, so I'm sure we're going to share some of the challenges we've faced in that realm, as well as some of the things that make the job fun, because I do think it's a fun project management job, right?

Donna Sargeant:                                        It is. It is. It's my favorite actually.

Brett Harned:                                          Cool. Me too.

Donna Sargeant:                                        Yeah.

Brett Harned:                                          It's just like a different kind of environment. I think we'll dig into that a little bit. I was wondering if maybe you could start just by telling us a little bit about the types of projects that you work on, and maybe we should establish what I mean by an agency too, if you can talk about maybe that level of your work setting, that might be cool.

Donna Sargeant:                                        Okay. So, I currently work with Wunderman Thompson, and I love it. My specific agency has very much a startup feel, even though it's a larger agency. My specific role in project right now is a digital project where we are helping our client with rebranding an entire website. So, it is exciting that I'm working with so many different types of roles. I work with content strategists, I work with strategists in general, work with the creative team. I work with a development team offshore. I work with the account supervisors as well as multiple other PMs, project managers specifically that roll up into me as I'm the program manager over a large project, but I love the autonomy that I have to run that project. But also I have a network of people across the agency that I can tap into and ask questions as we're getting rolling on such a very large project. I love that that very quick and fast pace of an agency and this project. Have you had that same experience where agency work is fast-paced, but it's always really fun and involved? What's been your experience?

Brett Harned:                                          Oh, yes, for sure. So, in my career, also in digital project management, I've worked in large agencies. So I worked for Razorfish, and I worked for a smaller agency called Happy Cog, that was my last project management job, all in digital, mostly in website design or redesign, highly creative, working with the same types of people as you. And I think the creative aspect is part of what makes it fun, because there's a lot of research and discovery that you get to take part in and shaping project goals, shaping scopes, contributing to creative at times when you're on the smaller team. Those are all the things that I really like about it. I'm curious, you mentioned website branding. What other types of projects do you work on in the digital realm?

Donna Sargeant:                                        Well, in the digital realm, specifically for the program that I'm currently on, my development team is very much on... I haven't very much in the weeds with the development team, because there's so much to do, where we're not only rebranding, where we're moving a website onto a new platform. So there's quite a bit of AM, like working with Adobe and working with a CRM and a CMS, so just to make sure that we're managing all the content, and working with a very agile development team to make sure that my creative team is churning and my content strategists are creating content decks and comps and things of that nature, and making sure that the sprint boards are full and the backlogs full for the team. That's doing all the development. So there's a lot of that to balance as well.

Brett Harned:                                          I love it. So, one of the things that you're talking about is this like balance, that a digital PM has to take on because you're managing teams of specialists who are all working toward the same goals, of course, but they have very different specialties, like you mentioned content strategy, I'm sure there's UX development. Those are not just different tasks, but also very different that you're managing in those teams, which can be a lot of fun, but it also can be a really huge challenge. I love that you're laughing through this cause you totally relate to it. I personally, in this realm, have always considered myself more of like the creative design and UX and content project manager, just because that's my background. And it sounds like you're really embedded in technical. Do you have a specialty on either side? And do you think it's important for someone in digital to specialize in an area within a digital project management?

Donna Sargeant:                                        I think that it helps. I really do. I think that it helps when you have some sort of background in it. It could be on the UX side where you know a little more about wire frames and you know a little bit more about content structure and making sure that the flow and the taxonomy of the page makes sense and things of that nature. I think it definitely helps when you're having those kinds of conversations with your subject matter expert, that you can understand what they're trying to convey to you. My background has been more so on the software development side, and I've worked also before this role at a very small startup where I had to work side by side with my designers and doing mind mapping and things of that nature.
                                                      So, I had a little bit of both worlds before I came into this role, and I think that really helped, because I knew how to ask certain questions of my tech team and finding out whether or not they needed more time on certain sprints and stories and how we were going to break things up, versus working with my team and making sure that we're fleshing out the design and the ideas that may come to light for the client. So, I think it helped to have a little bit of both, and my background, I think, leaned a little bit more towards the technical side.

Brett Harned:                                          Got it. Yeah. I agree with you. I always tell people that I know enough to make me dangerous, you don't want me in your design files or in your code ever. And that's fair, because I shouldn't be, that's not my job, right?

Donna Sargeant:                                        Exactly, right.

Brett Harned:                                          You mentioned you're a program director at Wunderman Thompson.

Donna Sargeant:                                        Program manager.

Brett Harned:                                          Program manager. I'm sorry. What does that mean? Can you explain what the structure is and the level of PM within Wunderman Thompson?

Donna Sargeant:                                        Sure. Currently, there are projects... Well, right now they're associate project managers, that's just breaking into project management. And then there are project managers, senior project managers, and then program managers, and then of course, a program director. And then we have a group director.

Brett Harned:                                          Okay. That's huge. Wunderman Thompson is a huge global agency, right?

Donna Sargeant:                                        It's huge. It really is. I understand, and it's awesome because it's obvious that you can grow. That's how I see it. I see it that it's awesome that I know that there's somewhere there's a trajectory. I can grow here and I can learn so many different things, and because they have so many different projects, I can pivot if needed be. They had a need, they always have a need. That's something I also love about Wunderman Thompson, there's always a need for a PM or someone to come in and tap in and help.
                                                      The process, on my current account, I have a technical project manager that's over the technical team abroad, and then I have a project manager who works with me on a very large project, on this very large project, because there's so many different levels to it. So, a project manager may be in the day-to-day, making sure that the naming structure and the nomenclature that we're following for our filing system, because there's so many content decks, because there's so many pages are being managed, and we have a clean hand-off process. So, if someone's outside of that process, we tap them on the shoulder and say, "Hey, let's make sure that we're operating within this, because there's so many different things to track, that we need it to be a smooth thing."
                                                      I handle things somewhat at a little higher of level with regard to resource management, scope management, making sure that the expectation with the client is set, and I'm working side by side with my account supervisor to make sure that she understands exactly what's happening on the project side, on the actual development side and creative side. So there's a lot of coordination of collaboration to make sure that we're smoothly moving towards the goal when you have different people at different levels to help make sure ensure that happens.

Brett Harned:                                          I really like that. One of the things that project managers or people who are trying to get into project management will reach out to me and ask, is, "What can I do? How can I get my first job?" And there are so many organizations, and agencies specifically, that are small boutique-sized agencies that are flat, that require more senior level project management because they don't have as much of a growth path. So I think to me, pointing those people in the direction of larger agencies is a great way to not only break into project management, but also to get a crash course on how to be a good agency PM. I'm curious, how did you get into it?

Donna Sargeant:                                        I did a lot of applying at one point. After being at a startup, I learned quite a bit, because at a startup you have to wear many hats. And I was looking for a role in which I could grow, you could see that growth and you can understand that there are different levels and learn more, because this is my first agency role. And like I mentioned before, I had the background in both technology and I could very much speak to a product owner and a UX person and things like that, just to talk through the experience. I think that that is what won them over. I could have that vernacular back and forth with my technical team, but also know how to work with the creative team, because working with, like you mentioned, creative teams are very different than that of your technology team and backend engineers or full stack engineers, it's completely different, and to be able to pivot, to talk to either and be able to talk to a client with something they were looking for.
                                                      So, that's how they reached out to me, and I got involved. I actually saw the role and reached out to someone on LinkedIn, one of the HR, and they reached right back to me.

Brett Harned:                                          That's great. Having that network is awesome when you're looking for something new, but it's also... I do want to say just for folks out there who are looking for ways to break into project management, I think digital is a great area, because obviously it's not going anywhere, it can be done remotely really well and easily, and it's a good way to just break into an industry that is fun and creative, where you get the opportunity to make mistakes and recover from those mistakes without destroying your career, in most cases, right?

Donna Sargeant:                                        Exactly, because I mean, mistakes are going to happen. I feel like PMs don't love that, but it's true, you're going to make mistakes, scope creep is going to happen and you have to be able to manage that and have that conversation, or even have that relationship with your account [supe] and the client to make sure that you can communicate what's going on and how that's a little bit outside of the scope and things of that nature. You learn so much at an agency, it's a wealth of knowledge, and it really is awesome place to start.

Brett Harned:                                          You mentioned account management, and I want to dig in on that a little bit, because in my experience in a large agency I was basically working for one client, it was a pharmaceutical company, probably like 20-plus projects happening at one time between web development, SEO, banner ads, all of that stuff. And that was a lot to coordinate for one person. And there was an account team that had five people. To me, this was the biggest challenge that I experienced as a project manager in an agency. It was the imbalance of account management and project management and how account management would commit the team to things that project management would never commit to, because account management wasn't necessarily educated enough on process or estimating and scopes and would commit to things and it would drive me crazy. I don't know if you've had that experience, I'm sensing possibly, but could you maybe share a little bit about how it works in your agency when it comes to account management and project management, how you collaborate and what the overlap might be?

Donna Sargeant:                                        Yes. I'm glad you mentioned it. At an agency, it's very different from a strictly software development or just any other role I've ever had. I've always been both. I've always been the account management, where I'm the one talking to the client, and the project manager at the same time with the team. But in agencies, the strategist and the account managers are the ones who are organizing the scope of what you're going to deliver. And there is just, like you mentioned, sometimes a disconnect. I'm a very happy to say, I love my manager, and she's driven and assertive, so she's already made sure that project management, specifically at her level, is inside of those meetings. So, because we need to understand from a resourcing standpoint, that's how we've driven ourselves into the process. But from a resource point of view, we need to understand what's being delivered so that we can make sure we have the resources to support it.
                                                      That's how we've made sure that we're in the room and part of that process so that the disconnect won't be so large. So, we have those experiences and we've learned from them. So, those lessons learned have led to us being a part of that process so that we don't have those situations anymore, so that we're not promising things we cannot deliver. So I completely understand what you mean.

Brett Harned:                                          That's awesome to hear. I think it's a learning process, and any time you join a new team in a role like this, it will always be a learning process and you have to be open to changing and adapting to meet the needs of the project, the team that you're working with, the scope, your stakeholders, there's so much you have to think about.
                                                      Another thing I want to mention is, when you're working in a smaller agency, more of a boutique-sized agency, you often tend to have to take on those account management and project management responsibilities, which can be difficult. I personally really enjoyed that, because I think it's important for a PM to have a seat at the table when there's any conversation regarding any project or program details. And sometimes when the team is bigger and there are more roles, there are less seats at the table and the PM gets kicked to the back. I just wanted to mention that, because I think there is a difference in the way that you can PM at an agency, just depending on the company you're working for.

Donna Sargeant:                                        Absolutely.

Brett Harned:                                          There are lots of challenges that digital project managers, agency project managers face. I'm wondering, what other challenges do you tend to face in your day-to-day?

Donna Sargeant:                                        I think one of them is the management of expectation. I am very adamant about making sure that the expectation is clear. So, my expectations of my team, whether it be through hot sheets or... I have multiple biweekly meetings with the entire team to make sure that we are tracking and that everyone understands at the top of the week what my expectations are, and they can communicate to me, is this too much? Can you not quite handle this? Are you being pulled in another direction because of another project? Talk to me and making sure that we're all under the same understanding of what we're going to deliver for even just the suite or the sprint.
                                                      And that's across teams, that's for creative. That's for my tech team. I would like people to just make sure they're communicating with me. And then of course with my account supe, I make sure that in meetings with the client, if they're saying something that doesn't quite sound like the expectation that we've originally set, being the challenge I've found is making sure that they are aware of the scope and when something grows outside of that scope, without being annoying about it.
                                                      You want to make sure you have a great relationship with your client, I like having a great relationship with the client, or comfortable one so that you can talk to them about, "Okay, well, we're tracking..." Because I like to bring up like what we talked about in a kickoff around like, "This is what we're delivering. And when things go wrong outside of that, how we make sure they understand that this is more than the scope," or, "We want to now talk about a extension, or how would you like to manage this extra piece of scope? How would you like to add this to the current scope?" Have something shift, those kinds of things I find to be challenging. To make sure that everyone is under the same understanding and impression at the same time, it's something that's challenging, I think.

Brett Harned:                                          Absolutely. It's challenging to build relationships when there's a little bit of a barrier between you and the client, if that ever exists, but I think the point that you're making is so clear. It's just that when you do make the time to build those relationships and focus on the people, sometimes delivering the bad news is just a little bit easier, because you've got a rapport and you've got a mutual understanding and the expectations are just set. It just makes things easier. I'm curious, how do you kick off projects?

Donna Sargeant:                                        In an agency, it's quite different because you get a brief. So, you will receive a brief from the client and they will explain to you what they're wanting to deliver or convey. The strategy team will then take that, grow upon it, and then present that brief back to the client to make sure that they understand and that they are signing off on the new creative direction. That brief will then be given to the entire team, the creative team specifically, and I will then take that information and make sure that everyone has it. As a program manager, I'll do a quick kickoff meeting where I'm talking about like, "this is the scope, this is what we're working toward." The strategy team will do a complete share out of what the client is looking for, and then I'll also make sure that everyone on the team understands, "Here are key players. Here are the stakeholders, the decision makers on the project. This is how you're going to be putting in your time, across our time management system. Here are our cadences, we're going to have meetings on the state so that we're tracking towards it."
                                                      Then I also make sure that when I create a project plan, we're going to walk through the project plan together. "Let me know if this is too aggressive. This is how I see us hitting the date. Let me know whether or not we need to shift things. And I'll bring those things up as we move along the project. That's how I kick off a project once an agency first starts with the client, and then the strategy team. [inaudible] for you?

Brett Harned:                                          Yeah. I talk about kickoffs in multiple ways at agencies, because I think what you're talking about is like an internal kickoff where you need to make sure that everyone involved in the project internally is aligned on the scope, the goals, the timeline, and all those constraints that come along with it, and also doing a little bit of team building and making everyone comfortable with the team atmosphere.
                                                      Then I think I've done client kickoffs in a couple of different ways, but the most effective, and my most favorite way to kick off meetings is after doing some research and discovery work, if that's called foreigner project, gathering the entire team, as well as the entire stakeholder team for like a day or a half day of session to dig in further on things like goals, talking about differences that might've come up in stakeholder interviews, and really zeroing in on what the thing is that we're building is most important, because I think that's the most confusing thing about digital projects, is, your team might be assigned to a project, they come into it, there's already an established scope and estimates and probably an understanding of how you'll get there, but you all are a little uneasy about it because what you're building is reliant on this flexible creative process and whatever the designer makes, then has to be built, and what they make needs to stay within a scope so that the project can be profitable. So, it's this tricky game of cat and mouse, it can be really tough.
                                                      That's how I've handled projects, but I would love to talk a little bit about process, like getting into actually how you're delivering projects. And I know that you mentioned agile, so I'm curious if you could talk to me a little bit about what agile methods you're using and how that's working and delivery.

Donna Sargeant:                                        Okay. We are definitely using agile, and we, as a team, both internally and externally with our clients, do PI planning where we come together as a team to talk about the different things that each group will be managing, because there's quite a few projects. My specific project... Because there are three program managers on this one client.

Brett Harned:                                          That's big.

Donna Sargeant:                                        Yeah, large. I's very large. CRM is managed by one program manager, and updates and maintenance things are handled by one program manager, and I handle the rebranding and the revamp and migration. So, there's so many different individuals who have different needs, and this entire group, this entire team, as a whole, manages this one client. So there's a lot of resource balancing. So, when we have a PI planning, we all come together to talk about the interdependencies and the timelines together so that we can plan a few months at a time. So, we'll plan a quarter at a time and the different objectives that we want to deliver. So, we'll have a release train manager, who'll just be managing that. That's the goal that we're all working towards to make the entire team we're agile right now.t.
                                                      The creative team isn't as agile as, obviously, our development team, but we're moving toward making sure that everyone is aligned so that even our clients have more visibility into the interdependencies, because they see it as they have one flowing need, they have one journey that they need completed, but they don't have insight into if they ask for something very quickly at a moment's notice what that affects. So, making sure that they have insight into that, and there's transparency, open transparency about all the different projects and all the different moving pieces gives them more of an opportunity to make informed decisions, because otherwise it's just us telling them, "Well, this is going to change this." But if you add a PI meeting where we're talking about the different things that we need to deliver, they have visibility into the moving pieces.
                                                      So, a lot of the ceremonies, we have a daily standup with the client. We have retrospectives and lessons learned at the end of the full project. Those are some of the things that we absolutely would do grooming. We do backlog grooming as well, but sprint planning, we do quite a few of the ceremonies on the technical side specifically and we'll make sure that we're pulling in our UX and creative team to be a part of those meetings so that they have visibility when it goes through a QA, it needs to make sure it goes through both the technical, functional QA, as well as the creative review QA, for just the client and UAT. So, there's a lot of things to manage, with this agile team are less.

Brett Harned:                                          It's a lot of process. It sounds like you're basically managing like a hybrid process, and I imagine that it's because design is so open to feedback and rounds of revisions with clients that almost has to stay that way, like it's hard to work in sprints with design, I think, with a paying client, but it makes sense that your sprints and more agile work would happen in development. That's how I've worked as well. I typically call that like a hybrid process.
                                                      That's cool. Then it sounds like you're also managing a level of support and maintenance and working that into resourcing while you're trying to achieve all those goals on projects. So, it sounds about in agencies, it's always fast-paced, everyone's always way too busy and a little bit stressed out, but somehow it's done.
                                                      Let's talk about like the individual level as a PM. How do you connect with other PMs within your agency? One of the things I remember was, I was on this big team of project managers, but I still felt like an island, because I was the one PM on the account and I wanted more insight into how other people were managing that and working. How are you doing that?

Donna Sargeant:                                        They very recently heard that exact same feedback from the PMs. They're working on it currently. What we have as a group member, I mentioned above my director, over all the PMs and the program managers on my specific account, there's a group director. That group director is over all of the PMs, and they report to all the PMs and the Wunderman Thompson agency. And they've asked for a meeting. So we have a weekly meeting where we get to talk about some of the things that we are working on, some of the challenges, et cetera, or if we have a need and we need a new creative person and we have a resource meeting for that, but just to talk amongst PMs, because our concerns and needs are a bit specific to our industry. So, we have a moment for that.
                                                      Then those meetings, while we can be on an island by ourselves, it's a little difficult to relate to exactly what that person's going through. So, they do have a share out where we share exactly what we are going through, but also they'll invite a guest to that meeting, and they'll talk about [MURAL 00:00:31:51]. I'm not sure if you've used that.

Brett Harned:                                          Yeah.

Donna Sargeant:                                        Awesome. So, to show how different teams are using a specific tool, or they'll talk through, "If something went wrong, this is how we should use a war room technique," just to also bring back actual usable techniques.

Brett Harned:                                          Sharing practices [inaudible] guidance. That makes sense.

Donna Sargeant:                                        It was helpful. So, we're working on a perfect recipe for it, but it's awesome to be able to get with every other PM and hear what everyone's going through, as well as learn some new tricks along the way. I think they're still perfecting that, but I love the fact that we definitely heard the exact same feedback. It's like, "What's happening with the other PMs. I don't even see them. I don't know what they do." So we all get together and talk.

Brett Harned:                                          I think those meetings give you an opportunity to learn and grow, not just as individuals, but as a team and as an organization too. So it's good to hear that you're doing that. We've been talking for a while already. I already want to schedule a follow-up to this, we'll talk about that later. But on the podcast, my last question is always keeping in theme with the title of the show, which as you know is Time Limit. So, we've already mentioned it. I'm sure you're always busy and probably even overwhelmed at times. I'm wondering if there are any things that you have to do on a daily or weekly basis no matter what, and how you make time for those things?

Donna Sargeant:                                        Specifically, I do quite a bit at work, and then I also have home life and quite a few things that I do on the side. So, what I tend to have to do no matter what every single day is to make my to-do list. I look at my to do list, I start it in the very morning, top of the day, and I write down all the things that I need to do, but I also prioritize it. If you don't make the priority around what are the things that have to get done, because your day will start and there'll be new priorities within an hour. So you need to know what things you absolutely have to focus on at the top of your day, if possible, or in the gaps within your day, they have to be managed. And at the end of the day, I make sure that I look at this list, check off what's been completed and adjust, finish some quick things. Do I have some quick wins before the end of the night?
                                                      That's how I manage all of the things that are going on, because it's just the best way for me. That's one of my productivity [crosstalk 00:34:46].

Brett Harned:                                          That's awesome. The to-do list is needed. Donna, thank you so much for joining me on Time Limit. Really appreciate having you here, and I hope we get to do this again soon.

Donna Sargeant:                                        Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. This has been awesome.

Brett Harned:                                          Thanks. Okay, I have to admit, we cut that interview a little short. Donna's last point about to-do lists was totally on point, and I know we could have kept going for a long time. What do you think? Would you listen to more? If there's a topic you want me to cover on Time Limit, or if you want to suggest or even be a guest, please reach out. These conversations are so much fun for me, and hopefully helpful and entertaining for you. At least, that's the point. Thanks, again, for listening. And we'll see you on the next episode.

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