digital project manager traits

How to be a Successful Digital Project Manager

Hannah Amess 6 years ago

The classic digital project manager traits are debatable and is also something I spent a lot of time obsessing over when I first started here at Zazzle Media. There is an array of courses and methodologies you can follow; however, one of the best things about working within a digital agency is the mix of people you get to work with.

An ideal project manager needs to be subtle in their approach but also needs to have a tight grip on the details in order to deliver the project on time and within scope. So, learning how to not only manage but encourage people who have differing motivations and skills in order to work together and produce great content plays a huge part in this operational role.

As a project manager, I find myself wearing many hats throughout the day and although there is some semblance of routine it’s difficult to predict what’s just around the corner. Between answering emails, attending progress meetings and chasing for task updates within our project management systems, chances are I’ve got a lot on my mind.

What Traits Must a Project Manager Possess?

There are many different types of people who manage and make a success of projects in various fields, but I am keen to show you the fundamental skills and characteristics they all share:

Excellent Communication Skills

A successful project manager is the King (or Queen) of all communication styles and this isn’t just limited to speech!

Approximately 90% of a project manager’s time is spent communicating either with colleagues or clients, so having the ability to communicate well is essential. However, effective communication doesn’t just happen. You have to put in the time and effort to get to know your teams and clients so that you can devise appropriate communication plans that connect with different personality types.

Having the ability to listen is also required to understand what people are doing, identify any challenges members of the team have encountered and capture ideas to improve project performance.

For example, to communicate effectively with my colleagues I always try to be as clear and transparent as possible.

Is Detail-Orientated

Attention to detail is one of those things that people don’t really notice unless you haven’t got it. However, it’s a skill that any effective project manager needs to have. It’s normal to have several projects being managed at one time and it’s our job to be able to digest the details and organise them for team execution.

For example, we ensure that our monthly planning sessions are as detailed as possible and the client plans are clear. When it comes to assigning the workload, the operations team are confident on what needs to be delivered and can brief the delivery teams with all the detail they need.

Never Assumes Anything

One of the things you learn very quickly is that you can’t know everything and you really can’t assume that people know what you mean or know exactly what’s required for their element of a project. It’s so important to have asked the right questions in order to create a clear brief.

For example, we have a briefing process in place to avoid anyone having to assume they know what they need to do. Our process starts from on-boarding when a job sheet for the work is created. Strategy then produce unique client plans working closely with the SEO team which in turn then create content/design briefs as well as distribution plans. This process is carefully followed for every client we work with so that no team is left guessing what it is that they should be delivering.

Very Organised

Being organised is not only something I personally take pride in, it’s a vital skill for a role in project management. Whether it’s through using project management tools such as Teamwork, Excel spreadsheets or the old fashioned pen and paper method, we need to keep things moving in the right direction and make the deliverables and deadlines clear for our teams.

Drawing on my own experience, a project manager’s to do list is never complete. So, to be successful we need to use time effectively and prioritise tasks. Everyday has a limited number of working hours so those hours need to be used tactfully.

Examples of effective time management and organisation with a digital agency include:

  • Starting and ending meetings on time – this is probably one of the easiest ways to save your agency time.
  • Embrace real time changes – using tools that enable your teams to collaborate in real time such as Google Docs will have a huge impact with the ability to share, write, comment and edit documents simultaneously among teams.
  • Take time to evaluate how your teams work and look to optimise and improve practices and processes.
  • Work with team managers and their teams to organise and prioritise their tasks. Try to reduce the number of different tasks a team member works on a given day. This should help increase productivity.

Is Assertive (but Likeable)

Yes, we prefer to call it being ‘assertive’ over ‘bossy’ but no matter what you may call us under your breath, it’s our job to make sure that stuff gets done, so that does require us to crack the whip occasionally.

It should come as no great surprise that you’ll get better results from your delivery teams if they trust and respect you. Ensuring you get along with others and make them believe that you’re on ‘their side’ is the very least that can be done. Always focus on motivating rather than intimidating.

A great tip I learnt during some 1-2-1 training was before entering a discussion or meeting, ask yourself: 'What do I want from this situation?” Afterwards, evaluate the outcome: ‘Did I get what I wanted?' This has helped me to create a track record of my success and indicate whether I needed to adjust my style of approach.

Is a Leader

A project manager needs to be a leader, be proactive and able to bring project teams together. We need to be ‘that’ person who everyone in the team looks to, to find out what’s going on and where a project is at in terms of progress. This means it’s really important to check in with people and make sure you know the following:

  • What projects everyone is working on
  • What stage they’re at with tasks
  • When tasks are expected to be completed
  • What the next steps in the project are
  • What could throw the project off course

Drawing on my own experiences, leading by example really works. I’ve found that for my colleagues to feel confident in me, they like to see someone who follows through and is available and helpful. And, importantly, has a positive attitude especially when there are tight deadlines looming or resource is lower than usual.

Works Well Under Pressure

Just because you’re not necessarily getting your hands dirty doesn’t mean being a project manager is a breeze. It is inevitable that when you’re trying to bring together different clients and colleagues, that the role can be very demanding and stressful at times.

Project Managers are ultimately responsible for delivering a project on time and within budget. So, it’s important to remember how to tolerate pressure and not to become overwhelmed by it.

Pressure hasn’t always been my friend in the past, but I know it’s a part of work and life. What I’ve learnt over the years is ways to not only deal with pressure but use it as a motivation rather than an excuse to throw it all in. Some of the effective tactics I use include:

  • Always remaining calm
  • Stay focused on what you need to accomplish
  • Get help if you need it
  • Take regular breaks

Embraces Change

Uncertainty is part of every project. Requirements change, new ideas will emerge and deadlines will move. It’s important as a project manager to embrace changes to any project, therefore we must be flexible and adaptable.

Be the person who is ready for change and is armed with open communication and collaboration to find strong solutions that work for your teams.

A perfect example of embracing change has been our acquisition, alongside our sister agency Stickyeyes, to become part of IPG Mediabrands in 2016 – one of the world’s largest ad agency groups. The acquisition has enabled our two offices in Peterborough and Leeds to collaborate on more projects. Managing these projects across teams in two locations has been a new challenge the operational team have had to face but is certainly going from strength to strength.

A Critical Thinker

It’s essential to be both a creative problem solver and a stickler for processes and procedures. Balancing both on a daily basis is integral to the success of a project manager. You have to weigh up the pros and cons of solutions to problems before choosing the right way forward.

It’s important to develop your critical thinking skills through practice as well as equipping yourself with tools and approaches to structure issues logically and see things from all perspectives before making a decision.

Here are a few steps that you can use to refine your critical thinking skills:

  • Take time to clearly identify your goal
  • Know your own biases
  • Anticipate all consequences

Ability to Control Risk

Being able to control risk (as much as you can) is a sign that you’re on top of a project. However, when something goes wrong, all eyes turn to the project manager. Regardless of the circumstances everyone will wonder whether the issue could have been foreseen and prevented. So being able to anticipate any problems and develop solutions for those in advance will improve the chances of a project’s success.

Mentioned above are just some of the competencies that make up a successful project manager and these are, of course, a matter of opinion. However, as a digital project manager I know we should always be looking to develop and improve.

As well as ensuring you display many of the competencies previously discussed it’s also worth us taking a look at the various methodologies that can be used to deliver a project and ultimately how knowing which to use can affect a project’s success.

So how do you choose the right project management methodology?

There are many different ways to deliver a project and one thing digital project managers have always been obsessed with is methodology - applying different principles, themes, frameworks, processes and standards to help provide structure to the way we deliver projects.

Some project management methodologies simply define principles, like Agile. Others define a stack load of themes, principles and processes, such as Prince2. So, when deciding what methodology to use in a project, you need to consider the simplicity or complexity of the project as well as its ability to deliver the most value to the client with the least impact on those delivering it.

Below I’m going to give you a brief overview of some of the most popular methodologies used so that you can understand some of the valuable takeaways for delivering projects within a digital agency.

However, before I start I must say that while there are many methodologies out there, there is no ‘right’ one to use. Ultimately the best methodology is what makes sense and is most suitable for the project, team and of course the client.

The 'Waterfall Project Management' Technique

Waterfall project management handles things sequentially, from concept and planning right the way through to project completion. Nobody knows who the author of the Waterfall project methodology was - however it is believed that this traditional method was established in 1970 by software developers.


digital project manager traits

Image courtesy of Smartsheet

Project managers prefer to use this methodology if there is a clear picture of what the final product should be and if the client won’t have any possibility of wanting to change the project’s scope once it’s begun.

Although it doesn’t come without its complications. For example, if any changes occur in a client’s needs or priorities this will most certainly disrupt the sequence of tasks, making it difficult to manage.


  • The model is simple and easy to understand and use
  • Easy to manage – as every phase consists of a review process and specific deliverables to be achieved before moving on
  • Good for small projects that contain clear requirements


  • Not suitable for long or ongoing projects
  • Not appropriate for requirements that have a high probability of changing
  • All tasks and deliverables are based on documented requirements, so a client might not see what will be delivered until it’s almost completed

Agile Collaboration

Agile project management focuses on adaptability to changing situations and constant, regular feedback.


digital project manager traits

Image courtesy of SEMReportCard

The core of Agile methodology was developed in 2001 in written form – Agile Manifesto of Software Development and it was considered as groundbreaking, putting forth a mindset on delivering value and collaborating with customers. The four main values are:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

Agile might not be the best option in all circumstances, but it does have the potential to create a project that meets the needs of your clients effectively.


  • Highly active and collaborative - provides excellent visibility in terms of progress tracking
  • Makes decision making easier & faster – able to respond to issues and problems as they arise
  • Encourages feedback in every step of the process


  • Can lose sight of what it is you're trying to achieve
  • Can be demanding on the users' time
  • Costs can increase


Projects in Controlled Environments, more commonly known as Prince2, is the most widely practiced project methodology, used in over 150 countries. Prince2 is a very process-oriented methodology, dividing projects into multiple stages, each with their own plans and processes to follow.

The Prince2 method is built on these 7 principles:

digital project manager traits

Image courtesy of P2 Tech Academy



  • Widely recognised and understood
  • Every project has a defined lifecycle that is periodically reviewed to check that the project is still viable
  • Step by step method from project conception to closure - focus on deliverables gives the project an organised and controlled process


  • Lots of documentation and very process heavy from start to finish
  • Inflexible change control procedures discourage ‘good’ change from occurring
  • Prince2 is a very complex method and cannot be carried out without specialist training

For us here at Zazzle Media, our project management approach has been about joining the agile revolution as we feel that being agile is key to staying at the cutting edge of a changing industry.

Change is inevitable and it’s certainly a priority for most agencies to scale up and attract larger and more prestigious clients, as well as the best talent. Therefore, it’s important to embrace change but how do you remain agile in your delivery while scaling up from a small – large sized agency?

The clue is most definitely in the name. It’s important to have a good relationship with our clients – it’s about being able to collaborate, communicate in an honest and transparent way and be able to respond to change.

Being agile in our approach means we are able to embrace the unexpected by listening, responding and adapting to the demands of both our clients and the industry.

Impactful Involvement

Managing a digital agency isn’t always easy and we’ve grown at an incredible rate since being founded in 2009. Working within the operations team, I’m constantly having to learn which systems, processes and methodologies are important to fight for and which are better to let go of as we continue to grow. It’s important to streamline and standardise processes, workflow, tools and templates to ensure a consistent level of quality and ROI across projects.

One of the biggest changes I have been involved in to date has been the implementation of Teamwork Projects into the agency. We needed to find a way to effectively manage the growing amount of work and people involved in our projects. So, we needed a project management tool that would allow us to collaborate internally and manage the needs of our clients. We were fast outgrowing our previous project management tool and needed a solution fast!

We trialled a number of tools on the market, and made the decision to invest in Teamwork. It was user friendly, had the majority of the features we required and it was also very similar to our previous system meaning the transition for our delivery teams would be a little easier.

The time tracking feature has been of vital importance to us as we have grown. The feature has enabled us to track the amount of time the teams are spending on certain tasks and on particular clients where this was not possible before.

Other examples of where our operational needs have changed as we’ve grown include:

  • Investing in resources and platforms that assist us to meet our long-term goals
  • Investing in tools that save us time and/or money
  • Creating a client on-boarding process
  • Automating reports
  • Outsourcing to our sister agency
  • Streamlining our monthly planning and task importing process


Is all the above all it takes to be a successful project manager? Of course not. Successful project managers are people who are driven to succeed and never lose sight of the bigger picture.

Creating realistic project plans, budgets, estimating time and effort and much more are all things that any good project manager must do. However, keeping everything organised and your delivery teams informed and happy is critical to success. These are skills you need to learn, achieve and master.

You’ll rarely find two project managers with the same training, background and skill set. We’re often one of a kind, but ultimately drawn together by a drive to get things done.

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