Adoption of project management software has been on an upswing for years. The benefits of having all project team members use the same tool extend to project teams of all stripes. That’s why it is crucial for creative project teams to know how these tools impact their work.

Managers who lead creative projects should care about this question: Lack of project management software was cited as one of the biggest pain points for agencies in HubSpot’s Marketing Agency Growth Report 2018.

This follows research done in 2015 from Capterra which found that two in three companies communicate with clients using project management software. Accordingly, 52 percent of project managers said that team communication “significantly improved” when they started using project management software.

But choosing the wrong tool for your team presents real risks. The same research report from Capterra found that the more money an organization spent on project management software, the less likely they were to be satisfied. If you overpay for software that doesn’t have the features you need, your creative projects could crash to a halt.

The state of project management software for creatives

To help your own team cross this conundrum, GetApp surveyed more than 140 people who work in North American creative roles and use project management software on at least a weekly basis. (More information on our methodology is at the end of this article.) The data will help managers tasked with leading creative projects learn how project management software can boost team collaboration.

Key Findings

  • 46 percent of project team members in creative industries use project management software every day.
  • 83 percent of project team members in creative industries use project management software with visual features. (Kanban boards, drag-and-drop cards, “drill down” viewing options, etc.)
  • Task creation and assignments are cited as the biggest challenges of using visual project management software.
  • Task management features were the most important features when selecting project management software for creatives.

Recommendations

  • Review your project workload and divide projects according to whether they are formal or less formal.
  • Confirm if your team needs project management software or a social collaboration tool.
  • Discuss and demo your tool of choice for clients prior to project kickoff.

Table of contents

Intro

Project management on a creative team looks very different than it does on an enterprise IT team. For example, a project manager in a digital agency might use the Agile methodology to merge project management processes with account management for clients.

“My role at After Digital isn’t your typical project management position, it’s an amalgamation of the skillsets found across both project management and account management, with a clear understanding of agile processes,” explains Ashleigh Cameron of After Digital, a UK-based agency that helps clients with their digital transformations.

Cameron says that she’s involved at the start of new client engagements. Then, she serves as each client’s point of contact for their project with the agency. Her responsibilities include:

  • Writing functional specifications;
  • Scheduling and managing client sprints;
  • Working with After Digital’s creative and technical teams to meet project objectives;
  • Overseeing progress towards project budgets and deadlines.

“I primarily work with our internal teams in Glasgow and Manchester at After Digital, but often split my time working alongside incumbent digital teams on the client’s side. It’s great to get the opportunity to work in-house with our clients – to get a proper feel for the brand, objectives, challenges, and the people that you’re delivering the project with. As collaboration and constant communication are so key to our process, working on site with clients is a regular occurrence.”

Her answer shows how complex creative project management is. In some ways, it’s even more multi-faceted than usual.

Creative projects can have high numbers of stakeholders who work on teams with competing priorities (like brand marketing versus product management). Along with sticking to budgets and deadlines, creative project leads must manage sprints, brand messaging, cross-team collaboration, and stakeholder questions.

When the end goal is to solve an ambiguous business problem (like digital transformation), it won’t take much for project managers to feel like they do everything and nothing. That’s why project management software for creatives plays such a crucial role. Our research explores that role in detail. We’ll share how software is currently used by creative teams and explain.

Frequency of using project management software

We began by asking respondents how often they use project management software to stay connected with coworkers on projects. We defined “project management software” as any tool with the following features:

  • Task management
  • Time tracking
  • Collaboration (chat, @mentions, etc.)
  • Activity streams
  • File sharing
  • Project roadmaps
  • Project reporting

Graph showing frequency of creative teams using project management tools

Key takeaway: 46 percent of creative project team members use project management software every day.

Using project management software on at least a weekly basis was required to take this survey. Within this group, we found that project management software plays a key role in creative teams’ workflows.

Nearly half of all respondents said they use project management software on a daily basis. One in four (25 percent) use project management software several times per day, while nearly one in three (29 percent) use it weekly.

Far from buying software that goes unused, most of the project team members we surveyed —71 percent— are daily active users. This shows that software plays a key role in creative projects.

Using project management software with visual features

Next, we asked respondents if their project management software has visual functions including Kanban boards, drag-and-drop cards, and/or “drill down” viewing options:

Graph showing use of project management software with visual functions

Key takeaway: 83 percent of creative project team members use project management software with visual functions.

As expected, the vast majority of project team members in creative industries use project management software with features that are visual in nature. This is due in large part to the fact that project management methods like Agile have reached mainstream status in recent years. As an increasing number of teams turned to software for their projects, vendors built new features that appealed to diverse teams.

For example, Trello —collaboration software that organizes projects via cards and boards— mimics the Kanban project management method. (You can learn more about Kanban here.) Trello surpassed one million daily active users back in 2016; less than one year later, Atlassian bought it for $425 million.

Trello’s popularity proves that project management is getting more diverse. From ad agencies that need digital storyboards to PR teams that must build and ship campaigns, project management is no longer the sole domain of enterprise IT— and software vendors took note.

Benefits of visual project management software features

We also asked respondents what the biggest benefits of using visual project management software features are. There was a strong consensus that transparency was best:

Graph showing benefits of visual project management software features

Key takeaway: 21 percent of creative project team members say the biggest benefit of visual project management features is having colleagues see what everyone else is working on.

Projects change faster than ever before, which is one reason why project management methods like Agile and Kanban have become so popular. Their goal is to help teams finish more work via shorter, more frequent cycles.

Within this context, it makes sense that denoting project changes with features like drag-and-drop cards (16 percent) and seeing how colleagues’ work interconnects (15 percent) were also cited as key benefits of visual project management software features.

Mandatory adoption is a key part of making new project management software succeed. This question’s results explain why: When all members of a project team work within the same tool, collaboration becomes much less painless. As additional answers to our survey showed, collaboration is *the* motivation for creative project teams to use project management software.

Challenges of using visual project management software

Although project management software can help keep creative teams on track, it’s also not a Band-Aid. Research conducted by GetApp in 2016 found that two thirds of project managers were open to switching software within the next year. To understand the problems that today’s software users face, we asked what their biggest challenges are:

Graph showing the challenges of using visual project management software

Key takeaway: Task creation and assignments are cited as the biggest challenge of using visual project management software.

Software reviews cite a common theme: No matter which software’s being discussed, readers want it to be intuitive. Since task tracking is a key part of project management, it also plays a crucial role in software. If users can’t easily learn how to track tasks, this becomes a barrier to adoption.

Not having enough document storage (13 percent) or collaboration features (12 percent) were cited as the follow-up challenges. These results suggest that creative projects tend to be less structured than others, such as projects to build software.

If creative project teams rely largely on features like task management, document storage, and collaboration, it implies that other features like Gantt charts, work-in-progress limits, swim lanes, etc. aren’t used as often.

This suggests that project managers who lead creative teams should shop for software that gets high marks for task management and collaboration features. Tool options should also offer document storage or integrate with popular file sharing apps like Box and Dropbox.

Most used project management software features

Which features get the most use in project management software for creatives? Not necessarily the ones you might think:

Graph showing the most used project management software features

Key takeaway: Activity feed is the project management software feature that creative project teams use most.

Following on previous results, the answers to this question showed that the activity feed is the most project management software feature. Other collaboration features like file sharing (14 percent), document collaboration (nine percent), and drag-and-drop cards (eight percent) were also cited as essential.

Surprisingly, Kanban boards weren’t rated as highly. Just four percent of respondents said that they use Kanban boards most. Given the visual nature of creative work, we assumed that it would be a natural fit for the Kanban method. This further suggests that rather than using a project management method, creative teams use project management software to collaborate with colleagues.

Most important features when selecting project management software

Finally, we asked respondents what the most important features were when selecting project management software. We wanted to see if there was a gap between the features that shoppers thought they needed versus the ones they use most:

Graph showing the most important features when selecting project management software

Key takeaway: Task management features were the most important for creative project teams when buying project management software.

This result reiterates how important tasks are – 15 percent of responses said that task management features were most important when they shopped for project management software. Notably, most respondents also said that the task creation and assignments in their tools of choice are not intuitive when asked what the biggest challenges are when using their project management software.

Task management was rated far higher as essential than other project management features, including Gantt charts. They also rank far higher than collaboration features: Just four percent of responses said that those were most important when selecting project management software. This is despite the fact that respondents said they use collaboration features (like the activity feed and file sharing) most often.

These results suggest misalignment between the features that creative project management software buyers think they need versus the features that they end up using most.

Conclusion

Our survey’s results show that project teams doing creative work rely more strongly on a tool’s collaboration features than on more technical project management features. This means that when it comes to project management software for creatives, it’s important to shop for tools that support less structured projects.

In less structured projects, the order of tasks might be unclear and planning is less rigid. A report on this subject by Gartner (available to clients) defines “nonroutine, unstructured work” like this:

“Nonroutine work involves more activities that cannot be completely described as a detailed sequence of instructions — for example, counseling, marketing, event coordination, emergency management, scientific research and strategy development. These tasks require skills, experience, creativity, problem solving and collaboration more than strict adherence to specific workflows.”

Action item for creative project team leads

Nonroutine work is more focused on improving team dynamics than designing effective control systems. With this in mind, creative project team leads should shop for software that gets high ratings for collaboration features. Sample features include:

  • @mentions;
  • Activity feeds;
  • Being able to add, follow, and comment on tasks;
  • Collaborative workspaces;
  • Ability to attach visual assets, like mockups;
  • Live chat or an integration with your team’s communications app of choice, like Slack.

To make sure you shop for tools with the features your team needs, start by writing down the top five to 10 things you need software to do. You might not think you need project management software with @mentions – but you likely need a better way to get colleagues’ attention. If you start with knowing why you need project management software, you’ll make a more informed buying choice.

Once your expectations are clear, use a tool like GetApp’s software scorecard to compare project management tools. Once you’ve selected which features matter most to you, you can compare up to four tools side by side. If you need specific features (like task management), this will help you choose the best tool for your team.

Project management software scorecard

Methodology

GetApp used Amazon Mechanical Turk to survey members of creative teams based in North America who use project management software on at least a weekly basis. The survey was conducted in February 2018 and received a total of 143 qualified respondents with the following industry breakdown:

  • Digital marketing (34 percent)
  • Advertising (26 percent)
  • Web design/development (24 percent)
  • Entertainment/media (12 percent)
  • PR (four percent)