I joined Postlight as the Head of Product after a long stint leading teams inside of digital product companies. I had worked in client services earlier in my career, but Postlight was my first leap into a real agency environment. My personal motivation for joining Postlight was to apply my product management expertise to a variety of different problems in different industries with different constraints. But if I’m being honest, I had no idea what it meant to be a PM inside an agency, let alone run a product organization inside an agency.
One of the questions that I’ve been asked constantly since I started is: What’s the difference between being a PM at a product company versus at an agency? Six months in, I finally feel like I have a well-informed opinion.
At the highest level, the competencies needed to be a successful PM at a product org and a PM at an agency are very similar. You need to be able to:
- Articulate and drive a strong product vision and strategy
- Lead a team to execute on that strategy
- Manage all the stakeholders that are invested in the success of the product
And, of course, there are the softer skills of strong communication, deep collaboration with design and engineering, and a growth mindset. But when you look a couple of layers deeper, you’ll find some important differences, which sometimes require a different approach. Here’s the advice I give to in-house PMs interested in joining an agency.
Lean into breadth
At a product company, you gain deep expertise in the industry, the market, the users, and the product you own. As a PM, you’re constantly tapping into that expertise as you move from problem to problem. One project builds on learnings from the last. You connect the dots.
At an agency, PMs drop into new clients and new industries all the time. The ability and desire to dive into brand-new-to-you spaces is critical for PMs at agencies. My first two projects at Postlight were both in the media industry, which (with the exception of being a media consumer) I knew almost nothing about. But, I did my research — I talked to experts, looked at competitors, and subscribed to a bunch of industry-related publications. And I relied on my breadth of knowledge across different types of products to pattern-match what this product needed.
Let timelines rule
As an in-house PM, timelines for projects tend to be fluid. It’s not that the pace is slow per se — although at some companies it certainly is. It’s that without external pressure to get a project out, prioritization gets complicated. Teams often have multiple priorities, some of which are dependent on other teams.
A new priority might pop up, and for better or worse, bump the project you’re working on down on the list. Or scope might increase just a little more as you learn something new from users and bump the timeline out. It’s also harder to flex resources between projects at product orgs because teams are usually well established and focused on their own priorities.
As an agency PM, timelines rule. We commit timelines to a client and we stick with them. Scope fluctuates. We might staff a team up or staff a team down based on scope needs, but timelines hold. Because we keep the teams small and focused on the client’s project, we don’t often experience shifting priorities. And because team members are used to dropping in and out of projects, they’re quick to ramp up and start contributing.
If this sounds daunting, fear not. I’ve found this to be very freeing. Constraints inspire creativity, and when you need to launch an MVP for a brand-new media business in three months, you are vigilant about setting a clear and realistic vision, cutting scope where you need to, driving decisions, and keeping the team well organized so that no one skips a beat. This sort of pressure will keep you laser focused. Embrace it, and you might end up loving it, like I do.
Speak your client’s language
In an agency, you’ll have the opportunity to work with clients of all different backgrounds. From one project to the next, you don’t know who you’re going to get, which keeps things spicy.
Sometimes you’ve got product managers sitting on the other side of the table who speak your language. Sometimes it’s a marketing leader who has worked with product teams before. But sometimes it’s a startup founder without a technical background who has a brilliant product idea but doesn’t know much about how software comes to life.
How you communicate with these three clients is going to vary greatly. The PM stakeholder may want to talk roadmaps, MVPs, wireframes, sprint planning, and user testing, while the non-technical founder may have never heard of these things. Your job is to educate them about the lifecycle of building a digital product so you can properly set expectations, but not overwhelm them with the details that don’t matter to them.
Whether you’re an in-house or an agency PM, you’re generally well advised to spend time understanding what your stakeholders care about and adjusting your communication style accordingly. But at an agency, this can make or break your success.
To start, you’ll need to build a shared vocabulary between your team and the client team with the goal of understanding each other’s domains. When asking your stakeholders for input, it’s important to frame questions around the experience for the user or the result for the business rather than the technical decision.
For example, a non-technical stakeholder likely won’t be able to make a meaningful decision looking at a technical architecture document — in fact, they may find it overwhelming. Consider what user- and business-outcome-related questions you need to ask to give your team confidence that you’ve got the right architecture, and focus your communication there.
Work with the information you’ve got
Inside a product company, the PM generally has access to all the data they might need to make data-driven decisions. In fact, data is so important in the product world that people market themselves as “data-driven PMs.”
I love data and have always used data as a key input for my decision-making. In my previous role, I’d start my day spinning up my top three dashboards and looking at conversion and engagement metrics, digging into anomalies, and segmenting users in different ways to eke out insights. Data was the first place I turned to when I thought “I wonder if…”. But at an agency, client data isn’t always at your fingertips.
I’ve found that some clients are happy to hand over the keys to their business intelligence tools and let you have at it. Some clients are happy to answer your specific data questions, but may not give you access to poke around. Other clients simply don’t have the hard data — either because they don’t have the infrastructure to collect it or because they’re building something from scratch.
You can’t let not having a perfect data set slow down the decision-making on a project. As an agency PM, you need to work with what you’ve got. To be successful, you need to understand what the riskiest assumptions are and come up with a plan to de-risk those. This might take the form of market research, competitive analysis, focused stakeholder or expert interviews, or user research. And sometimes you’ll need to rely on good ol’ product intuition to fill in the gaps.
Put the client relationship first
In strong product companies, a PM’s performance is usually tied to business outcomes. At an agency, the client’s business outcomes are important, but the PM has a lot less direct control over these. What they do have influence over is the relationship.
Every once in a while, agency PMs will come across a situation where the right product decision may not be the right client management decision. The user research may point in one direction, but the client wants to go in another. Of course, as a PM, you’re going to advocate for the user and make a clear business case as to why the product should go in one direction versus the other. But sometimes, despite what feels like clear evidence, your client isn’t sold. This is tough and can be frustrating.
In those scenarios, the PM’s job is to communicate effectively to the client:
- What’s at stake
- What options were considered
- The benefits, risks, and trade-offs of each option
- The recommended option and why it’s recommended
The client may choose to go with the recommendation, or they may choose to go with an alternative solution. As a PM, you should understand why the client chose the path they did (you’ll likely learn something about the client’s business or users or stakeholder needs that you didn’t know!) and then move on.
Most decisions of this sort aren’t big, scary one-way doors, and you’re very likely to still accomplish the goals of the project. But being inflexible or demanding a decision can damage the client relationship, and that’s much harder to come back from.
Six months into my time at Postlight, I’m happy I made the leap. Agency life is scratching the itch I had for variety and helping me grow and stretch in new ways. Not only am I getting to build a lot of new products quickly, but it’s teaching me to be a better communicator, a smarter decision maker, and a stronger relationship builder.
Of course, being a PM at an agency isn’t for everyone. But if these challenges and opportunities appeal to you, it’s worth noting that Postlight is hiring. 🙂