Being a Product Manager in an Agency

Article by Katie Foster
4 minutes 31 seconds read

Editor’s Note: In the following blog post, our product manager interviewed herself about herself to illustrate the role of product management in an experience design agency.

How can you be a product manager in an agency? Do you guys even make products?

It may not seem like it, but experience design agencies like Launch are in the product business, as much as any manufacturer or SaaS company. The key difference is we make products for our clients’ brands, rather than our own, whether that product is an interactive experience, an app or a microsite. As product managers, our job here is the same as it would be in any other company—mostly. We take other companies’ products and build products to support them, starting at whatever part of the product development lifecycle they’re at currently.

But what do product managers even do?

To put it simply, we act as the ambassadors for the product, representing the goals of the end user, the business, and the product team. We work to find a way to meet all of these goals, and if they can’t be met, we prioritize the goals that will make the biggest impact and are the most crucial to success. We start at the beginning, helping to identify the problem to be solved, and the audiences who can be helped by solving it. Then, we work with the business to assess effort, prioritize features, and set KPIs—all while we brainstorm the many forms our solution may take.

Ok, well, how does that work in an agency environment? What do you do at Launch?

Though we are aren’t in every design meeting or working on developing code, product managers do keep track of the product, making sure it’s measuring up to its goals and still working toward solving that initial problem. And we work to ensure teams, clients, and customers are all represented in the evolving solution. In agencies, you don’t always get to define the problem you’re solving or choose a promising audience to target—these things are typically client decisions. You can, however, validate those problems and talk to those markets to make sure you’re being the best partner to your clients.

Where do you fit into the process? Who do you work with?

Product managers fit quite nicely between project management, UX, and strategy. We work with project managers to assess effort, build out scopes, and organize sprints. Then the project managers take over operations while product managers become the product caretaker. UX, strategy, and product collaborate well in the research and ideation arena, after the big research lift is over, UX and strategy can move on to wires, content strategy, or another deliverable. Meanwhile, product sees to it that the design teams adhere to the research (in some cases, a product manager might even churn out high-level wireframes, but I prefer to leave that to the pros). Our role is much heavier in the discovery phases of a project. Once we’ve put a roadmap in place we become less involved, but don’t disappear completely, participating in reviews and user testing during the buildout. Am I being nosy or doing my job? No one will ever know.

So you’re not a project manager?

Product management is discovery-oriented and includes the responsibilities of defining a product, validating it with users, guiding it through engineering, then testing and iterating on the product once in market. When it boils down, product management is a business strategy role.

Project management is more of an operations play and is execution-oriented. They are operational masterminds—able to keep track of ALL company releases and product updates, ensuring that they are tracking on time, have the right resource allocation, and are on a compatible release schedule. I, on the other hand, turn in my time sheets very late (sorry Viv and Sarah).

Got it, so how does product management help the rest of the team?

Think of us like a big human bookmark—making sure everyone is on the same page (eh? eh?). That boils down to:

  • Alignment between clients and the project team
  • Alignment between internal teams and departments
  • Stick up for their team, for the client, and for the clients’ customers
  • Holding the project and client teams accountable to initial requirements
  • Changing requirements as goals, audiences, and markets shift
  • Follow through
  • Ideate for future releases—aka sourcing scope extensions and follow-up projects (insert dancing lady emoji here)

For me, it’s the best of all worlds. I get to work closely with clients, help my team, be an advocate for customers, and stick my nose into all of our project work, without having to worry about ever getting siloed in one area.

What does this mean?

It used to be that you’d only see product managers at organizations that were pure “product” companies. But any agency can benefit from adding a PM. Just remember that any deliverable can be a product and should be treated with the same level of care that a full-blown, investor-funded product would receive. Agencies are fast-paced, multitasking, ever-changing workplace environments. Introducing a product practice provides new levels of accountability, adds a sense of permanence to projects, and allows you to focus on seeing work all the way through.

Now, go get started on those user stories.