Creative Lives — Project Manager James Dougan: “No one expects you to be an expert right at the beginning”

Posted 14 March 2017 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

They say nothing worthwhile comes easily, and in James Dougan’s case, he was nine months, 100 job applications and 10 interviews deep into graduate life before he landed his first project management job. Starting out at Office Twelve in Leicester, a move to London followed, joining the team at It’s Nice That’s in-house agency INT Works (now Anyways) before relocating to Bath’s Sunhouse Creative as a senior account and operations manager. James fills us in on the adventures of an expert plate-spinner, from his love of lists to learning to switch off at the end of the working day.

James Dougan

Job Title

Senior Account and Operations Manager (Project Manager), Sunhouse Creative (2014–present)

Based

Bath

Clients

BBC Worldwide, Boston Tea Party, Dove, Magnum, Solero

Previous Employment

Project Manager, INT Works, London (2012–2014)
Junior Project Manager, Office Twelve, Leicester (2010–2012)

Education

BA Interactive Design, De Montfort University, Leicester (2007–2010)
Foundation Art and Design, Thames Valley University Reading (2006–2007)

Website
Social Media

Day-to-Day

How would you describe your job?
My current role encompasses a number of different roles across all aspects of the business, from creative ideation through to execution. At its core I am a project manager: receiving briefs from clients, and costing these before briefing the studio. I manage all stages of the process, so that everything is delivered on time and to budget, all the while ensuring the team are well looked after.

I think the real crux of my role is in making sure everyone knows what they’re doing, or what will be done. Ambiguity quickly kills projects; without clarity things don’t happen efficiently or end up costing more than anticipated.

What does a typical working day look like?
It takes me around 45 minutes to walk to work. I start at around 9am and end at 6pm, with the odd early start and late finish.

How did you land your current job?
Through my fiancée Sylvia, who was freelancing there at the time. She saw creative illustrator Chris Malbon (who works at Sunhouse part-time) tweet about it online.

The interview process was possibly one of the least formal I’ve ever had. Rather than applying for a specific role, we met up for a chat to talk about what Sunhouse does and what I had worked on previously. You could tell that we’d work well together.

“Gaining experience comes with time. No one expects you to be an expert right at the beginning.”

Where does the majority of your work take place?
85 percent of my work takes place at my desk and on my computer. We often work with very reactive clients, so being on hand to respond to updates is key. The other 15 percent is either spent in the meeting room on conference calls, or at client meetings.

How collaborative is your role?
Internally we are very collaborative; each person in the studio wears several different hats in addition to their actual job roles and externally we’ve built good, longstanding relationships with a number of print suppliers.

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable is seeing a lovely creative brief come in; it gets everyone excited about the process and eventual outcome. Balancing the workload between team members particularly during busy periods can prove quite taxing. It’s inevitable that there will be peaks and troughs, but working on implementing new processes and improvements during those quiet periods helps to prepare for the next time things get busy.

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
Over the past year we’ve been working on a full pack redesign for one of our major global clients. It has involved a lot of calls, clients, suppliers, and most importantly a lot of lists. I do love a good list.

I worked closely with our senior artworker Kevin, who knows the brand inside out. There were definitely points where the tidal wave of changes seemed overwhelming, but with a calm composure and a solid team behind you, you make it out the other side, and the sense of achievement is brilliant.

“Ambiguity quickly kills projects; without clarity things don’t happen efficiently or end up costing us or the client more than anticipated.”

What skills are essential to your job?
First and foremost you need to be able to spin lots of plates. Other than that, good time management, an ability to build and maintain relationships, an understanding of the creative process (including the kinds of programmes used and printing techniques), good presentation skills, a keen eye for detail, an unnatural need to file things, and just generally being nice and approachable.

What tools do you use most for your work?
An iPhone 6 and a 15” MacBook Pro, Photoshop, Illustrator, Adobe Acrobat, InDesign. Microsoft Office, Google Docs, Mac Mail and Outlook.

There are also project management and timesheet apps including Sage50 (accounting software for quoting and financial management); Synergist (for job management, workflow and time sheets); Basecamp (for project management and time tracking); Highrise (for client contact reports and job history) and Trello (for managing and documenting feedback).

Sunhouse Creative’s work for Magnum, 2014

Sunhouse Creative’s work for Magnum, 2014

Sunhouse Creative’s work for Magnum, 2014

Sunhouse Creative’s work for Magnum, 2014

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How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
I always thought that I’d either be a vet or an astrophysicist. The latter nearly came true, but life happened and I was sent off on a more creative jaunt instead.

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
Though my course itself wasn’t directly beneficial in my current line of work, it equipped me with skills across the Adobe Creative Suite. I’d say that my overall university experience was much more beneficial. It taught me independence, time management, and helped me craft both my own approach to work and the way I work with others.

What were your first jobs?
I’ve been a paperboy, collected glasses at the local pub, and also worked the bars at Royal Ascot week, though my first real job was actually as a pharmacy assistant.

Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career?
I left university in the depths of the financial crisis, so finding work was tough, and I initially stayed in Leicester to help keep costs down. It took nine months, well over 100 job applications, and 10 interviews across the country for someone to give me a chance. The lovely directors at Office Twelve gave me my first shot, even though my education and experience wasn’t exactly in line with the role I applied for.

“I don’t think I expected quite the level of responsibility and ownership across all aspects of every project you are running at any given time.”

Sunhouse Creative’s redesign for the Southwest’s famous Boston Tea Party

Sunhouse Creative’s redesign for the Southwest’s famous Boston Tea Party

Sunhouse Creative’s redesign for the Southwest’s famous Boston Tea Party

Sunhouse Creative’s redesign for the Southwest’s famous Boston Tea Party

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Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
I learnt a hell of a lot during my time at Office Twelve thanks to my wonderful senior project manager Marie. I made it my mission to ensure everything I did was up to her excellent and exacting standards. One of the best projects we did there was refitting LG’s showroom space to display all their latest and greatest products at their headquarters in Slough. We worked with five different LG teams of stakeholders and over 20 different suppliers from woodworkers, metalworkers, plumbers, electricians, printers, through to the internal design, artwork, and extended project management teams at Office Twelve. It was a beast of a project, but it came in exactly on time, and slightly under budget.

What’s been your biggest challenge?  
Learning to quickly adapt to ever changing situations and actioning changes efficiently. It helps knowing how to prioritise when you have lots of distractions around you, while also being ‘the knowledge’ on your projects, and enabling decisions to be made quickly and confidently.

Is your job what you thought it would be?
Until I started in project and account management, I had no real idea what would be involved. I knew there’d likely be a degree of managing of people and things, and probably a lot of calls and meetings with clients and suppliers. Initially the thought of picking up the phone to a stranger and being able to talk with conviction seemed really alien to me.

I don’t think I expected quite the level of responsibility and ownership across all aspects of every project you are running at any given time. It certainly lends itself to the small control freak within me to be able to manage and have such an influence across such a range of projects.

Inside the studio at Sunhouse Creative

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?
Clocking up more experience in my current role is definitely the plan of action. As the breadth of my experience has gathered pace over the past few years, I’ve found myself gravitating towards the process and operations side of projects, as opposed to direct client liaison and management – this seems to better align to my set of core skills.

Could you do this job forever?
I probably could. Whether I would want to do this job forever is another question entirely. As time passes, each person’s role tends to develop to be more in line with either their, or their company’s, mandate. In an ideal world your ambitions align with that of the company you’re working for, and so long as you are enjoying what you’re doing, then I expect you could quite happily stay forever.

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
There are a number of different options. You could do some job hopping to quickly work your way up the career and remuneration ladder to account director or project director. These days job hopping seems to be frowned upon, but the more time you invest in one place, the more opportunities will arise. People still respect invested time, plus it’ll make for a cleaner CV. On the flipside, moving out to a smaller hub of creativity might be your bag, such as Leicester for retail design, or the South West for FMCG [Fast Moving Consumer Goods] and branding.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a project manager?
If you get a thrill from writing lists, building good relationships, and have a keen eye for detail and design, you may naturally be inclined towards project management within the design industry. The true test will be seeing how you react when under pressure, and having to deliver any number of things under tight timings and a strict budget.

Gaining experience comes with time. No one expects you to be an expert right at the beginning, so long as you approach everything with an open mind, take lots of notes, and ask lots of questions. Like any good relationship, the most important thing is to be as clear and open as possible, to admit when you don’t understand something, and to ask for help if you need it.

Posted 14 March 2017 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Graphic Design, Design
Mentions: Sunhouse Creative
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