Structuring a Digital Team

For better or worse, of all marketing and communications mediums, digital mystifies our host companies and customers the most. There’s the stakeholder who understands digital (let’s call her the “knowledgeable” stakeholder), the stakeholder who understands he’s out of his depth (let’s call him “clueless”), and then my favorite: the clueless stakeholder that thinks she’s knowledgeable (let’s call her, generously, “misguided”). There are also infinite flavors in between, so when structuring your digital team, you might find it difficult to get the buy-in you need and also apply the lessons you’ve learned from other mediums that will set your team up for success. Your digital process is going to need to be flexible, so chances are you’re going to want an adaptive team structure, and agile people to fill it.

So what does this look like? Well, for the knowledgeable stakeholders and clients, you’ll need mostly doers to follow directions. For the unknowledgeable, you’ll need thinkers who can define challenges and offer solutions. For the misguided, you’ll need first-rate, persuasive listeners, who can understand the motivations behind poorly conceived direction and offer up better and appropriate solutions. Finally, regardless of what flavor of customer or stakeholder you’re partnering with, you need team members with skills to document and demonstrate the solutions you will be proposing.

This is a useful starting point for thinking about your structure, but it’s likely still hazy. Fortunately, each of these types of team members has a job description. Account Managers, Strategists, and Business Analysts head the list of thinkers and persuaders. Project Managers, User Experience Artists, Graphic Designers, and Content Editors do the bulk of the documentation and demonstration, and your doers are your Programmers and Production Artists who come in all different varieties. If you put together a team that checks off all these boxes, then you’re 80% of the way there.

In my experience, 80% is about as far as the typical studio gets. That’s because no one can tell you how to structure the last 20%. You won’t find it written in an article like this, and if you do, it won’t work. Your studio and your team need to figure out the last 20% for themselves…but I can offer some principles that will help:

  • Although it’s useful to understand you need doers, documenters, and thinkers, try to hire people that have experience and expertise in all three. Understanding the challenges of others on the team provides the adaptability you desire.
  • To build on the point above, as your projects move through thinking, documenting, and doing, allow for ample overlap. Your doers have a stake in documentation, so get their input and engage your documenters with thinking.
  • To build on that point, while the process can overlap, don’t let the swim lanes merge. Give everyone a role they should own, ask that they listen to others, and then allow them to decide for themselves the best approach. And tell them to be prepared to defend those decisions.

If you put this structure in place, your studio will have the personnel ready to roll with the vagaries of digital delivery, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it has the process locked down – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are simply too many variables to definitively say who should be doing what and when, so hire the right talent, provide them a framework to work within and then trust them to make the right judgment calls. In other words, give them their roles, and let them figure out how to own their responsibilities. If you pay close attention, an adaptive process will emerge. At my current place of work, we call it “flexible within the framework,” and if you populate it with the right team members and the right mix of talent, it will get you as close to a finely tuned digital team as you can get.

Matt Galemmo, the Interactive Team Lead within the Cella Studio at Merck Creative Services, grew up embracing the internet revolution in the 90s and has dedicated his professional career to discovering practical applications from the technological to the theoretical. Having worked in publishing, commercial marketing, learning and development, and now pharmaceuticals, Matt has made it a habit to habitually rethink challenges, embracing change, and drive organizational evolution.

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