Andy Hawthorne

Andy Hawthorne

Projects, photos and running

05 May 2020

When Is a Project a Project?

Reading time: 4 minute(s) - 800 words

It sounds easy to work out. But sometimes the distinction between a project and business-as-usual seem blurred.

Digital agencies core work is for external clients. And almost all work carried out could be a project.

That’s because:

  • The work will need finishing in a given timescale
  • It’ll be unique to that client
  • The output is likely to cause change in the client company
  • The agency will use a cross-department team to get the work done
  • There will be uncertainty about meeting the brief 

Great, so we have a project, then?

Not always. Let’s see why.


The work of a digital agency is for external clients in most cases. So the scenario I’ve described above is business-as-usual for the given agency.

Let’s tease that out some more.

The nature of the work for a given client is often called a project. Inside the agency itself. It’s an acknowledgement of the lifecycle of the work.

The work, for all intents and purposes, it is a project at that point. Or it feels like one.

Cross-functional teams

Let’s say the client wants a new website. From scratch. So there’ll be:

  • Design
  • Coding and development work
  • Testing

To name a few elements. Let’s talk about the people. It’ll involve:

  • The accounts team
  • Designers
  • Developers
  • Testers

There’ll be stakeholders too. Both for the client and inside the agency. 

So we have a cross-functional team doing the work. 

A predefined end

The work will not run forever, either. The website will get built. It will go live and start working for the client. 

It gets interesting with the work to maintain and update it. It will become business-as-usual for the agency. Because the work will be part of the daily workflow. 

The change factor

Let’s stay with the idea that the work was a website build. Where does the change factor kick in?

Who and how will the organisation be different as a result of this work?

The agency itself will change in the sense that it has the experience of the new build under its belt.

That could mean it can now approach other potential clients in the same business area. 

It will likely mean the agency now has a bigger maintenance work cycle. 

If the client has hired the agency to do the marketing work for their new website, that’ll go into the workflow, too. 

What about for the client?

It depends on the nature of the build. But lets say it’s an e-commerce website. There will be an increased revenue stream, new online customers etc. 


Each new piece of work the agency takes on is unique in its own way. 

For the client, the task they’ve given the agency is likely to be unique to them.

So that box is also ticked. 


This is where there is some deviation. Or there could be. For the work to be a project, the uncertainty factor has to exist.  

That’s because change by its definition creates uncertainty. And uncertainty leads to risk.

The agency doesn’t have risk to that extent. They’ve raised a contract with their client. And the work they’re undertaking is what they do. It’s their business-as-usual - you could argue.

The agency view

In my experience, digital agencies don’t use traditional project management techniques.

Because the work being carried out is for an external client, you could argue that the agency is a supplier. The project (if it is one) is managed beyond the agency.

Foe the agency, the work has an agreed deadline. They’ll be paid by the client on the basis of the work being completed by then. All of which adds complications to the view about whether the work is a project or not.

Why does it matter?

This one is simple.

If the agency treats the work as a project, they’ll work hard to get a detailed brief. They’ll work hard to make sure the tolerances for the work are well understood. That already takes out some of the uncertainty. And that’s a good thing.


Any project management methodology has tailoring at its core. Digital agencies will benefit from employing project management techniques because it helps to reduce the uncertainty. And it helps to get work completed.

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