The word was that the company had described the work as a project to win the contract. However, the work wasn't seen as a project.
Was it a project or not?
First, I would say that if the team member did not think he was working on a project, he was not. No matter if there was a project name that he put on his time sheet each week.
How could it have seemed to be a project?
My guess is that the Project Manager and executive saw it as a project. There was an account code assigned and surely there were reports to the customer on the deliverables. And, hopefully, there was an end result in mind.
However, if the project team members did not see any sign of this being a project, it surely wasn't to them. (If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it...)
If there were regular team meetings with outcomes the team was working toward - that would be seen as a project. Even if there weren't team meetings, but regular communication from the Project Manager, possibly outlining the overall status of the project, there could be some semblance of a project.
What was the missing key?
I would say communication from and to the Project Manager.
So, I guess my colleague was right - this was operations cleverly disguised as a project.