Like many in marketing, creatives have been doing more with less for a long time. Last year, however, brought things to new extremes.
Despite resources cut by about one-third, in both staffing (31%) and budget cuts (31%) more than half (58%) of creative and design teams say they were met with larger workloads.
Those are among the findings from the 2021 Creative Management Report, which polled over 400 creatives and marketers. The fourth annual report is a collaborative effort fielded by inMotionNow and InSource, an industry association for creatives.
The study shows creative teams rose to the occasion. They brought their problem-solving talents and adaptability together in a time when marketing and the business needed it the most.
For example, more than half (57%) of creatives say they became more productive. Further, two-thirds said they were asked to learn new technical skills such as digital interactivity, video, live streaming, and podcasting.
These skills proved essential to marketing as work went remote, events went virtual, and most of the budget went to digital. In other words, marketing became increasingly reliant on creatives during the pandemic and those teams saw their standing in marketing grow.
As Matthew Rayback, creative director at Adobe wrote in the report, creativity and design is “not just art or content execution, but creative thinking and creative problem-solving.”
Beware of creative burnout
One of the more worrisome themes woven throughout the findings and sentiment of the survey was burnout. The research shows creatives aren’t just being asked for more work with fewer resources – but facing such requests under the added pressure of even tighter deadlines.
The survey found the top challenges facing creatives are:
- The speed at which they are expected to work (73%)
- Having enough resources (61%), and
- The volume of creative content demand (59%).
Creatives can only do more with less for so long, and then something has to change. Creative leaders like Jim Nicholas, at the Florida Power & Light Company, recommends focusing on process and technology.
“For my team, it’s all about efficiency and putting a premium on the creative team’s time,” he says in the report. “I want our creative resources focused on high-value work.”
The key is to focus on the activities that drive results for the business, such as finding ways to automate low-value tasks.
Alignment is the secret to better content
Driving the best possible content outcomes requires alignment between the creative and marketing teams. Alignment means both teams have agreed on processes, priorities, and standards. Below are 9 actionable tips that leaders in both camps can implement to that end.
1. Foster a common vocabulary
Creatives and marketers tend to use different vocabulary. Marketers speak to data while creatives speak to design. It’s important to create a common vocabulary around customers, objectives, deliverables, campaigns, and results.
2. Define creative projects by tiers
All creative projects are not equal. A strategic omnichannel campaign that unfolds over months requires more creative assets than a one-off graphic request. On the other hand, too many one-off graphic requests eat up time that should be spent on that strategic campaign. Both marketing and creative teams must define projects by tiers so both teams understand the needs and prioritize accordingly.
3. Standardize creative requests and briefs
Too many creative projects start with an email request lacking the detail a designer needs to get started. Consequently, this evolves into a time-consuming back-and-forth email exchange to elicit the information needed. It’s a crucial mistake because it derails the creative process in the beginning. Standardizing requests – preferably on a dedicated system other than email – goes a long way toward saving time and frustration for everyone involved.
4. Meet to kickoff projects
Some projects are easy – and once requests are standardized – only require a simple form. Others are more complicated and require a meeting. Nobody wants an extra meeting, but strategic marketing initiatives are worth it. The 2021 Creative Management Report found that among those teams with well-defined processes, 84% meet with the project stakeholders as part of the kickoff.
5. Benchmark what constitutes a “rush” project
Everyone wants their creative projects faster. However, if everything is a priority then nothing is a priority, so creative and marketing need to agree on what constitutes a “rush” job.
Data the team collects from tracking creative projects is useful for identifying benchmarks. For example, Franklin Energy, which produces an astonishing 1,600 creative projects a year, has determined that on average the typical creative project takes 30 days. Therefore, any project requested with a deadline of fewer than 30 days is categorized as a rush project.
6. Eliminate scope creep
One part of putting some structure behind project requests is to put parameters around changes. Often what starts as a minor change to an initial request can snowball into several changes. Suddenly, a minor change that should have taken a few minutes is like a whole new project. In turn, that siphons resources from the agreed priorities and interferes with deadlines.
7. Provide visibility into status and progress
When marketing doesn’t have visibility into creative work, one of two things happens:
- Creative becomes a black box where marketing has no idea where things stand, or
- Creative becomes a button of sorts, where marketing puts a request in and creative magically comes out the other side.
Both of these perceptions lead to unmanaged expectations.
Once a project is started, creative teams need to provide visibility into its progress and status. There are many ways this can be conveyed. For example, some creative teams present a project slide in a periodic meeting or use a project management tool that provides stakeholders with self-serve visibility into the status of their requests.
8. Develop a process for reviews and approvals
Sometimes the review and approval of a creative project can go sideways. There are many reasons for this including:
- Duplicative, conflicting, or unclear feedback
- Sidebar conversations that leave out key team members
- Out-of-sequence reviews
A clear process for review and approval will make this step smoother. A good review process has three characteristics:
- It’s easy for reviewers to give feedback
- Routing – who needs to review and when – is defined
- Reviewers have deadlines
Sometimes a limit to the number of review rounds is useful as well. However, if a project goes through more than three rounds of review without being approved, chances are the problem isn’t the review process, but the creative brief and project kickoff process.
9. Create an executive dashboard
Creatives often struggle to demonstrate value in a language marketing and business understand. When building out processes for managing creative projects, be sure to add a step for capturing metrics around those projects.
What metrics should you track? Here again, Franklin Energy is an illustrative example.
Cherise Oleson, a senior creative director with Franklin Energy, asked her executive team what metrics they thought were useful. Based on their feedback, she developed a quarterly dashboard with six key metrics:
- Total projects currently in progress
- Total projects completed YTD
- Top 10 highest rounds of review YTD
- Average hands-on design time
- Projects per team member, and
- Average time to complete projects.
If you want to learn more about the dashboard they use and why, Cherise presented a short 30-minute session at Adobe MAX – which was recorded and is freely available – that puts it all into context.
A feedback loop for creative performance
The same study last year found about half (55%) of creatives rarely or never see performance data stemming from campaigns. This means the metrics marketing uses to measure the effectiveness of their campaigns never makes their way back to the creative team. While that’s not a tip for improving efficiency, per se, it’s an important way to drive efficacy and alignment between creativity and marketing.
Guest author: Elise Hauser is a senior marketing manager at inMotionNow, a leading provider of marketing resource management solutions for marketing and creative teams. She has led the creative management research process and publication of the report for the last three years.