Why You Need a Good Creative Workflow Process
Any organization that does creative work has deliverables and deadlines. Those deliverables — the creative work itself — and its deadlines can be continually disrupted when there isn’t a process for starting, developing, and approving the work. Everyone involved needs to understand the project’s details, what it needs to move forward, who has and hasn’t offered input, and whether it’s on track to be delivered on time.
Having a creative workflow process that tracks and steers all of the work can help avoid confusion, and also saves time and money. Organizations that routinely implement creative workflow processes include graphic design firms, advertising agencies and digital creative agencies (sometimes called simply digital agencies). But many other organizations also implement the process to become more efficient. Some organizations have implemented a creative workflow process that is more old-school — one limited to emails, spreadsheets, meetings, and continual communication. Others use software or software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions to help manage workflow.
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What Is Creative Workflow Management?
Creative workflow management is another term for the process of tracking the workflow on creative projects. Some people also use the term creative operations.
The Phases of Creative Workflow
Every creative workflow process has phases. The process begins with the initial idea for the product, and then moves through creation, development, and completion of the product. The process is often divided into four major phases: definition and ideation, creation, review and approval, and product launch.
Phase One: Definition and Ideation
The first phase includes defining the need for the product, detailing a general idea of the product, and setting a structure to effectively create the project. This phase may include the following tasks:
- Produce the original creative brief, which sets out the product’s purpose, its objectives and goals, its likely audience, the overall budget and timeline, and other basic information.
You can also find additional creative briefs in this article.
- Conduct an initial kickoff meeting with everyone who will be involved in the project.
- Set goals and define metrics for the project. You can use the SMART goals approach, which encourages setting goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound.
- Define project milestones and establish metrics to measure the project’s success.
- Outline your team’s structure and team member responsibilities.
- Identify hurdles and risks to effectively complete the project. You can read more about project risk management in “Project Risk Management: Best Practices, Tips, and Expert Advice.”
- Research your client’s competitors to understand how to differentiate the product.
- Identify and begin using tools that can help, including creative project templates and visual timelines.
- Set up a structure to manage the workload of the project team.
- Begin working with your team and client on a mood board, which is a collection of images and words that roughly defines the ultimate look and feel of the finished product.
- Manage expectations with your client about what the final product can achieve.
Phase Two: Creation
The second phase involves the real work of creating the product. The phase may include the following tasks:
- Generate ideas with the team through brainstorming and other techniques.
Hillary Kelbick, President and Chief Executive Officer of MKP Communications, says the original brainstorming meeting is crucial. It’s also important to keep the tone of the meeting to strictly brainstorming: “At this point, there are no bad ideas,” she advises. “The rule is we write everything down — even if it sounds stupid. Throw everything you’ve got against the wall. There’s nothing silly at this point because you don’t know where the creative energy is going to come from. Embrace everything.
”You can learn more about brainstorming techniques by reading “Discover the Best Brainstorming Approaches and Techniques to Motivate Your Team.”
- Chronicle and share all of those ideas with the team.
- Assess and learn from similar products in the marketplace, including your client’s competitors.
- Develop a collaborative work environment, not only by hiring people who work well with others but also by conducting regular short meetings to discuss goals and progress. This is also a good time to establish other structures that motivate your team to work collaboratively.
- Use collaboration software and other tools that can help your team work more effectively together.
- Regularly give updates to your client on your team’s ideas, and get reactions from the client about the ideas presented and possible directions for the project.
Kat Yowell, a Senior Designer with Lucid Agency, a digital marketing agency with offices in Phoenix and Chicago, says her team may share some written content or a design idea with the client in the early stages. In building a website, for example, the team will likely share wireframes of a potential website or web page — a design showing what elements and interface elements will exist on important pages. The team may also share a more fully developed interior web page to give the client “an idea of how that’s going to feel before we launch into the rest.”
The idea is just to check in with the client, to “[make] sure we’re on the right path,” Yowell adds.
- Consider a range of content versions of the same overall product. For example, you can use the information for a brochure for a smaller infographic, a photo, a Instagram post, etc.
- Effectively manage your design files and make sure to follow a strict naming convention for all files.
- Create a workplace structure that helps employees prioritize work.
- Ensure team members meet all deadlines as the project develops.
- Create status reports that detail the project’s development.
- Continue to communicate with your client and provide frequent status updates.
- Track the time all team members spend on the project to better understand workload. Measure the time spent against the overall budget and use it to provide detail to your client in their bill.
Phase Three: Review and Approval
This phase involves the actual development of the product, and may include the following action items:
- Get your manager’s final internal approval on the product to then send to your client. You can learn more about setting up an effective approval process at your organization in “How to Create an Approval Process and Workflow.”
- Share content with your client. This may require using tools that allow you to transfer large video or design files.
- Assess and then create a structure for your review cycles, so everyone involved understands the necessary limits on the number of cycles.
- Use design review software and other tools that can centralize feedback from various people and that maintains clarity on the most updated version of the product.
- Gather design and other feedback from clients, and use a structure to manage, organize, and respond to that feedback.
- Track the amount and level of feedback, and determine whether it fits within the guidelines of the original contract or if you may need to bill extra time.
- Use a project management and communications tool — rather than email — for more efficient discussions, both internally and with the client.
- Secure final approval of the product from your client.
Phase Four: Product Launch:
The final — and most exciting — phase is the product launch, which typically means distributing print materials, releasing a video, or posting digital materials online. After that happens, you might have to do the following clean-up work:
- Send invoices to your client based on your contract.
- Keep your client satisfied by quickly answering any questions and maintaining good follow-up communication.
Best Practices to Set Up an Effective Creative Workflow Process
Experts recommend a number of steps to set up an effective workflow process, and then ensure your team and organization follows that process.
Below are some important overall workflow process steps to include:
- Clarify Scope, Objective(s), and Strategy with the Client: At the start of any project, formally clarify the project objectives and the basic plan to achieve those objectives — preferably through a written document that everyone approves.
“When we get an assignment, the project manager has to clarify with the client exactly what has to be communicated — and the important objectives of that communication,” explains Kelbick. The New York-based agency specializes in marketing, product strategy, and communications for financial institutions.
Kelbick says her firm prepares a strategy statement for the project, which she says “is presented and reviewed by the client — so everyone is on the same page about what it is that we’re communicating.”
- Clarify Responsibilities: Outline your team hierarchy and then clarify who will have what role in developing, approving, and completing the work. It’s important you acknowledge your organization’s personality when you do this; if some people are more likely to be heavily involved throughout the process, or others want to participate only at important landmark points, your plan should account for that.
You will likely want to appoint a project manager. Then, identify which team members will need to approve the project in each phase of its development.
- Diagram Your Workflow: For each specific project, it’s helpful to create a diagram or chart that shows the phases in the process, as well as the approvals, inputs, and other actions needed. Pay attention to the mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive (MECE) principle developed by business consulting firm McKinsey & Company and used in a wide range of business practices. In essence, you should group categories of information so that they don’t overlap and that your assessment includes all possible categories. In the context of creative workflow, MECE means that there should be no confusion about the requirements and who’s responsible for them in each phase, and that the workflow covers every aspect of the project from beginning to completion.
Ed Burgoyne, Founder and Lead Advisor of Makr Consulting, helps organizations perform a broader assessment of how their workflow process works in general — outside of any specific project.
“Sometimes the process of just getting together and looking at how things currently work is eye-opening for people,” he shares. He says the process helps organizations asks themselves: “‘How do we do what we do? Why do we do it that way? Does that make sense? How do we describe what we do?’”
- Get Team Agreement On the Workflow Process: It’s vital that everyone understands and agrees with the structure and details of your workflow process at the outset. When Burgoyne works with organizations to help them understand and improve their work processes, he knows that, “We can create process maps all day long. But behavior is super, super important. How do we act? We have to manage change processes with behavior in mind. I can [recommend] change processes all day long and put it on a wall. But unless people are going to follow it,” he explains, they won’t get the results they desire.
That’s why Burgoyne suggests organizations work with their entire team to collaborate on how to structure their work processes — doing so allows for buy-in from everyone from the beginning.
- Use Creative Workflow/Project Management Software: While some organizations can implement and follow a creative workflow process without software, many experts believe the software can be extremely helpful in tracking the processes and avoiding confusion.
An organization can use software to integrate all written communications within the software, integrate calendar items and reminders, and make it much easier and more efficient to monitor and approve tasks for the project and review the work.
- Dictate How and When Reviews and Approvals Will Occur: Be clear about who will review each phase of the project and offer input, and when that input and any required approvals are due. You will likely want to limit the number of evaluators and rounds of review. Be sure to establish a naming convention for each revision, so everyone knows which draft is the most current.
- Have Check-in Meetings: Even when you’re using software and other digital communications vehicles, it’s helpful to have periodic check-in meetings with the team to ensure the project is moving forward and on schedule.
- Measure Productivity and Other Metrics: It can be useful to track various metrics on your creative projects, including the number of creative project requests received, versions per project, time to get approvals, and complete length of a project’s cycle.
Creative Workflow During Phases of a Project
Your team should also keep in mind the following important points during various phases of the project.
- At Project Outset: Use a formal project request process and make sure your internal team follows it.
“One of the biggest pillars is that initial request process,” says Brian Bosche, a Senior Product Manager at Smartsheet and the founder and former CEO of Slope, a company that developed software to help with creative workflow and is now a part of Smartsheet. “It’s really important people [that] know where they should go to submit a request. Having the process of intake is really important.”
The intake process ensures that everyone understands all projects that are set to start and gives everyone the required information at the beginning, Bosche adds.
- During Project Development: Track the amount of work needed for various tasks within the project, balance the workload when possible, and make sure the schedule accounts for certain team members with large workloads.
Yowell of Lucid Agency says her organization has weekly meetings to assess what each designer or other team member is working on. The agency uses software to assign between one and three points to each task, based on how long the task is likely to take. “[Doing so] gives us a birds-eye view with tasks laid out; with that number system, we can figure out how we can shuffle tasks if needed,” she explains.
- During Client Review and Approval: Communicate to clients how the review process works best (including deadlines), and be aware of any client-caused delays that might occur.
Creative Project Process
The term creative project process describes the process of beginning, tracking, and completing creative projects. Organizations must have an effective creative project process that team members follow to ensure their creative projects are done well and completed on time.
Benefits of Creative Workflow Software and Tasks It Can Assist In
Your organization should set up processes and a structure that leads to effective creative workflow — even if you don’t choose to use special software. That said, specific software or SaaS solutions can help you improve collaboration, save time and money, and be more productive in your creative work.
Smartsheet’s Bosche explains that saved time and increased efficiency might be the biggest benefit of creative workflow software. “Speed is so much more important now for creative teams and businesses,” he says. “Every team has to move so much faster and get content out with faster turnaround times. In order to be fast, you have to be incredibly efficient. In creative workflow, there’s a lot of collaboration that needs to happen. If you don’t have a creative workflow tool, you’re not able to get through that process in an efficient way.”
Here are some benefits and tasks that creative workflow software can help with:
- Time savings
- Creating and organizing creative briefs
- Time tracking
- Easier scheduling of appointments
- Video conferencing
- Providing team members with access to deliverable content at any time
- Allowing for team collaboration on reviewing and approving content
- Easier billing
- Using keywords to easily search and find everything related to a project in one place
- Enabling all team members to see a project’s timeline, budget, objectives, and team members
- Creating and assigning tasks and sub-tasks and keeping everyone on schedule
- Providing a real-time assessment of project status
- Eliminating unnecessary meetings, status call updates, or follow-up emails
- Providing managers with information team members’ workloads
- Tracking all project communications to ensure all questions are resolved and all work is moving forward
Yowell adds that she especially likes software that reminds team members of current deadlines and also sends reminders four or five days out from a deadline.
The Roles and Responsibilities Within a Creative Project
Every creative project requires that people perform specific roles in order to develop and complete it. These roles may sometimes be based on a person’s title within an organization. Irrespective of titles, an organization needs to clearly set out the following roles and decide who will perform them:
- Someone to define the scope of the project and the final product
- Someone ultimately responsible for the project and meeting the deadline
- People within the organization who have the authority to change the project (if needed)
- Someone to give ultimate approval to present the potentially final version of the proposal to the client, or to publish and distribute the final version
- A regular liaison with the client who communicates about the project’s status
Jobs or Roles within an Organization May Be Involved in Creative Workflow
The work involved in completing a creative project is often performed by people with certain job descriptions and titles within an organization. Those job titles include the following:
- Managers (who are responsible for setting the scope and structure of a project and ensuring you meet deadlines)
- Creative professionals (designers, web developers, writers, photographers, and others who help create the product)
- Account managers (who communicate with clients about the project)
Other jobs on a specific project might include the following:
- Project principal
- Project manager
- Project strategist
- Marketing specialist
How to Manage Creative Workflow
Managing creative workflow requires a solid workflow system within your organization, team members who understand the importance of following efficient processes, and managers who are adept at overseeing and tracking the work. SaaS tools can also be useful for tracking and managing the creative workflow process.
Biggest Mistakes in Managing Creative Workflow
Experts within and outside of agencies say organizations often make common mistakes in structuring or managing creative workflow. Here are some of the most common mistakes:
- Discounting the client’s potential contribution to the design work. “Early in my career, my biggest mistake was thinking the client [didn’t] know anything,” shares Yowell. She adds that she would think, “‘How dare you come back with changes — you don’t know what you’re talking about.’ That’s wrong.” The client understands its company’s personality, and the tenor of the industry it’s in, she says. It understands, for instance, that an edgy website design might not work for an engineering company.
- Not engaging in periodic touch points on the original and developing the overall direction of the design. “Coming in with a bunch of (web) pages designed before the client has seen even one design can backfire hugely,” Yowell says.
- Building a creative workflow process from the perspectives of only some players, and not including viewpoints from everyone. Burgoyne explains that project managers or other agency leaders may structure a workflow process that makes sense to them, but may fail to include important considerations from others who do the work every day. “When you look at a process and develop a process, we really need to collaborate with the people involved with the process itself to make a process that actually works,” he says. “It’s really important to look at the process from a systems perspective and see how all the different pieces come together.”
That inclusiveness is also vital when the new process structure means significant changes in how the organization does its work. “People can be very averse to change that they’re not involved with,” Burgoyne advises.
Specific Features to Look For in Project Management Software Tools
Creative workflow software and SaaS solutions have a wide range of features. Here are several that can be especially helpful:
- Ability to complement and naturally fit within your organization’s creative workflow.“ Any type of software — we want to have it mimic your process,” says Burgoyne.
- Ability to easily review and gain approval within the software. Your team should be able to get feedback and approvals, for designs, images, videos, and other materials.
- Ability to plan your projects and tasks and assign team members’ specific responsibilities and set deadlines.
- Ability to manage new requests as the project develops. You should be able to easily manage new requests, approve them if appropriate, and create new tasks with details.
- Ability to view projects and tasks in a Kanban board view. This feature gives everyone involved an easy visual representation of the status of all tasks in a project.
- Standard templates for recurring tasks — this can make it easier for team members to create a task list.
- The ability to assign a specific task for a specific team member, or to a role (such as a writer or developer) within your organization. This function can save time.
- Various internal team members and external clients may need to view parts of your creative workflow system to understand a project’s status. Software can provide access to parts of the system, while limiting or preventing access to other information.
You can learn more about creative project management software by reading “Experts Weigh In on Creative Project Management Software Features.”
Overview of Creative Workflow, Project Management, and Other Solutions
A range of of software can be helpful for creative workflow. We’ve broken down the list by the task you’re trying to accomplish.
|Creative Workflow/Project Management||
|File Sharing, Review, and Approval||
|Invoicing and Billing||
|Design, Visualization, and Diagramming||
|Forms and Surveys||
|Customer Relationship Management||
|Connecting/Integrating Web Apps||
How to Select Workflow Management Software
As you’re considering creative workflow management software for your organization, here are some important considerations and steps to take:
- Perform a Needs Assessment: Make sure you assess exactly what your organization needs. Understand where software might help, and where it won’t.
- Get Support and Buy-In From Your Team: You must involve your entire team in the selection process, so they support the final decision and will be committed to using the software.
- Remember That You Still Need Real People as Project Managers: Software can help a lot, but you still need team members committed to driving and managing the process.
- Don’t Roll It Out Before It’s Ready: Make sure you test (and retest) your new system, so there aren’t numerous problems at the beginning that hurt its viability with your team down the road.
Choose Software that Can Grow with Your Company: As your team increasingly uses the software, there may be needs for adjustments and enhancements. Make sure the software has those capabilities.
Advice on Creative Workflow and Building Cross-Functional Teams
Burgoyne, of Makr Consulting, says creative agencies and organizations must realize that their workflow process and management is vital to the identity of their organization.
“It’s about how do you actually do problem-solving and how you look at the world. What’s a priority and what’s not a priority?” he explains. “Your process is a big part of who you are. [And] the process determines the quality of our product and the quality of our output.”
Burgoyne writes about creative workflow processes on his professional blog, Adsubculture. He cites several areas that are helpful to understand in improving creative workflow. They include the following:
- Understanding traditional project management frameworks
- Understanding how project management methodologies like Waterfall and Agile can help in creative workflow. You can learn more about Waterfall here and more about Agile in “Everything You Need to Know About Agile Project Management.”
- Understanding how to build cross-functional teams with members from different departments working together
- Understanding the structure and organization of advertising agencies
- Understanding various structures of creative production and services workflow
How to Deal with Clients Who Want to Change Your Creative Workflow Process
A client will sometimes want to change some aspect of a project that can significantly alter your workflow process. They are your client, of course, so sometimes you will need to accommodate their requests. However, sometimes accommodating suggested changes can impair the process and diminish the final product. In those scenarios, you may need to push back a bit against the client’s request — politely and with a good explanation, of course.
- Be Polite: Always try to understand the client’s point of view before responding too quickly. Try to be calm, understanding, and polite in explaining the importance of your process set up.
- Don’t Equivocate: Don’t surrender too easily if your client is insistent on changes that you know will hurt the project. Explain the structure of your process and how that helps their product in the end.
- Offer Alternatives: Try to get a sense of their underlying concerns in making the change request. Then offer alternatives that might address those concerns, without changing your workflow process.
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