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10 steps to building a high-performing creative workflow

10 min read
Katie Oberthaler

Behind any great creative team is a powerful creative workflow that keeps the fickle feedback process on track and loose deadlines on target.

However, organizing a new creative process, or overhauling the flow of your creative team’s existing way of working, can be daunting for even the most detailed creative project manager 

With so many stakeholders, versions, phases, and assets across projects, there’s a lot to keep in play at any given time. Structuring content production steps into a predictable flow that works for everyone may seem complex from the outset, especially when creative teams need a level of flexibility in their work and revisions.

In fact, one of the most common questions we get from creative teams that want to build better workflows is: Just how much detail and automation should I build into our creative process? 

Creative workflows will look slightly different for every team–there’s truly no one-size-fits-all workflow. However, the right mechanics apply across all kinds of creative work. 

In this article, we’ll cover the building blocks of how to bring more structure and control to your creative process and create a standardized creative workflow for any project.

What we'll cover

What defines a creative workflow?

A creative workflow is a process in which creative teams generate ideas and new content, approve new designs, and execute campaigns and projects.

The process usually boils down to organizing key areas of a project: which team member will be in charge of what, when tasks are due, and what the overall timeline will be. It's a way to see the flow of a project's movement—from concept to revisions to final approval.

A creative workflow shows team leaders who is in charge of what part of a project, the status of each campaign component, and a history of changes and approvals. 

Why you need a structured creative workflow process

Although creative agencies thrive on imagination, the process of starting to completing a project must be structured and organized. A lack of organization within a creative team can lead to needless rounds of edits, often unnecessary version creation, and as a result, missed deadlines. Plus, a lack of clarity about individual roles can cause confusion among creative teams. Missed deadlines or unclear feedback—even if they’re not anyone’s fault—can damage your team’s reputation. 

A successful creative workflow helps:

  • Prioritize project bandwidth and revisions and assign them to the right team member
  • Streamline deadlines and operations and set expectations for your stakeholders and creatives
  • Ensure that creative work is delivered with detailed review and collaboration
  • Make sure all work is compliant, using an audit trail of approval decisions and changes

Let's explore what building that creative workflow process looks like.

10 steps to building a creative workflow process

Clarify content or project scope

The first step of any creative workflow is clarifying the project scope of a piece of content or campaign. Clarifying a project’s objectives enables your team to create a basic plan to achieve those goals. Once you know what is expected from a project, whether it is an internal content piece or created for a client, you need to build a game plan about how your creative team plans to get it done.

The best way to do this is to discuss exactly what they want and why. You need to clarify goals, budget, and timeline, write it all down, and then distill it into a clear, concise project scope. Then, get stakeholders to sign off so there's no confusion once the project begins.

This provides the building blocks for content deadlines, versions, and project participant roles–the building blocks of a full-scale creative workflow.

Use a creative brief template

Once you understand the project scope, we recommend creating a digital project brief that outlines:

  • A project summary
  • A timeline
  • Goals, strategies, and milestones
  • Budget
  • Team members associated with the project
  • Timeline/deadline

Starting your project with an in-depth brief is important as it keeps your team aligned as the project progresses. It’s essential to add as many bite-sized pieces of information as possible to your brief so your team can easily refer to it. This makes it easy for everyone to stay on the same page once a creative workflow begins.

Once you've completed a creative brief, use it as a template to make this step quicker in future creative projects.

Pro tip: Creative briefs are imperative to kicking creative workflows on the right foot. Learn more about formatting a creative brief here: The creative brief: A how-to guide for producing stellar work (with template)

Assign key roles and responsibilities

Assign responsibilities to team members in the creative workflow process, so everyone understands their role. This includes designers, animators, copywriters, as well as project stakeholders who will be expected to provide input as content develops.

It's easy to miss this step if you only have a couple of creatives. However, even with smaller teams, assigning roles and responsibilities creates accountability within a project. As you grow, this step will help you manage and track who is in charge of what, ensure you meet deadlines, and prevent task redundancies. Outlining key roles also helps create guidelines if you use creative workflow software to model, build and automate this workflow.

Outline clear deliverables and roles, so every task is left accounted for. This clarifies roles and prevents the issue of people on your team thinking someone else will take control of unclaimed tasks. Once you have defined roles, you can easily replicate and standardize these roles within an automated marketing review workflow.

Pro-tip: Learn how Ziflow’s creative project manager conducted this step to create a more efficient creative workflow for our own design team here: The ultimate guide to creative project management

Map out your creative workflow

Next, you need to analyze your existing creative workflow and find out the best way to restructure how work is accomplished. 

Your workflow should take the project expectations and roles you defined and map them out step by step. Show who (and when) will handle what tasks. This process makes it easier to spot potential bottlenecks in the process, and avoid repetition of tasks.

In this step, analyze previous projects and campaigns your creative team has completed. What worked — and what didn't? Do certain phases such as initial design require more time? Do certain stakeholders need to be involved in certain phases of creative production, or can they wait to provide input on later versions? Do your clients expect a desired turnaround time on content, and is your team consistently meeting those deadlines?

Break it all down and use your data to build a process that will make for a smoother workflow. Then, use a diagram app like Gliffy to map out your workflow and visualize your process or jump right into modeling your creative workflow directly in a creative collaboration software platform.

Document the creative review and approval process

It’s important to document when and who will review each phase of the creative workflow process and provide feedback.

While it's important to limit the number of reviewers and rounds of review so the process doesn't drag on, you must take action on each round of feedback. For example, if a team member or client points out a change, it's essential to resolve it in that round of feedback.

You should also name each round of feedback and number each revision, so it's easy to find assets and see what changes were made (and when). This helps hold your team and clients accountable, as you’ll have documentation for all suggestions and revisions. Tracking changes shows you how an asset changed throughout the editing process. You can filter assets down to the day edits occurred, or who made the changes, and see if any suggestions are unresolved.

Get team sign-off on the creative workflow process

Involve your team members in the process of developing your creative workflows—they’ll be doing the work, after all. The process should make sense for them and help them work, rather than get in their way.

Once you’ve finalized the process, get team sign-off before implementing it. Creative workflows are made to be dynamic, so remember to keep adjusting as your team gets used to a new flow of work. 

Mapping out your workflow and getting approval from all stakeholders is half the battle, but you also need a way to consistently enforce your new creative workflow in practice once it is signed, sealed, and delivered.

Thanks to creative collaboration software, you can now build workflows that automate your review and approval steps for every creative project.

Using creative collaboration software, you can see feedback attached directly to the asset your team is working on. The easier it is for your team and stakeholders to provide real-time feedback, comments, and edits, the quicker your project will progress.

You can also link feedback/revisions with automated workflow stages. Creative collaboration software allows you to build workflows that automatically “progress” assets based on certain triggers–whether that’s a new version created, an approval decision from a stakeholder, or simply an upcoming deadline. The right software will also notify appropriate team members when they need to take action on certain edits and revisions before it moves onto the next stage of production.

You can even set different review and approval permissions and roles for team members at different stages of your workflow. If you're the team leader, you can also define custom “decision reasons” for the reviewers. This means that after choosing a decision, reviewers can provide a reason for their decision. Reviews will receive a notification email once the creative team accepts the decision.

Ultimately, using software to automate your creative workflows steps takes the “guesswork” out of enforcing your creative workflow. Instead of your creatives following-up and communicating on the status of every project phase, the software can enforce this transparency within every single step of the creative process.

Protip: There are endless ways to configure workflow software to work for your creative team. Read more about how to fine-tune your workflow here: The top 10 best practices for optimizing the review and approval process.

Review creative workflow metrics

After a project is complete, it’s important to do a complete review to see what went right—and what your team can improve in the future.

During a project review, you should look at specific productivity metrics to see:

  • How long it took for approvals and edits
  • How many versions of an asset there were per project or workflow stage
  • How many approval decisions were required to get to project completion
  • The overall length of the project cycle compared to similar projects

Looking at this data, you can see if your review process is getting faster (or slower) and if there were bottlenecks at a certain part of the project. If you do spot any of these in your review, you should then follow up by meeting with your team to discuss how to avoid them in future projects.

Pro-tip: Creatives often track campaign performance, but rarely have insight into creative production efficiency. Read more on how to get insightful metrics from your creative team here: 3 creative metrics every marketing leader should track (and how)

Hold regular check-in meetings

Creative workflows are meant to be dynamic, and your creative workflow structure may change as you get more information and data about your team’s capabilities.Holding regular check-in meetings on what is working (and what isn’t) in the creative workflow process is vital to making sure people are focused and on track. It also provides valuable insight into bottlenecks or needs that may not be. 

Building creative workflows introduces needed structure and control over creative production, but it should retain a level of flexibility and responsiveness as project needs and goals evolve.

For example, at Ziflow, we recognized in our retrospective meetings that our initial creative workflow eventually needed to be separated into three separate workflow–content, design, and demand generation–for maximum team efficiency and adjusted accordingly. 

Fine-tune your creative workflows

Creative workflows help each team member understand their role in a project and know when their contributions are due. Workflows also provide the transparency that stakeholders want to see—they can see the status of their projects at a glance, without having to ask project managers for an update. 

It’s now easier than ever to build creative workflows that tracks progress, gives your team a place to make real-time changes, and—most importantly—gives stakeholders an easy way to sign off on the finished project.

Want to see how to automate your creative workflow every time? Take Ziflow's creative workflow for a free test drive. 

Katie Oberthaler

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