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Creative Workflows: A 10-Step Guide for Agencies and Brands

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by Katie Oberthaler

10 September 2020

Creative and digital agencies need a standardized way of working to avoid chaos and confusion during content production.

Any brand or agency that's delivering projects knows that the key to being successful is hitting deadlines. However, we all know that hitting speed bumps once a project kicks off is unavoidable, so your creative workflow must be flexible.

Keeping a project on track and making sure your team can handle those speed bumps requires putting in the groundwork before and after a project kicks off. The ideation, development, and delivery of a project should be a collaborative process, and the right workflow can make that a reality.

A streamlined workflow also enables team members to be both creative and efficient. In this guide, we’ll cover the different components and benefits of a creative workflow process, and then look at how to optimize it.

Let's get creative 👌

Want to optimize your creative workflow right now? Try a free trial of Ziflow's review and approval workflow builder. 

What is a creative workflow?

A creative workflow is a process where agencies and creative teams at brands generate ideas and ndew content, approve operations, and launch finished campaigns and products.

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

A creative workflow must be documented, as team leaders can quickly refer to it to see in who is charge of what part of a project, the status of each campaign component, and a history of changes and approvals. 

4 components of a typical creative workflow

Definition and Ideation

The first part of a creative workflow mirrors a traditional project brief.

In the definition and ideation phase, it's important to nail down the general idea of a product, who needs it, and what you need to do to create it. As you'll be working this for a client, it's essential this component ticks a few boxes:

  • A detailed outline of the project's goal, target audience, budget, deliverables and timeline. (If you don't have an in-depth understanding of all this, you should ask your client for a kickoff meeting or intake form to get the details you need.)
  • Defined roles and responsibilities for each team member
  • Specific metrics you'll use to track the project's progress
  • Clear milestones and timelines to make sure a project is delivered on time

If you spend time getting a project's definition and ideation right, it saves headaches later on in the creative process when you're ready to get your client to sign-off.

Content Creation

The next part of the process is actually creating the product your client has asked for. Whether its a digital ad campaign, product design, or

Like the first part of a creative workflow, this step also has some key boxes your agency will have to tick off:

  • Discussing campaign idea and creating prototype versions with your creative team.
  • Building a schedule to make sure the project will be successful. This might involve pre-scheduling regular meetings and weekly check-ins, or
  • Deciding on what software to use to make sure the project goes smoothly, such as collaboration software so your team can communicate throughout project or campaign creation.

Campaign Review and Approval

The third stage of the process focuses on getting approval for the product or content you've created.

This means not only getting it approved by your client, but going through a review and approval process internally. To get this done, your agency will need to:

  • Share content internally, gather feedback and finalize changes on the product.
  • Gather feedback from your client and use that to make changes to the final product.
  • Track feedback and make sure that the product reflects the vision created in the ideation phase.
  • Get the final sign-off and approval from your client.

Read more: How Creative Firm Advent Streamlined Client Approval for Large-Scale Sports Facilities Design

Campaign Launch

Finally—the product launch. 

For your agency, this last stage of the process is really about tying up loose ends and ensuring that content you've created lives on al required formats and channels. It's also where you send over your finished product to your client, like digital files and final invoices.

Why you need a creative workflow process

Although creative agencies thrive on imagination, the process from starting to completing a project must be structured and organized.

Not only does having a creative workflow make the entire product creation process a lot easier, but it also saves your agency a ton of time and money.

Think about it this way: the more aligned your vision for a product is with your client, the less edits and feedback rounds you're going to need. And the more organized your team is, the easier it'll be for them to work collaboratively through tasks and milestones to get a client's product delivered on time.

A creative workflow can also help your agency to:

  • Prioritize edits and assign them to the right team member.
  • Streamline deadlines and operations and set expectations for your client—and your team.
  • Ensure the product you deliver is quality through detailed review and collaboration.
  • Make sure the end product is compliant using an audit trail of approval decisions and changes.

The alternative...

Now you know the positives of a creative workflow, let's quickly reflect on what delivering work to a client looks like without a process.

Not only does disorganization lead to endless rounds of edits and trying to figure out which tasks belong to which team members, it can also throw deadlines off completely.

If you aren't on the same page as your client and your team doesn't have a clear roadmap to make sure that product is delivered well (and on time), it's unlikely your agency will be getting stellar reviews.

Building a creative workflow and streamlining your operations isn't easy, and it takes a lot of work. But the reward is a smarter, easier and less stressful way to deliver quality work to your clients—every time.

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

10 steps to optimize your creative workflow process

Step #1: Clarify project scope

The first step of any project is clarifying the project scope.

A project's scope is where you clarify its objectives and create a basic plan to achieve them. Once you know what the client wants from the project, you need to build a game plan about how your agency plans to get it done.

The best way to do this is to discuss with your client exactly what they want and expect of the finished product. You need to clarify their goals, budget and timeline, write it all down and then distill it into a clear, concise project scope.

Then, get the client to sign-off so there's no confusion once the project kicks off.

You can use Ziflow’s intake form to keep it digital. All you need to do is send your client a digital proof of the project scope, and then they can submit feedback before signing off.

 

An example of Ziflow's digital intake form


Step #2: Use a creative brief template

Next, use the project scope to create a broader digital brief for your client.

A basic creative brief should include:

  • 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 on a goal as the project progresses. Because of this, 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 the project kicks off.

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

Here's a template example from CoSchedule:

Step #3: Assign roles and responsibilities

Outline your team members and their responsibilities in the creative workflow process, so everyone understands their role.

It's easy to miss this step if your agency only has a couple of creatives. However, even with smaller teams, assigning roles and responsibilities can help create accountability within a project. And as your agency grows, this step will allow you to manage and track who is in charge of what to make sure deadlines are kept.

Assigning roles and responsibilities is also important as it helps define tasks and milestones more clearly defined. For example, attaching specific guidelines and responsibilities to tasks means that everyone will be clear on who is doing what, which stops actions overlapping.

McKinsey has created a process called the Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive (MECE) principle that makes it easier for managers to define roles clearly. MECE outlines that successful agencies need processes where nobody overlaps or has gaps.

Here's an example of a MECE outline:

 

 

It's breaking down the costs of a manufacturing plant, but the usefulness of MECE is clear. Each issue is broken down into its own clear area, which leaves no room for overlap.

You can use this same approach when applying MECE to your creative workflows.

Using MECE, you can outline clear deliverables and roles in a chart so that none of them overlap, but no task is left unaccounted for. Not only does this create clear roles, but it also stops the issue of people on your team thinking someone else will take control of leftover tasks. Once you have this mapped out, you can easily replicate and standardize these roles within an automated marketing review workflow.

workflow_2

Every task is assigned. Every role is clear. No confusion.

Pro-tip: For this to have the best chance of success, you'll most likely want a Creative Project Manager to keep everyone on track.

Step #4: Map out your creative workflow

Next, you need to analyze your existing workflow and find out the best way to optimize it.

For your workflow to be successful, it needs to map out your process—step by step—and show who (and when) will handle what tasks. If your workflow is mapped out in advance, it's easier to visualize (and iron out) and bottlenecks in the process, and avoid tasks being repeated.

The easiest way to get this right is to analyze previous products and campaing your agency has completed.

What worked… and what didn't?

Break it all down and use your data to build a process that will make for a smoother workflow. Then, use a diagram tool like Gliffy to map out your workflow and visualize your process:

Step #5: Document the 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 each round of feedback on board. For example, if a team member or client points out a bottleneck or a milestone in the process, it's essential to resolve it in that round of feedback.

 

You should also name each round of feedback and revisions, so if you need to go back and see what changes were made (and when), it’s all documented. This also helps hold your team accountable, as who provided feedback and approved revisions will be documented.

Want to optimize your creative workflow right now? Try a free trial of Ziflow's review and approval workflow builder. 

Step #6: Get team sign-off on the creative workflow process

Just like the review phase, your entire team must be involved in signing off on the creative workflow.

Not only should this process be formal and documented, but it's also the time to reinforce the importance of your team following the workflow. After signing off, send your team a copy of the creative workflow you've all spent time creating, so everyone understands all of the projects that are set to start.

Why?

Because it gives everyone the information and roadmap they need at the beginning of the project so nobody gets lost—and everyone stays on the same page.

Step #7: Use creative workflow software

Like many areas of working in an agency, tech can make our lives a lot easier.

The same is true when it comes to building creative workflows. With the right software, you can track the processes and avoid any confusion within your team.

1. Software makes it easy to collaborate

The ultimate way to collaborate is to have your team working in the same document—even at the same time.

The right creative workflow software will allow your team to do just that. The easier it is for your team to provide real-time feedback, comments and edits, the quicker it is for your project to progress.

Using online proofing software like Ziflow, all important feedback will be attached directly into the project your team is working on, instead of getting lost in an email thread. Any feedback will be automatically shown as comments and attachments inside a creative asset for your team to see:


Real-time collaboration with threaded comments and attachments inside Ziflow.

The tool also allows you to comment using shapes like lines, arrows, squares, ovals and text select, which is perfect for giving specific and actionable feedback within creative assets.

2. Your team can compare designs side-by-side

Ever needed to compare versions of an asset to see how the changes really look?

Using the right software, you can use a compare tool to place two versions of content side by side, no matter what the original file format is. As the proofs are synced within Ziflow, as you move around one version, the other version moves as well.

 

 

 

Examining proofs at this depth means your team can clearly track where changes have been made and make confirming tedious editing work, like minor color corrections, easier.


3. Track your historical changes

Your team and client need to see the progress an asset makes throughout the creative process.

Tracking historical changes gives you a trail of where and how an asset changed throughout the editing process. By tracking a proof's progress, you can filter proofs down to the day edits were made, or who made the changes as well as checking what actions still need to be taken.

You can also remind yourself and your team to follow-up on proofs. All you need to do is set up an automated late proof reminder, and it will sound the alarm if you or another team member still needs to review a proof before an important client meeting or deadline.

4. Keep on top of tasks with an automated workflow

Building an automated workflow into your creative process is one of the best ways to keep on top of every task.

You can set up an automated workflow to set stage progressions for proofs and trigger reminders based on certain decisions and time. This is important because it keeps everyone on the ball and on top of reviews in edits, which ensures projects keep moving swiftly through the pipeline.

With the right software, you don't even have to build these automated workflows from scratch. Ziflow's templates allow team leaders to create an automated workflow around proof permissions, triggers, deadlines and notifications.

Think of it as an automated assistant that sits in the background, keeping every project on track.

5. Confirm the review and approval decisions

Gone are the days where you have to wait for reviews and approvals over email—and we couldn’t be happier.

Thanks to online proofing software, you can now review and approve assets within the document. Not only does this cut down on paper trails and keep things organized, but the right software will also notify relevant team members that they need to take actions on certain edits and revisions.

You can even set your software up so different team members have different review and approval permissions. For example, Ziflow’s review and approval tool means team members can review an asset and mark it as:

  • Approved
  • Approved with changes
  • Changes required
  • Not relevant

If you're the team leader, you can also set up custom decision reasons for the reviewers. This means that after choosing a decision, reviewers will be asked to provide a reason for their decision. If their decision is accepted, they'll be notified by an automated email:

 

 

 

 

Step #8: Keep creative assets secure

Every creative workflow should have a plan to keep assets secure.

If you're using email to review and approve assets, you leave the risk of projects being hacked or susceptible to viruses. However, the right creative workflow software also adds a level of security to make every asset you work on is safe.

Check the security features of any creative workflow software before you invest to make sure it'll keep your client's work safe. For example, Ziflow's security has a full third-party SOC 2 audit, and the software is hosted on Amazon Web Services, so it’s covered by Amazon’s certifications, including SOC 1 and 2.


Step #9: Hold regular check-in meetings

A big part of having a successful creative workflow is making sure everyone stays on the same page.

Even with project scopes and workflows, holding regular check-in meetings is vital to making sure people are focused and on track. These meetings can ensure that the project is moving forward, on schedule and tasks are being completed.


Step #10: Review Workflow Metrics

After a project has been completed, it’s important to do a complete review to see what went right—and what your agency can improve on 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 was per project
  • The overall length of the project cycle (to compare to similar projects)

Looking at this data, you can see if your reviews 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 with a meeting with your team to discuss how to avoid them in your future projects.

Read more: Linney Builds a 12-Hour Multimedia Campaign Timeline for Retail Brands

Mistakes to Avoid When Managing Your Creative Workflow

Not gathering the right information during kick-off

If you start your project on the back foot and fail to consult your client properly during the early days of a project, important things can—and will—get missed.

Listen to your client and make sure you know what they need from you and their vision for the final product. This will not only allow you to create a better asset for them, but it will also stop them from coming back with a mountain of disappointing changes.

Remember, your client knows their industry and what they want from you. Use their insight to help you understand the tone and outcome they’re looking for from the project.

Not involving all stakeholders

There needs to be synergy across your agency—all of your agency.

This requires getting everyone involved, from your creatives to your operations team to your finance people. If you don’t, you risk missing an important piece of your agency’s organization which could impact the success and compliance of your content down the line.

Failing to bake review and approval into the process

The review and approval process of a project must be taken seriously.

The end game of a project can’t be just delivering a product. It needs to be about delivering a product that’s quality, compliant, and, most importantly, meets your client’s standards. If you take tightly control review and approval, it’s more likely that you’ll deliver the latter.

Not holding regular touchpoints

Finally, creative workflows can’t be a “set it and forget it” process.

Like any part of a creative agency, workflows require regular check-ins to see if things are working and staying on track. The worst mistake your team can make is waiting until a final proof before asking for feedback. Imagine only reviewing a design concept once an entire website is ready to launch… only to find out it’s completely missed the mark!

Regular check-ins not only make sense, but they can also mean the difference between successful or a failed projects.

It’s time to optimize your creative workflow

A creative workflow allows your agency to be more creative and efficient.

Not only do creative processes make your agency more transparent, but they’re also critical for each team member to understand their role and responsibility in a project. Having a clear, concise plan takes any confusion out of a project and leaves your team free to do what they do best—be creative.

The best part is that it’s now easier than ever to build creative workflows that will genuinely help your agency streamline its processes. And a tool like Ziflow ticks all the boxes: it tracks your progress, gives your team a place to make real-time changes and most importantly—gives clients an easy way to sign off on the finished project.

 

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