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10 steps to building a high-performing creative workflow

17 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

1. 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.

2. 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)

3. 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

4. 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.

5. Document the creative workflow

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

6. 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.

7. 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)

8. 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. 

9. Fine-tune your creative workflows

At this point, you’ve built a sustainable and  inclusive creative workflow. However, creative workflows are not static. For ultimate success, your creative workflow should be fluid, not rigid. Making small, incremental improvements will keep your creative tasks optimized as bandwidth, workloads, and priorities change over time. 

There are two major drivers of change when it comes to making adjustments to your creative workflow—those that inhibit positive progress in a creative project, and those that accelerate the progress.

One way to identify roadblocks in your creative projects and creative workflow is using the creative workflow benchmarks and KPIs we outlined previously. Let’s say you’re keeping track of the Average Number of Versions for a templated project—something your team works on pretty regularly. If that KPI is now exceeding the benchmark number, maybe by a significant amount—what adjustments do you need to make?

In this case, you can optimize a few things:

  • The Designer’s behavior—are they too quick to develop a new version, like are they not waiting for all the feedback?
  • The stakeholder’s behavior: Iis the feedback that’s being delivered unclear or lacking context?Is the feedback coming from multiple stakeholders dichotomous or out-of-sync, leading to a designer to have to create a version in one direction, and then a completely different one upon getting new feedback

Any one of those measurable metrics can give you pause to make changes or adjustment to your creative workflow

Check-In Meetings are also a great way to get anecdotal feedback to understand where bottlenecks might be popping up that your KPIs can’t reveal.

For example, during a quarterly check-in with your CMO, they tell you that they no longer have the bandwidth to be the final decision maker on smaller creative projects, and they need to delegate it to someone else. You adjust your process to account for the CMO’s lack of time and attentiveness, but your creative workflow takes a hit. So during your next check in meeting, you suggest separating the workflow depending on the project, dividing the final decision maker work so that head of Demand Gen has the final say on demand gen projects, and the head of Content Marketing is the arbiter of all things brand and social.

By taking on anecdotal feedback from your peers and management based on their own feelings, you made an adjustment and optimized it further based on real-life results. 

It’s the combination of feedback you get from stakeholders, and information you can measure yourself, that will help you identify hot spots and areas of improvement

Optimizing your workflow also comes from identifying the good parts of your process and doubling-down on those practices. 

Let’s say your Average Time Between Versions or Average Time to Completion metrics are way way below the benchmark for one particular designer on your team for a particular type of project whenever they come up in the rotation.Perhaps same designer has come to you directly and told you that the have found some secret sauce that lets them get that type of project done faster than others on the team

Either one of those insights can provide you the impetus to double down on that aspect of the process—name that designer the sole person in charge of this type of project, and perhaps give them access to the stakeholder so they can collaborate more freely on briefs and broader strategy.

The goal of all of these adjustments and fine-tuning your workflow–whether it is qualitative or quantitative–is to help increase the accountability of everyone involved in the project. Sometimes you’re adding more structure, sometimes you’re removing some of it to help streamline your workflow.

10. Automate your workflow

When it comes to creating a workflow, there are individual nuances and aspects to the process by which you bring a project from idea through to completion, and nearly every single one of them can be augmented through software-based automation.

The best way to apply automation to your creative workflow is to go back and look at your creative process map and identify hot spots that can be made easier or more streamlined, and then source solutions that can do exactly that.

Automating project kickoff

One of the biggest challenges facing a creative operations manager at the start is how to effectively traffic new projects through from project requesters to the designers who will be working on them. Typically, this occurs through manual methods like email or written forms.

The besy way to automate new project requests is through intake forms—online documents that have fields that you can configure to fit the needs of your specific project workflow. By making some or all of those fields mandatory, you can make sure your requestors fill out the form properly. 

The simplest way to do intake forms is Google Forms, which is essentially free for anyone with a Gmail account—and if your company is a Google shop, then you’ve already got access to it. Simply set up the form, connect it to a spreadsheet where you keep track of your creative projects, and you’re off—you’ve automated an aspect of your creative workflow.

Automating project monitoring and progress

Once you’re off to the races with your project, keeping track of your creative projects in a standardized fashion is important for optimizing your workflow.

Depending on their discipline, your designers are probably using Final Cut Pro or Logic, Pro Tools or any solution with Adobe Creative Suite like Photoshop, InDesign, or Premiere Pro to actually do the work.

But what happens when they’re done with Version 1? Well, you’ve gotta get that in front of your stakeholders so they can offer feedback and approval, right?

Here’s the problem, the vast majority of your stakeholders can’t open the working files from those apps on their own devices—these software programs are subscription-based and often expensive, so if they’re not doing the creative work, you’re certainly not going to pay for them to access it

So your designer has to export it to a file format that your stakeholders can access—usually something like a PDF or a J-peg or a mp4 or an HTML file. In most cases, you have to email your reviewers those files, have them open then on their own computers, and make sure they send back comments that have some level of context for the location on the file itself—which is really challenging.

Now, there’s software that can help with this: if you’re exporting the majority of your documents to PDF, you can have your stakeholders open it in Adobe Acrobat, which allows them to add in-line annotations and comments, and save the file before sending it back

Some files can be “commented on” in Google Docs or Google Drive itself—same thing, in-line comments, but more collaborative, everyone’s in the same file and can see and interact with each other’s comments

And then there are solutions that are designed for online proofing and project management—which can host most major file types in the cloud and allow for Google Docs like commenting with Acrobat like annotation, but in a more scalable, transparent way.

Ziflow is the industry leader in this type of software. Other software applications that can help with proofing and review include PageProof, FileStage, Frame, and a host of others, all of which have various features and functionality that could work for your business context

Automating the completion phase of creative projects

Once all of your stakeholders have weighed in and offered feedback, now it’s time to bring this thing in for a landing.

The biggest challenge that marketing operations managers face at the close of a project is getting final approval—how do you get sign-off from your key stakeholders?

Some ways to compel stakeholders to give you final approval is through automating your “nudges” through Slack, Teams, or Email—and solutions like Zapier or IFTTT or even some Google Drive and Slack extensions can annoy your stakeholders to the point where they give you their final thumbs up. Google Docs has a relatively new approval feature, so you can give someone in your organization the ability to “approve” a document after having worked with it.

Ziflow and other solutions in the more narrow online proofing arena can automatically notify your stakeholders and bring them back in for a final approval, which ties into the review side of the process.

Either way, this is one of the big hurdle areas, and if you can use communications channels or even SaaS tools to get final project approvals, you should do so!

The other big challenge at the end of a creative project? What to do with the final creative files. Do they get stored in your cloud storage solution or placed into the hands of your website developers or demand generation team?

And once the project is done, how do you draw a line under that project and mark it as complete?

Once again, you can use software to automate this stuff—whether it be a object based low-coding system like a Zapier or an IFTTT, a project management solution with open integrations like Monday.com, Asana, Clickup, Airtable, or Wrike, or even a creative workflow solution like Ziflow Once a project is complete, you’ll want to explore the use of these solutions to help you automatically tick the box next to a project to call it done (and notify everyone in the stakeholder group that the project’s complete) and upload the final files to Google Drive or Dropbox or Sharepoint or Box or wherever your marketing materials are stored

If you can automate those aspects of your project through a software solution, it’ll make it far easier to close the book on a project, so you can move onto the next one that much quickerl

At the end of the day, software is meant to help speed up your creative workflow, not slow it down, so pick the right solution or solutions that work for your team’s unique creative process.

Power your creative process with automated 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. 

Building a creative workflow that tracks progress, gives your team a place to make real-time changes, and gives stakeholders an easy way to sign off on the finished project is a multi-step project. Start small with the end goals in mind, get buy-in for the process, and automate administrative tasks with your creative workflow over time.

Want to learn more? Watch our video series on building a high-performing creative workflow for more tips and tricks.

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