The creative review and approval process is the lifeblood of any team that creates marketing or brand content. In this guide, we’ll cover the top 10 tips for building a review and approval process that streamlines decision-making steps and simplifies content sharing across teams as content is developed, tracked, modified, approved, and launched.
What is the creative review and approval process?
The creative review and approval process is the collaboration that occurs around the creation and finalization of creative content. This can include all types of content, from print ads to websites to product labels and even legal documentation.
The review and approval process refers to all of the many versions, decisions, sign-offs, comments, feedback, and stakeholders involved in getting a piece of content or marketing campaign from ideation to finished asset. Ultimately, creative review and approval is the sequence in which content and information flows for creative decision-making and changes.
There are several best practices to consider when it comes to sharing work and creating the right workflows to manage the content review process. In this article, we’ll cover the top 10 areas you should when formatting your creative review and approval process, including how to:
- Define the main steps and stages of your review process
- Determine exactly who should review content and when
- Define your internal review stages and easily connect external reviewers (clients, brand partners, suppliers, etc.) to those processes
- Create a content versioning system that works for you team’s collaboration needs
- Enforce the right deadlines and automated reminders to streamline review
- Flow content from work-in-progress to ready-to-review with minimal effort
- Automate complex, non-linear, multi-stage review processes that involve many departments and decision-makers.
What are the benefits of automating the creative review and approval process?
Implementing these best practices can not only save a lot of back and forth during content creation but also improve collaboration and consistency among all your creative collaborators. By implementing more control and automation over the creative review and approval steps, everyone from your Design, Copy, Marketing, Client Services, and Compliance teams will be able to easily see in-flight progress of content and make better-informed decisions and final approvals, faster.
Automating parts of the creative review and approval routing can dramatically:
- Reduce collaboration and communication delays around content changes
- Eliminate time spent tracking down stakeholders or updating team members on project status
- Streamline client project management and better adhere to parameters outlined project SLAs
- Accelerate project delivery timelines
- Reduce the effort spent managing, sharing, and tracking new versions and files
- Enforce standard project management procedures the same way, every time
These best practices may seem like minor adjustments, but when multiplied over all the projects and creative work happening at your organization, the time and cost savings can really add up.
When implementing these best practices, many of our proofing users have seen a 50% reduction in the manual effort involved in getting content approved.
By reducing manual efforts and delays caused by content sharing and collaboration, many creative teams have seen a 56% increase in accelerated project delivery by optimizing their review process. That means taking increasing bandwidth to take on more billable or time-intensive projects and outputting higher quality work faster.
Best Practice #1: Use visibility to build review stages
At its core, the creative review and approval process is defined by stages--the order in which content is reviewed, commented on, and approved.
When crafting a workflow to automate the creative review and approval process, the first question that arises is: What defines a review stage and who should be in a stage?
There are many ways to approach this question. The first inclination is often to create a separate review stage defined by each team who needs to review content. For example, a first review stage for editorial, a second stage for editorial, copywriting, technical review, and so on.
The most important consideration, however, when considering how to define the steps in a review and approval process is actually visibility. Visibility often takes a back seat to functional roles a lot of times, but visibility is quite critical for building effective review workflows.
Visibility means considering the information you need when looking beyond one single project. When looking at multiple projects, determine:
- What information about a project or proof do I quickly want to be able to spot?
- What do I want to quickly be able to identify?
A lot of time, you don’t need to know “This is with the in copywriting team” or “It's in technical review” or “It's in editing”. When looking across multiple projects, what teams really need to know is where the delays in the process are happening: “When is the next project phase due, and are we on target to meet it?” Is it being bottlenecked in design or compliance? How many upcoming deadlines do we have, and what is the status?
You want to make sure that you're getting the right sign-offs by each functional group. If you're able to group together editors, copywriters, technical reviewers and so on all in the right review group, that really can really help with project visibility.
Best Practice #2: Segment review group members by collaboration needs, not role
Once you’ve defined how you want to configure your digital review stages, the next step is to define what work should be segmented. This will help you determine which reviewers should belong to which review group, at which stage in the process.
Segmentation seems like an obvious thing to consider early on when you're building out your review process in stages, but it is often overlooked as well.
For example, if a portion of a project is a work in progress, what groups need to communicate with each other? What comments and collaboration should be private communication between those group members vs. a public communication that everyone on the team (or your client) can see on the content piece?
For example, if your video editors speak to the copywriters a lot, you may want to consider putting them in the same review group so that they can have private communication, as well as public communication. If you separate them in different groups or stages, it may restrict how they can communicate with each other.
Best Practice #3: Define client engagement rules for external review
When building review groups, you’ll often need to involve stakeholders outside of your organization or even your team in the document review and approval process. There are key things that everyone should consider when they're taking a look at their own internal-external review process.
At the whiteboard stage, sketch out how you prefer to interact with external reviewers like clients or brand partners. Key questions to ask include:
- Who owns the client relationship?
- Who should be communicating with the client?
- Are there any protected resources here? Which documents should or shouldn’t be visible to outside team members or clients? Ultimately, how do you control what the client or external colleagues see or not see? What's the gate here?
- What should the internal sign-off procedure look like before you share that content externally?
- What are the drivers for a new version based on external feedback? How do you determine the cut-off point for taking feedback and you create the new version?
These questions will help determine not only where and when to loop in clients for review, but also help drive how to define your versioning and project deadlines.
Best Practice #4: Use deadlines and automated reminders
You'd be shocked by how often we talk to creative teams that say, "We don't use deadlines because they don't work,” and “We can't enforce deadlines on our client," or "We move too fast for deadlines."
However, 80% of marketers told us they encounter issues getting feedback on time--delays that usually multiply when you start including any external reviewers. The largest amount of turnaround time in a marketing review process is typically spent on review management, such as waiting for someone to give a review or chasing down a stakeholder to confirm that they were actually reviewing it.
Deadlines are key because they enforce steps that automate review tasks and reminders. Deadlines for the review and approval process really do two things.
- They help keep your review moving forward and ensure your project doesn't get just stuck because you have one stakeholder who hasn't provided reviews yet.
- They help identify bottlenecks if a project gets “stuck” in review tasks.
That's why we always recommend that all creative teams use review and approval deadlines. You can pad deadlines if you need to, but you definitely want to establish relative deadlines for any of your creative review process steps.
It’s also important to create deadlines not just for the overall project, but to provide a relative deadline for each review and approval stage. For example, if a piece of content or campaign enters a marketing review phase, set a certain amount of days for review sign-off. Deadlines are your guard rails that keep your review and approval on track.
Without deadlines, you won't be able to provide contextual reminders. Reminders take the time management out of enforcing deadlines and help identify any potential delays or roadblocks before they happen.
Different reminder types include:
- Events reminders, which help with project flows for projects with long deadlines.
- At-the-time-of reminders, which work really for enforcing projects with rapid turnaround times such as 24 to 48 hours.
- Late reminders, which are great for those projects that seem like they are are too fast for deadlines. Being able to set a late reminder where it reminds the reviewer once the deadline passes becomes really critical for turning around same-day content.
If your creative team is constantly looking at your internal processes and looking for ways to optimize delivery timelines, deadlines and reminders are key for helping to pinpoint bottlenecks and identifying where key decisions are being missed over time.
Best Practice #5: Link actionable comments to content versioning
When it comes to creative review and approval, there are two types of feedback comments:
- Comments where reviewers are just giving their thoughts
- Comments where you need to make a requested change
One major time-waster in the creative review and approval process is an inability to decisively determine whether or not a comment or piece of feedback is truly actionable.
Does this sound familiar? Someone requests a change and you take an action on that comment right away, and you create another version. You provide them that new version, and of a sudden they're requesting another minor change...and another minor change...and another minor change. Suddenly, you have 50 versions of the same type of content.
Being able to very quickly label and filter comments as required changes is critical for making sure that you’re not creating endless versions of a piece of content and reducing the time your creative team spends on unnecessary updates.
This leads to a better ability to control your content version numbering. Controlling version numbering is especially important for agencies with SLA agreements with their clients that cap the number of versions they allow for a particular asset or project before additional fees kick in.
When we dig in though, we often find that the average number of versions used to actually create a final approved asset is usually widely different than what is outlined in the SLA.
Having a method to mark, label, and filter comments on your creative projects will not only help your team adhere to version control needs, but also reduce the amount of content you need to track and help keep everyone aligned on which version is the most “current” while still being able to provide real-time feedback.
Best Practice #6: Align version numbering around internal and external review rounds
After determining your commenting labels, the next thing to determine in your review and approval process is how many internal and external rounds are needed to bring a project to completion. Sometimes, the difference between the two is not always obvious. Creating a version number system where you can determine the difference between internal versions and external versions is key to process efficiency.
For example, if a change to a content piece is driven by feedback from a client or external reviewer, a lot of agencies don't really have visibility into the process. It’s difficult when doing a post-mortem on a project to figure out how many changes were requested externally by the clients and how many changes arose from the creative team making final tweaks before it gets to the client.
This is where the ability to distinguish between version numbers becomes really critical.
First, you should identify the right organizational structure for review comments.
The first step involves, again, labeling comments as actionable and non-actionable in whatever way makes sense for your workflow.
Then, distinguish internal review rounds and external rounds of review and approval.
This helps you decide how you will determine the difference between internal minor versions (1.1, 1.2. 1.3 and so on) and how that relates to versioning that your external reviewers will see. For example, you could track any new versions submitted by your internal creative team as minor visions first, and then label the content as major versions 1, 2,3, and when sending it to the client. So, your client may be really seeing version 6.7 as their version 1.
There’s no standard approach here, and it really depends on your client relationships and how you prefer to structure your client projects for review and approval. Some considerations are:
- Who are the team members and what are the gates that determine when things move from stage to stage?
- Who are the people and where are the stages in your workflow?
- Is it always the same people in the same route, or does it change?
- And if it does change, what changes?
- Is it something that is consistent?
- Is it different workflows per client, different workflows per asset type, different workflows per geo, different something per something? So what changes? First determine where are the people, where are the stages, and then what causes it to change? And what drives your projects?
- Are they decision-driven or deadline-driven or both? Are you working backward from a timeline? Is there a hard delivery date we have to work back from, or are we working forwards from the timeline? Does the delivery date have a little bit more flexibility and do we really want to make sure we provide the perfect asset?
Determining what constitutes the need for a new version and how it relates to your review decisions has many downstream impacts.
- Structured versioning enables your team to perform deeper analytics and visibility into project efficiency as they look at what was an internal round versus an external round.
- Determining which versions related to internal vs. external requests also helps with client management. We’ve all been in this scenario where a client receives a file labeled “Ad.v7,” which was the product of several rounds of revisions by your team as part of the internal creative process. Naturally, the client will start asking “Where are versions 1-6? Should I have access to those and do I need to look at them? And most importantly...did I pay for those previous versions?”
Best Practice #7: Leverage automated workflow templates for multi-stage approvals
Setting review groups and versioning structure is especially important when it comes time to figure out how to manage review processes that involve many stages, steps, and decision makers--all whom may need to review content simultaneously across many projects.
Automated workflow is a very powerful tool for complex multi-stage review and approval processes. Automated workflow templates trigger the flow of information through new stages based on real-time decisions, comments, and actions based on a set of predetermined parameters.
There’s no end to what you could potentially automate in the review process with workflow software, and many organizations prefer to create review and approval workflow templates that enforce the same information sharing and decision pathways across many projects
The question is always: “How much should we automate? How many workflow templates should we build?”
The answer really depends. Typically, 3-4 templates will often suffice to standardize for multi-stage approvals. However, creating efficient workflow automation and effective workflow templates is highly dependent on project specifications and review groups.
The #1 tip for workflow automation: Determine how much of the process you want to automate, figure out which steps can be flexible or not, and decide what steps or groups can be a placeholder to be filled in based on the project.
How you build your workflow templates depends on a few decisions:
- Who are the team members (internal and external) and the ‘gates’ you want to apply? Do projects always include the same people and follow the same review sequence, or does this change?
- Are projects decision-driven or timeline-driven (or both?) Should work progress based on approval decisions or do they depend on set deadlines to move into the next phase of work?
- Who knows where the proof should go from end-to-end and what are the different stages that make that workflow?
Once you’ve thought through those questions, you can use the following steps to configure your workflow structure and template.
Identify who kicks off the first review stage
The first consideration when we look at an automated workflow is “Who's kicking off the proof and the person that kicks off the proof and do they know to whom it should go to?”
When we analyze who actually initiates the first review step for document review, it’s often someone who may not be involved in or even know the entire review process end-to-end. Many times, the person who sends out the first version or proof for review is not the person who can or should manage the entire review process. They’re simply the starting point. Without automation, that person often becomes responsible for the entire review and approval process simply because they were involved with project launch or the creating the first version of a content piece.
By configuring a predetermined review route, automate workflow can completely eliminate that burden and confusion. So, if your design or marketing team is the one sending out the first version of a piece of content for review, the process won’t be held up if they don’t know who exactly should receive any future iterations of the content or if they end up managing the entire client review process. The automated workflow will manage the routing and append the flow of content based on subsequent decisions.
Identify what is consistent within a workflow
When building a workflow template, consider what and who typically stays the same across all your workflows. If you’re always using the same copywriter or you're always using the same technical resource, you should build that into the workflow template(s).
Consider what are the minor differences between one project or another and if those differences warrant the creation of a new template. This really comes down to how much you want to automate everything. Some teams want to automate literally everything, and this could lead to an overly complex implementation. In other cases, automating everything with many different workflow templates for every scenario could be extremely beneficial.
Build placeholders for project variants
To cut down on the complexity, workflow templates can be configured for open-ended steps or reviewers and managers. If projects flow in a similar fashion but your client or vendors change from project to project, you can build that flexibility right into your workflow template.
For instance, you could build a vendor stage within your workflow, but leave it blank so someone can populate who that vendor is later. Rather than needing to build a workflow for each vendor or a workflow for each client, the placeholder inside your workflow can account for this variation.
The key thing to remember here is that your review and approval process should be a template that provides a baseline for your review steps and can be modified for each project.
With this approach, one workflow template can serve hundreds of review scenarios. When you’re working with dozens of clients, you don’t need to create dozens of workflow templates for each use case or project. You can simply select a workflow template and update the placeholders as needed.
This ultimately provides your creative team with the flexibility to allow more people to initiate the review process, rather than be dependent on a handful of people to manage the entire review process--reducing chaos and delays later down the line.
Best Practice #8: Add reviewers to multiple stages
Another best practice that can provide a ton of dividends of time savings in your creative review and approval process is having a reviewer on multiple stages. Automated proofing workflow features allow for the flexibility to have the same reviewer in multiple stages in the creative workflow.
Figuring out how to add the same reviewer to multiple stages is one of the single largest time costs when it comes to the creative review and approval process. We see this a lot with Creative Directors, for example. They will often do the first pass on a piece of content, but then they also need to come back and give a final sign-off and approval later after everyone else has given their feedback and changes have been made.
Bringing reviewers back into the system or bringing them back into the proof always becomes tricky. If a reviewer has already looked at a piece of content, added comments, and made an approval decision, it can be difficult to figure out how to efficiently loop them back into the process and look at the proof again with the same level of urgency as before.
Most people do this manually by constantly checking the content or version to determine if and when they need to jump back into the review process. Sometimes, they're counting on another team member to alert them that they need to give input again. The Creative Director may be relying on the Traffic Manager or Client Management team to say "Hey, I need you to take a look at this project again and add comments” at a certain phase of the project. Manually adding reviewers back into the process just adds more unnecessary time, effort, and follow-up into your review and approval process.
You can automate this back and forth by using workflow to re-add someone to proof based on related decisions and stages. First:
- Consider what reviewers need to do in both initial and subsequent stages. The same stakeholder may not need to have the same role in each review stage. When re-adding someone to a review process, ask “Do I need them to review it again? Do I need them to add a decision?” Oftentimes, the action can be greatly simplified. In the first stage, a stakeholder may only need comment rights. In comparison, a Creative Director will often need to have both comment and decision rights in the initial review stage and all following stages.
- Formalize decision sign-offs. For multi-stage reviews, we always recommend making decision approvals a requirement. Enforcing approval decisions cut down on the proof management time and stops the feedback bottleneck--especially if decision options need to be different at each stage. Building approval decisions and options into the automated workflow from the start can really speed up the review process.
- Use a deadline-driven perspective. When considering how a stakeholder should be added back into the review process, leverage your deadlines. When they are coming back to the proof after the act, consider if the reviewer can fit into the existing deadline on that stage of if they need a new review deadline.. If they need a new deadline, it's best to create a new review stage for them. Using a deadline-driven perspective can help you maintain an efficient workflow while having the flexibility to add in new reviewers as needed.
Best Practice #9: Identify redundancies in your workflows to skip stages
One consideration that often gets overlooked when structuring review and approval workflows is how to build review stages that reduce extraneous work.
It’s easy to apply the same workflow for each version of a piece of content, but sometimes that just ends up creating unnecessary work as review and approval progress. The same review workflow that works for the first version of a piece of content may actually end up adding more steps and time if also applied to new versions. What many creative teams overlook when evaluating their review and approval workflow is: "What does the routing look like after we’ve made changes on the previous version?"
A one-size-fits-all approach does not always need to be applied to each version. There are instances in which skipping certain review steps can really keep a project moving along.
To dig deeper, when building workflow stages, it’s important to ask: Does everyone really need to look at the proof again?
For example, say a piece of content requires a multi-stage approval process. It goes through a copywriting review, a technical review, a design review, and then a legal and compliance review.
However, what happens if the copywriting and technical teams have previously approved the content, but the creative team requests a design change on the next version? Does the copywriting and technical team need to review that version again if copy elements haven’t changed, or is that an unnecessary review step that may add time to the approval workflow?
Consider where you may be adding time in the review and approval cycle when you could possibly skip that step. So really, the thing to consider here: what review stages can I skip or what decisions can I pull forward?
So much of the review and approval parameters come down to collaboration. Try to identify which teams really need to collaborate when. If that set of responsibilities has been met, those stages could be skipped. Logical groupings of teams is a really important thing to consider.
You won't always be able to skip review stages, but grouping your stages together can add a visible layer on who needs to work together. That information can be used to determine when skipping a review step is possible and eliminating time from your workflow because you're not unnecessarily sending it to a different group every single time for every single version.
Best Practice #10: Use sequential and parallel reviews together to reduce collaboration delays
Different types of review workflows can also assist in a common problem--needing to loop a previous reviewer back into the review process. As we talked about earlier, the largest time-suck of your creative review and approval process is bringing someone back into a review.
There are two types of review structures that can be used in tandem:
- Linear reviews are different stages within the workflow that follow some sort of sequence. The reviews follow a path and with different decisions or parameters that determine what will move the review forward along that path. The process for sequential or linear reviews are fairly straightforward.
- A parallel review is when you have multiple or all stages in the workflow going on at the exact same time. So, the copy, creative, and legal team may all be reviewing that content at the exact same time.
A good rule of thumb determining which type of review sequence to use, or how to use them in tandem, is to determine whether the different stages or review groups need to interact with each other in a “live” context.
For example, consider this typical sequential review process. A technical review begins in which a subject matter expert reviews a piece of content. Then, after the SME has approved it, the content goes to copywriting. This is a pretty typical review flow, but it also could possibly add a lot of unnecessary back and forth. More than likely, your technical editors and copywriters will need to ask questions to the subject matter expert throughout the entire review process as new versions and iterations are created.
However, if your technical team has already accepted the content, how does the copy team bring them back in to approve the same content if they need to ask questions?
Here’s where adding or mixing sequential or parallel review workflows together can really help speed up the review process and eliminate some time-consuming back-and-forth between reviewers.
A possible way to enhance this review process might be to build your technical and copy review stages in parallel with each other like so:
So each group of reviewers is still reviewing it for their functional area, but they can collaborate together when needed without needing to send the content back a step in the review process. Then you could add a sequential review process that sends the content to the creative team only if and when the copy team has approved it or sends the content to the QA team if changes are required.
This looks like it's a really minor change in the workflow, but it can simplify the process of collaboration that isn’t always linear or definitive.
Conclusion: Complex creative review and approval processes don’t need to be time or labor-intensive
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to creative review and approval, but automating, centralizing, and creating more efficient steps in your review process is critical for faster creative project delivery and maintaining a less chaotic feedback cycle in the process.
These ten best practices will help you create a review and approval process that is flexible and dynamic enough to handle any type of creative project--whether it involves the same type of work over and over again or you’re working on custom projects for many different clients.
At the core, evaluate exactly what information your stakeholders need to see about a project at a high level--across multiple projects--to make fast and informed decisions and use that to drive the structure of your review process. How you choose to configure review stages, review groups, versioning labels, client engagement rules, and file sharing will all flow from what needs to be visible to your team at any given time.
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